Nearly nine months after last year’s season finale, it’s finally time to revisit this hilariously fictionalized account of what it takes to launch a play on Broadway. We’re especially anxious to see how the shows fares now that its oft-berated showrunner, Teresa Rebeck, has stepped down.
The first glimpse harkens back to the “Smash” premiere, when Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee) is shown in black-and-white, belting her head off from center stage. This time, instead of shifting back to a less-pleasant reality, the real world comes into focus and Karen is indeed onstage as Marilyn on what we’re soon informed is closing night of the Boston trial run (last season’s finale showed us opening night, but we don’t yet know how much time has supposedly passed in between).
The song, by the way, is “Cut, Print … Moving On.” We can’t help but feel like an exultant NBC is speaking directly through these lyrics as it tries to revamp its shaky image — notably, minus contested characters Ellis (Jaime Cepero), Joe (Emory Cohen) and Dev (Raza Jaffrey). By the way, a montage reveals that the latter has sent Karen a love letter (to her new apartment, complete with new roommate); she crumples it to show us how she has moved on from the fiancé who cheated on her (everyone together now: “They were on a break!”) with Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty) last season.
By the way, we’re also informed that Ivy did not, in fact, commit suicide (SURPRISE) when she gobbled all those pills during last year’s finale. She’s just fine, albeit a little skinnier than when Hilty last appeared on our TV screen — which may be an in- or out-of-character distinction, it’s hard to say. But she’s back in the rehearsal room in NYC seeming healthy as ever as Derek (Jack Davenport) and Eileen (ANJELICA HUSTON) explain that they plan to find a Broadway theater to move the show to within the week — and, better yet, they plan to keep the entire present cast under contract for that show’s run. Well, that is, they plan to keep the actors playing any characters who aren’t cut out during rewrites (dun dun dunnn).
Eileen asks Karen to perform the “Bombshell” opening number at an event and she readily agrees. Then she’s asked to choose three backup singers. Wait, she didn’t pick Ivy? They’re not best friends after the whole fiancé fiasco? That is so shocking and the perfect way to ramp up tension before the commercial break! Or not. Anyway:
Lights, music, SMASH!
After the title card, we learn that Michael Swift (Will Chase) has been asked to be released from his contract — good, that storyline was going nowhere fast. Eileen and Derek want to delve into some “Bombshell” critiques, but Julia (Debra Messing) says she never reads reviews because Tom’s face (Christian Borle — yes, we're saying that he plays the character of “Tom’s face”) says everything she needs to know. But Derek plows ahead and points out that critics took umbrage with basically every component of the show. Eileen says it doesn’t matter because she’s about to have dinner with (real-life name-check!) Jordan Roth (president and part owner of Jujamcyn Theaters) to secure the St. James Theater for “Bombshell.” Tom and Julia are super excited about the prestige of the St. James; they must not know that it’s currently home to “Manilow on Broadway.”
(Fun fact from last week’s TEDxBroadway workshop: Did you know that “Jujamcyn” is derived from the original company owners’ kid’s names: Judith, James and Cynthia? Now you do!)
Skipping some small asides that can be covered later, the next scene has Ivy and Sam Strickland (Leslie Odom Jr.) at those iconic red metal tables in Times Square, chatting about how Ivy needs to figure out how she can guarantee her place on Broadway. He suggests that she find a way to remind everyone what kind of star she’s supposed to be.
The latest stunt casting for “Smash” has been all over this season’s promos, and we’re finally getting to it: Jennifer Hudson as fictional two-time Tony-winner Veronica Moore, singing “Mama Makes Three” from the fictional musical “Beautiful.”
Karen is on a “date” with Derek to check out the play, and earlier her roommate was commenting on the fact that her outfit made it look like she was “trying” (see you didn't miss anything). Afterward, Derek and Karen go backstage to meet Veronica; Derek slips in that he’s cast Veronica for “The Wiz,” which he’s directing to coincide with “Bombshell.” Veronica tells Karen to stay on top of her work, because the moment the quality slips there’s someone hungrier waiting to take her place. You can tell there’s a new crew at the helm of “Smash” because last season it definitely would have cut to Ivy somehow ("We're alluding to this b—!").
Outside on the sidewalk, in front of Sardi’s and across from fictional “Heaven On Earth” (both Ivy and Tom’s previous Broadway engagement), Tom asks Julia if she’s even aware that “Bombshell” still needs some work. She acts like she’s not in denial at all, but then has to leave because she’s getting dinner with her husband, Frank (Brian d’Arcy James). As if discovering this for the first time, Tom says for our benefit that he’s glad Julia and Frank are trying to make things work. Julia points out the key word here: “Trying.”
