How do you create a hit musical? Simple: you get a bestselling book from an up and coming author, the best producer around, the best director there is, an award-winning composer and a great lyricist. Nothing can go wrong, right? Wrong. Well at least with that calibre of people it can’t be a flop, right? Wrong. ‘Smash’ sets out these well-trodden steps to disaster, based on Jack Rosenthal’s own experience of having his play ‘Bar Mitzvah Boy’ declared a ‘potential hit musical’ before watching it being butchered out of all recognition. Read about the original here. Written in the early eighties, this play seems as fresh now as it must have been then. Only the ridiculously low sums of money involved and classic 70s attire give away its age.
By resisting the temptation to apportion blame, Rosenthal gives us a beautifully observed dissection of the creative process, which is a salutary reminder, in this age of super-successful globalised musicals, that, in the words of screenwriter William Goldman ‘Nobody Knows Anything’. Based closely on real-life characters (according to Radio 4’s ‘Front Row’, they were all asked to sign disclaimers), the play is hugely entertaining and painfully truthful in equal measures.
Tom Conti reminds us what a fantastic actor he is in his portrayal of Theo, the Austrian producer whose perennial optimism leads him to continue believing he has assembled the greatest team since the Brazil of the 70s, whilst simultaneously hemorrhaging money throughout the process. The writer at one point declares to him ‘it’s alright for you, you’re only doing it for the money’, and yet with Conti’s subtle charm, he somehow turns out to be the most likeable and sincere character in the show.
In a late substitution for Kerry Shale, Richard Schiff is on top form as the world weary composer who hasn’t felt any real emotion in years – even his antagonism is fake. Schiff is clearly having a ball as the capricious veteran who is answerable to no-one, shamelessly attempting to play Cameron Blakely’s director off against the producer, before walking out in disgust, leaving Blakely to crumble in his own self-doubt.
For most of the play, we are entirely in the world of the ‘creative team’, giving us a sense of their growing insularity. Only briefly does Carrie Quinlan burst the bubble, making the most of her brief opportunity to speak on behalf of the general public, as a member of the hotel staff who delivers a withering critique of their efforts.
Smash! certainly deserves this well-executed revival, if only to illustrate how little seems to have changed in the world of theatre. In one scene, after reading out a series of atrocious reviews, the team console themselves by picking out potential quotes to use out of context on the Front of House displays, a practice which is all too rife today, as we have railed against ourselves. In fact, only this week Mark Shenton came up with a classic example. [update 8.4.11 – oops, this link to Mark Shenton’s post on the Stage website seems to be broken, and the post has disappeared! Never mind, here’s another one from The Independent’]