“Smash’s” unexpected star

Broadway veteran Megan Hilty is stealing the NBC show as villain Ivy Lynn. It wasn't supposed to be this way

Topics: TV, Smash,

"Smash's" unexpected starKatharine McPhee and Megan Hilty in "Smash"

On NBC’s behind the scenes Broadway drama “Smash,” two actresses are vying for the lead role — and not just in “Smash’s” fictional play-within-the show, Marilyn: The Musical.”

Innocent, Iowan Karen Cartwright has lost, for now, the role of Marilyn Monroe to Ivy Lynn, a huge-voiced buxom blond with Broadway experience. Episode after episode the two women smile at each other as though smiles were knives, trading dirty looks, passive-aggressive niceties, and put-downs delivered in dulcet tones. Karen, envious of Ivy, has tried to outshine her; Ivy, threatened by Karen, has tried to get her kicked out of the show.

While Karen and Ivy have been asserting their dominance, the two real-life actresses who play them — Katharine McPhee, a former “American Idol” contestant given top billing in all of “Smash’s” promotional materials , and Megan Hilty, a Broadway veteran who was not — have been doing the same. The outcome of these two face-offs seems likely to be the same: The second banana is just about to steal the show.

In Smash’s pilot, Karen was established as the series’ protagonist. She was the audience stand- in, the character new to this crazy Broadway world. She got more screen time and was given the climactic scene of the episode — a performance of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” that wowed the casting directors and appeared in all of Smash’s” commercials. On paper, Karen has also been the nicer character: She’s a fresh talent who was almost good enough to land a huge role, but, having lost it, sucked it up and agreed to be a chorus girl, only to be persecuted by the woman who bettered her.

Ivy hates Karen and has rebuffed all of her peacemaking overtures. In the show’s fifth episode, having been awkwardly commanded by the director to help Ivy with a song, Karen sheepishly says, ‘This is so silly, you sound amazing, I don’t know why you need to … ” only to have Ivy finish her sentence, dripping with condescension: “Take singing lessons from a chorus girl?”

But part of the fun of TV — each episode its own brand-new piece of theater — is that what’s on the screen can be completely different from what’s in the script, especially when the actors get to peacocking. Just as Seth and Summer charmed The OCaway from Ryan and Marisa, and Blair Waldorf coolly hijacked Gossip Girl” from Serena van der Woodsen, Hilty is sauntering off with “Smash.”



Ivy’s behavior may be crueler than Karen’s, but Hilty imbues Ivy with a streak of fragility to go along with her brassy, bossy personality. Ivy’s a major talent who is majorly insecure and majorly competent, while Karen seems to have a more minor version of both qualities. Ivy’s performing when she’s being such a bitch — checking herself in the mirror, scanning her audience, doling out the inclusive giggle as carefully as the icy put-down or occasional temper tantrum — and the fact that she’s so good at playing the diva seems more a credit to her craft than a knock on her true personality.

When Ivy takes the chorus girl shot at Karen it’s because she’s offended by Karen’s undermining. Karen doesn’t think she’s doing anything of the sort; she would likely say she was just trying to be self-deprecating to make things less awkward. But because of Ivy’s greater charisma it becomes almost impossible, for me anyway, not to see it from Ivy’s perspective. She sees something darker and more ruthless in Karen than Karen is yet willing to see in herself.

And McPhee’s performance belies that Karen is all good intentions. There’s a faint implausibility to Karen’s innocence. She may be temporarily down on her luck, but she seems somehow implacable, impenetrable, unstoppable. She’s got the stench of Eve Harrington about her, which means she’ll probably end up as Marilyn — but not the audience favorite. McPhee may have become famous by playing nice and wooing large crowds on “Idol,” but I bet she could excel as a love-to-hate-her type, if only she were allowed her to flaunt her inner, impressively mechanical steeliness, and stop pandering for the audience’s sympathy.

Hilty also has McPhee beat when it comes to the singing. Her voice is the far more powerful and impressive instrument. McPhee is an anodyne performer, given to waving around her coltish limbs while singing slightly finessed, wan versions of pop songs from the likes of Adele and Florence and the Machine. Meanwhile, Hilty gets to sing, belting out the big, lavishly choreographed, original Broadway numbers. “Smash,” a show about the glories of the great white way, has become a weekly example not only of the superiority of Broadway training (Hilty performed in “Wicked” for a number of years, as well as in Dolly Parton’s failed “9 to 5″ musical) but of Broadway-style showmanship.

This meta-power struggle between McPhee and Hilty isn’t, as of yet, undermining the fun of watching “Smash”: it just adds real-life frisson to the ongoing Karen-Ivy showdown. (And when it comes to “Smash” characters that need redressing far more urgently than Karen and Ivy, there’s the wretched assistant Ellis, currently the pure personification of the evil, entitled millennial, and Debra Messing’s character’s husband, a wholly insubstantial presence, who is, somehow, supposed to be holding up a corner of a love triangle.)

Sometimes, you think you’re making a show about a brunet ingénue about to make it big, and it turns out you’re making a show about a blond journeywoman, who may never get the chance. That’s show business.

Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>