In the meantime, Eileen is also having dinner with her own husband, Jerry (Michael Cristofer), rather than Jordan Roth. Why is Jerry such a stalker? (Because he wants to invest in “Bombshell,” allegedly.) But how did he know where Eileen would be? It’s called a restraining order, Eileen, look into it. (Or fire your assistant. And bring Ellis back!) Well, at least there’s a handy martini on the table for throwin’ — just in case. She actually threatens to throw it, too, which is very self-aware. And that’s followed by Jordan Roth (as himself) appearing to confirm that he’s already agreed to give “Bombshell” the St. James. Then Eileen gets a call from Nick (Thorsten Kaye), the bartender boyfriend from Season 1. So that’s a one-two punch, and Jerry is out! … Why do we think it won’t be quite that simple?
Next, Karen is rehearsing her “Let Me Be Your Star” performance for Eileen’s event. Stage manager Linda (Ann Harada) is also there! And she has lines! She uses them to usher out Karen so that Ivy and the ensemble can come in to … wait. Yes, that’s right. Ivy’s also going to be doing a number from “Bombshell.” She and Karen have a standoff, where Ivy says that this “isn’t about you” and Karen has a hard time believing that (shocker). Julia’s hanging out as well, and watches the two cats square off. Then Ivy asks Julia in confidence about her future with the show. Julia says that Ivy will have to apologize to Karen if she wants to stick around. (It’s an outlandish premise; if leads always had to get along with everyone else in the cast it would be the end of theater as an institution.) Ivy says she has apologized. Julia says she probably apologized for the wrong thing — for what happened, but maybe not why. As a seasoned cheater, Julia is wise about the many shades of groveling.
Elsewhere, Derek is hanging out with Michael Riedel, the real New York Post critic who says he saw fictional movie star Rebecca Duvall (Uma Thurman, from Season 1) in “Bombshell” in Boston and wonders why she abruptly left the show. Derek acts like he’s way too smart to talk about it — but then why sit down with a critic at all? Please come prepared with good gossip, people, we only have so many lunches in a week!
Karen is being harassed by pushy restaurant worker Jimmy Collins (Jeremy Jordan) at the same restaurant.
He accuses her of taking a meeting at his station without any intention of ordering anything (or tipping him). She says she’s not like that, but then Derek shows up to call her bluff. Jimmy is buoyed away to fetch some waters for them on his cloud of righteousness.
Tom and Sam are strolling down the street, informing us that they’re still a couple by way of Sam saying he turned down a part in the “Book of Mormon” tour so that he could stay local with Tom. We really hope they’ve had sex by now. The talk turns to Julia, and how she doesn’t even know that the critics panned her book (though they loved Tom’s music and Julia’s lyrics). Just then, as they talk about all the many problems Julia still needs to address in her life, Sam and Tom spy her husband Frank putting a hot brunette into a cab. Yes that's super boring and not at all scandalous — but pay attention, it might be important later!
At Eileen’s party later that night, the chorus members (Ivy, Bobby and, uh, Jessica maybe?) learn that Rebecca Duvall released a statement saying that she didn’t leave “Bombshell” because of her poisoning but because she was sexually harassed by Derek. Then this happens: “Everyone knows Rebecca Duvall would sleep with a follow-spot operator if it meant more light on her downstage.” BOBBY IS OUR NEW FAVORITE. (We still miss you though, Ellis.) Eileen is upset that this news might spook some potential investors.
Meanwhile Linda finds Frank and congratulates him on making things work with Julia. Julia shows up and Frank gets mad that the whole world knows about their private life and storms off. Well, even without Teresa Rebeck’s two-dimensional writing, this character is staying as flat and unlikable as Judge Doom at the end of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” ( … that was really the first thing that came to mind after “flat and unlikable,” and sorry but so not sorry).
Eileen starts freaking out because she learns that Jordan Roth isn’t coming to the event after all and gets scared that he’ll revoke the St. James. (You didn’t get it in writing, Eileen? Fire yourself immediately.) She wants something that will assure all the other potential investors that everything is just fine! Veronica sees Karen in a vampy red dress coming up the stairs and suggests that Eileen use her as an asset that’s very marketable. Wait, wasn’t that the point of having Karen perform at this shindig to start with?
Veronica kicks off the entertainment with The Drifters’ “On Broadway,” using Karen as her backup. (Finally, Karen can admit someone is more important than herself. All it takes is a few Tonys.) While this is happening, Nick shows up and gives Eileen some alarming news; the rest of the core creative team is rounded up quickly while trying not to draw any attention to themselves.
After the song, Derek compliments Karen; Karen says, “I’m your muse, it’s what we do.” He leans in for a kiss.
