On ‘Smash’, and Its Self-Defeating Terror of the Book Number

A quick recap: there are, I think, only two main characters in the musical theatre canon who are established with a prop song:

Sally Bowles – Cabaret

Velma Kelly – Chicago

And there are only two who are given a prop song as an 11 o’clock number:

Sally Bowles – Cabaret

Fanny Brice – Funny Girl

Velma

We both reached for the gun!

We both reached for the gun! (Photo credit: shari thompson)

In the case of Velma Kelly (left in the photo), she’s a vaudeville performer, and she announces the evening’s themes in a prop song called ‘All That Jazz’. While she’s putting over this nightclub routine, we in the audience meet the show’s other main character, Roxie Hart (on the right), who murders her lover and later lies to her husband about the man’s identity.

This is important: Velma is established as a fairly static character, happy with her lot (“Oh, I’m no-one’s wife, but oh, I love my life”), and the audience sees no reason not to believe her. Roxie, meanwhile, is restless, unsatisfied, longing to be on her way to somewhere. Despite all the tinkering that’s been done with Chicago over the years, this hasn’t changed: Velma refuses to become a character who wants and needs things, and changes over the course of the evening – even though she’s been given songs designed to achieve precisely that – because of how she was introduced in the first place.

The show’s 11 o’clock number, in terms of its running length, should be ‘Nowadays’, but only Roxie has an 11 o’clock number realisation available to her (namely, that fame is insubstantial, which Velma knew at the start of the show), and so the number functions instead as a kind of Brechtian summing-up of the night. Then Fosse, clever guy, pioneers the 11 o’clock prop dance, ‘Hot Honey Rag’, into which ‘Nowadays’ segues, and in which Velma and Roxie dance in perfect sync as one woman. This dance, not the song, is what lands with audiences – both Velma and Roxie’s fictional audience, and the real one watching the show.

As a static character, Velma could deliver the kind of 11 o’clock number that sums up the evening in satirical fashion, while showing that her character hasn’t changed. The Engineer gets such a song in Miss Saigon, and Fagin gets one in Oliver! The problem is that this number has already happened in Chicago: it’s ‘Razzle Dazzle’, and another static character, Billy Flynn, sings it earlier in Act Two.

So, spare a thought for Velma, established in spectacular fashion with a fantastic song, and then doomed to a slow decline in importance throughout the remainder of the show.

Fanny

funny-girl-barbra-streisand-dvd-cover-art

funny-girl-barbra-streisand-dvd-cover-art (Photo credit: ttom_thgwid)

Fanny (right of photo, no moustache) is not established with a prop song, but she welcomes 11 o’clock (or 10:30) with one: in the stage show, it’s ‘The Music That Makes Me Dance’, a number begun in rehearsal, but transformed midway into a Ziegfeld Follies extravaganza. Fanny’s audience thinks she’s just performing a number, but we, the real audience, know that Fanny is singing about her newly incarcerated husband, Nicky Arnstein.

(In the movie of Funny Girl, Fanny’s last big sing is ‘My Man’, a song which the real Fanny Brice actually sang as a comedy piece. Barbra Streisand performs it as a torch song, and once again we, the viewers, know it’s really about Nicky.)

Sally

Sally Bowles

Sally Bowles (Photo credit: nglacrosse23)

Sally Bowles (on the right, not a chair) is truly extraordinary: she is introduced with a prop song (originally, ‘Don’t Tell Mama’, then ‘Mein Herr’ in the film, and after the Donmar Warehouse revival of the stage show, both numbers – two prop songs!), and she later sings the show’s 11 o’clock number, ‘Cabaret’, which is also a prop song. Sally’s Kit Kat Klub audience thinks she’s just doing her usual devil-may-care stage routine, but we know that she just had an abortion, without telling her boyfriend Cliff. This knowledge (plus don’t forget the Nazis), makes a lie of the song’s central thesis, that life is only a cabaret, old chum.

Fanny and Sally Don’t Really Make Sense

Both Cabaret and Funny Girl briefly get away with not making sense, and yet a thoughtful audience member might later wonder: Fanny is supposed to be a funny girl, but she’s singing a sad song? How was her fictional audience supposed to respond to that? They don’t know about hubby Nicky, do they? And wow, it’s pretty convenient that just the right song is waiting to be rehearsed at that point, isn’t it? I mean, she sings a hundred songs that are all goofy, and then this one pops up, a sad song. No-one says “Hey, Fanny, we’re gonna try a little something different, a torch song, you wanna?” It just happens.

And what about Sally? Did she really have a friend known as Elsie? Maybe she wrote this song herself for her nightclub act? Actually, we have no idea where her songs come from, and this one seems pretty damned specific to her current situation. Are her songs written for her? If they are, they’re written by someone really good – she should move in with that person, not the drip novelist Cliff.

Smash

And so to ‘Smash’, a show that is terrified of book numbers. Every song in ‘Smash’ is a prop song, not matter what level of contrivance this requires. Every number is really happening: a real song, being rehearsed or performed; or a cover, sung spontaneously but for real; or a vision, a Dennis Potter-esque dream sequence.

The show’s worst moments have sprung from this terror of book numbers: the sight of 13 year-olds gettin’ down to Florence and the Machine at a Bar Mitzvah, the cast of Bombshell “singing” Sly and the Family Stone’s ‘Dance to the Music’ at a bowling alley, and (horror), a Bollywood dream sequence.

These aren’t just moments of delicious cringe. They are structurally fatal, because …

Great musical theatre characters are not made with a prop song.

Look at how Karen and Ivy, the two main women in ‘Smash’, are presented in song in the pilot episode.  Karen sings ‘Over the Rainbow’ at an audition, but is interrupted. Ivy is in the chorus of ‘Heaven on Earth’, and is unfulfilled. Ivy sings for a demo recording of ‘Let Me Be Your Star’, from an in-progress Marilyn Monroe musical. Karen sings a truncated version of Christine Aguilera’s ‘Beautiful’ for her audition for that very show. Ivy performs ‘The National Pastime’ in a workshop session of the Marilyn musical, and Karen sings ‘Happy Birthday To You’, Marilyn-style, while letting Derek the director sexually harass her. Only the last of these adds to Karen or Ivy’s character, by showing that Karen can be slutty when it’s really important. As far as what these women want, and how they express themselves, viewers have to rely on dialogue. Then, at the episode’s climax, both women sing, for their respective callbacks, a full version of ‘Let Me Be Your Star’ (music by Marc Shaiman, lyric by Scott Whittman). Karen gets this:

Fade in on a girl
With a hunger for fame,
And a face and a name to remember.
The past fades away
Because as of this day,
Norma Jean’s gone.
She’s moving on.

Her smile and your fantasies play a duet
That will make you forget where you are.
The music starts playing,
It’s the beat of her heart saying,
“Let me be your star.”

This is Marilyn’s ‘I Want’ song from Bombshell and, we later learn, Bombshell‘s opening number. Julia Houston, the show’s book-writer, made it so by moving an index card – it’s that easy, folks.

Ivy gets this:

Flashback to a girl
With a song in her heart,
As she’s waiting to start the adventure.
The fire and drive
That make dreams come alive:
They fill her soul,
She’s in control.

The drama, the laughter, the tears just like pearls,
Well, they’re all in this girl’s repertoire.
It’s all for the taking,
And it’s magic we’ll be making –
Let me be your star.

After a bridge, about the past being past, the two women sing together:

Fade up on a star
With it all in her sights,
All the love and the lights
That surround her.
Some day she’ll think twice
Of the dues and the price
She’ll have to pay
But not today

Then she’ll do all she can
For the love of one man,
And for millions who look from afar.
And what you’ve been needing
Is all in my heart, pleading
Let me be your star!

This song tries to play it three ways, as an ‘I Want’ song for Marilyn, Karen and Ivy, simultaneously. This prevents it from being specific (remove the words ‘Norma Jean’, and this song could be about any girl trying to become a screen idol) or accurate (Norma Jean has a song in her heart? That great singer, Norma Jean? And who is this man Ivy will do all she can for?). Worse, it’s far too passive for characters we’re supposed to care about (“Let me be your star”? Really? How about “I Will Be Your Star”?), and perhaps worst of all, it concludes with an apparent arrival at stardom (“Fade up on a star / With it all in her sights”), followed by more passivity (she became a star so she could do it all for a man’s love? Are you kidding?).

This is not a song you give to a character who is going to change. This is a static character’s song. And sure enough, Karen and Ivy have struggled to change ever since. They’ve had characteristics forced upon them (Ivy later takes pills, for example), but without a book number they have never been established as characters in song, and without later book numbers they have no way to show how their characters have changed.

I don’t think the fault is purely Shaiman and Wittman’s, who were given the impossible task of writing a prop song that couldn’t be specific about the stage show it came from, and also couldn’t be specific about the characters who were singing it, yet had to function as a leitmotif underpinning all of Season One. Rather, it’s the fault of all of the show’s creators, for thinking that prop songs can do what book numbers can do, and for thinking that anyone can be Sally Bowles.

But so far, only Sally Bowles can be Sally Bowles.

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2 thoughts on “On ‘Smash’, and Its Self-Defeating Terror of the Book Number

  1. Just came across this piece a year and a half later! Eleven o’clock numbers started out as prop pieces at the beginning of the 20th century. Musical Theatre celebrities would only appear in musicals if they got to sing their “specialty” number just around 11 o’clock, whether it was written by the composer of the show or not. (Ukelele Ike and “Paddlin’ Marilyn Home” is one example.) But you are on target as to how the present definition developed. My only comment is with the musical CHICAGO. I have always strongly felt that the eleven o’clock number in the show is CLASS (sung by Velma and Momma Morton), which clearly captures Velma at her nadir and done properly is guaranteed to bring down the house!

    • That’s really interesting, Mark: I knew about the practice of star specialty numbers, but not that the term “11 o’clock number” went back that far.

      I really like “Class” as a number, too. I wonder why they shot it for the movie, and then didn’t use it?

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