OF COURSE Ivy walks into the room at that very second. And back out again, very quickly. Derek chases her out and insists he’s not "with" Karen (but, uh, possibly only because he was just interrupted). But Ivy does realize that Derek’s being weird toward her because she’s been kicked out of the show — because of Karen. She leaves.
How are there still 16 minutes left??
Moving right along, then: Julia is asking where Frank was before he came to the party, because Tom apparently spilled the beans about the brunette in the backseat. They get into a giant fight about having affairs on each other — but then Frank branches out to dropping the names of every member of “Bombshell” who slept with someone else in “Bombshell,” including Derek with “every actress in a Marilyn wig.” With perfect timing, Riedel steps out from the crowd: “Can I quote you on that?”
Ivy and Karen find each other while they’re both looking for a moment of solitude. Ivy tries Julia’s advice and goes for another apology, starting with the fact that Karen is right to hate her and to get her fired. “And the crazy part is that you don’t even know how bad it got.” She confides, sort of, that she tried to off herself that same night. That’s still not really saying why she boinked Dev, in fact it's not even really an apology, but it’s a keen manipulation tactic nonetheless.
Tom finds Julia outside (by the way, they’re at The National Arts Club). She’s crying and says that Frank is gone (he’s largely been written out of Season 2, so that’s no surprise; what’s pandering is that they had to make him into a total bad guy first). Then Julia starts laughing and confides that she’d really read all of the reviews from Boston, but she was pretending she hadn’t because she was too “mortified.” “Everything I’ve ever done has turned out so wrong; what if I can’t fix it?” Tom hugs her and says he will help, because he’s her partner. Awwwww.
Inside, Karen is talking with Eileen (about Ivy?). Derek is trying to plead with Eileen to make a statement to the press on his behalf. Eileen says she will do nothing for anyone because there is no show. The government learned that she used Nick’s illegal under-the-bar investment (from back in the workshop days) to fund it. So “Bombshell” and its associated funds are all frozen.
Karen’s shocked that the whole past year has led up to nothing; Derek says his life is worse because the rumors about him might also ruin his work on “The Wiz.” He says he’ll help her find something else to work on, but he might need her to return the favor someday if his whole career goes as poorly as it could.
Julia thanks Tom for letting her sleep on his couch now that she’s ostensibly been kicked out of her own house. Tom says he’s about to be in dire straits in his love life, too, because he’s going to tell Sam to take “Book of Mormon.” “Single again at my age — who’d want me?” he asks in a way that’s totally unbelievable because hello, you’re Christian Borle and you won a Tony!! Well, rather, you’re Tom Levitt, and you’ve composed music for Tony-winning musicals! Same difference. No pity for you, Tom’s face! Wait, then he invites Julia to permanently move in with him — now maybe we do feel a little sorry for him.
Next Ivy’s showing up at one of your run-of-the-mill auditions — she’s aiming for a chorus role and seems much more humble than when we met her a year ago. The casting agents see that she was in “Bombshell” and say that it was “a mess” but Ivy stands up for her work and says that it was pretty great. Then she sings Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream, It’s Over.”
During this montage, we see Tom getting flowers delivered from his lover. Julia is reading old reviews and confronting how bad her work turned out. Eileen is sadly hanging a poster for “Bombshell” while Jerry spies on her (SERIOUSLY, RESTRAIN HIM, EILEEN). Karen is drinking alone. At Jimmy’s bar. We told you he’d be back. He kicks her out but sort of flirts with her, too. Another bartender pops up and asks for Karen’s autograph — but only because he collects the Playbills from failed shows. Ouch. Karen for some reason assumes that he’s dating Jimmy, mostly just so that the nameless bartender can assure the viewing audience that, despite his pretty face, Jimmy is indeed straight. Karen leaves; she forgets her phone; she comes back. She catches Jimmy playing piano and singing the song from a musical he’s writing with the nameless bartender. The song is called “Broadway Here I Come,” and it is absolutely wonderful. We would totally see a play it was attached to, especially if it comes with Jeremy Jordan’s voice. Karen thinks the exact same thing and calls Derek, making him listen to the song through her cell. She tells him that it might be the next project they both need to be working on. The song is great, but if you’re listening closely in the background you can also hear Karen’s panties dropping.
And on that lovely note, we sign off on Part 1 of the season premiere of “Smash.” It was burdened with the unfortunate task of cauterizing a lot of wounds leftover from last year, but still seems much tighter and more complex than most of Season 1. The changes all seem to be for the best as far as we can tell (but we will always miss you, Ellis). And we’re pleasantly surprised that we’re looking forward to Part 2.