Broadway was dark Monday night, as is tradition—everywhere but the Minskoff Theatre, that is. Normally, the Minskoff houses The Lion King, a boisterous crowd-pleaser that plays as well in Peoria as it does in Times Square. On Monday, though, it turned its stage over to something smaller and weirder: a one-night-only concert performance of Bombshell, the Marilyn Monroe musical-within-a-musical featured on NBC’s dearly departed theater drama Smash.
Smash itself was more bomb than bombshell, a muddled mix of fascinating behind-the-scenes details and misplaced soapy subplots. It started strong, but fizzled partway through season 1. Its least-watched episode garnered just 1.8 million viewers; it died an undignified death that same year, the final episodes of season 2 smushed together and burned off on the Sunday before Memorial Day 2013. Still, love for the series persists—and not just because it helped to inspire the hate-watching movement.
For that, we can thank two separate but equally important entities: a talented cast padded with Broadway vets and an indelible score of original songs crafted by Tony winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Both the cast and the material were given the platform they deserve at Monday’s performance, a magical evening for the 1600-odd Smashochists who managed to score tickets. (They sold out in just about an hour.)
Weren’t among the lucky few? Don’t cry into your scarf drawer—we’ve got a full recap of everything you missed.
1. A pumped-up audience
Did you hear the part about how this was a one-night-only event—one that was neither live-streamed nor recorded for a future DVD release? That meant the crowd was made up only of Smash’s most die-hard super fans, all of whom had to shell out a pretty penny for the privilege of seeing Debra Messing live and in person. (The cheapest tickets were $100, not counting service fees and the $25+ donations required to get access to a presale code. Someday they’ll think twice of the dues and the price they had to pay—but not today!)
Accordingly, the audience came dressed for the occasion: I spotted one woman wearing the exact same cherry-printed dress Karen sports when she sings “Let Me Be Your Star” in the pilot, as well as two pals in homemade “Ivy Is My Marilyn” jerseys. Each shirt had a separate message printed on its back: one read “Ellis Lives,” the other “#NoPeanuts.”
2. A classy stage
“Concert” means no sets and minimal costumes. But the proceedings were festive all the same: A 29-piece orchestra in white coats sat onstage, with chorus members perched on the bleachers’ top row. The piano on hand was, of course, a white baby grand (we can’t confirm its second hand status). Before the singing began, the audience was treated to a sweeping overture that wasn’t included on Bombshell’s soundtrack album.
Messing and Christian Borle—who had just won his second Tony Award the previous night—were the first Smash cast members to come onstage, to thunderous applause. Messing revealed that the Smash Kickstarter had raised an astonishing $800,000+ (“Maybe NBC should use a Kickstarter instead of sponsors—we’d still be on the air!” she joked) before delivering the night’s first set of Smash in-jokes:
Messing: “Tonight, you are going to hear the score that we wrote. I’m still working on the book.”
[Borle “explains” that he and Messing only played a writing team on TV; they didn’t actually pen Bombshell’s songs.]
Messing: “None of that was real? …You don’t have a boyfriend?”
[Borle, who is in fact straight, confirms that TV and real life are different.]
Messing: “You were a very convincing… songwriter.”
4. The triumphant return of Terrible Ellis
The banter was done; the show was about to begin. Before it did, though, there was one last inside joke: Jaime Cepero, who played meddling hate-magnet Ellis, walked out to hand Messing and Borle the binders they’d read from throughout the evening. (More on that in no. 6.) He drew ridiculous applause without even saying a word; it was almost as glorious as this moment from season 2:
5. A different version of “Let Me Be Your Star”
Fun fact: The first track on the Bombshell soundtrack album includes an extended intro in which Norma Jeane, not yet Marilyn, muses about her quest for love.
So another man says that he can’t compete
That he can’t love a moving target
So another affair gets an incomplete
Well, it’s time to adjust my plan
‘Cause when I’m up there on the silver screen
I can make the whole world want Norma Jeane
So, I can’t have the love of one man
But a million or more, well that I can…
This is the version we heard Monday night—sung by both Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty, each performing the same verses they sang in Smash’s pilot. Generally, each actress performed the same songs she’d also done on the show—with a few exceptions you’ll learn about later.
6. Connecting threads from Marilyn herself
Messing’s line about “working on the book” of the show was multi-pronged. Smash itself hardly showcased any dialogue from Bombshell; in a meta twist, the show-within-the-show was praised in-universe for its music but criticized for its underbaked script. (Said script was “written” in-universe by Messing’s character, a pretty clear analogue for original Smash creator/playwright Theresa Rebeck… who left Smash itself after one season, which she wrote largely on her own.) It made sense, then, for the concert to eschew traditional dialogue. Instead, songs were linked by quotes from Monroe’s diaries, her autobiography, and other documents, as well as vintage shots of the star both pre- and post-fame projected on a screen above the orchestra. Conceptually, it worked a whole lot better than the few Bombshell scenes that did appear on Smash.
7. A new Mama Marilyn
Alas, the inimitable Bernadette Peters wasn’t on hand to reprise her Smash role-within-a-role—on the show, she played Leigh Conroy, Ivy’s mother, who in turn played Gladys, Marilyn’s mother, in Bombshell. Got that? (Other onstage absences that stung: Anjelica Huston as Eileen Rand and Jack Davenport as Derek Wills. Sure, their characters didn’t sing on the show—but neither did Messing’s, and she showed up.)
Instead, Peters’ songs were performed by Donna McKechnie, A Chorus Line’s original Cassie and a huge stage star in her own right. Still, it’s a little strange that the show chose to include Gladys’ songs at all, considering both Peters’ absence and the fact that several other tunes were nixed from the concert version altogether. (Granted, the songs we didn’t hear were ditties like the awful “Dig Deep” and the JFK seduction number “Our Little Secret”—hardly first on any Smash fan’s list.)
8. A cute Baby Marilyn
Smash only ever showed us a tiny snippet of Gladys’ first song, “At Your Feet.” But the number got a full performance at Monday’s concert—complete with an assist from Matilda star Ripley Sobo, who played Lil’ Marilyn.
9. A fully-staged “20th Century Fox Mambo”
No, there was no instant, magical Marilyn transformation—but there were dancers with measuring tape and chairs, just as there were in the version we saw on Smash. McPhee, who had the most dance-heavy role of all the concert’s soloists, hoofed admirably—even if all that bopping made her a little breathless.
10. Marc Shaiman taking the piano
Just during “Never Give All the Heart,” another song that was much longer in concert than it was on Smash. You could tell this one was a particular favorite of his.
11. An incredibly fun, incredibly raunchy “National Pastime”
Yes, it featured Megan Hilty pretending to pleasure a baseball bat and two more bats simulating, er… something even raunchier. The part where she yells “Hot dogs!” never made so much sense. Is this the Smash we would’ve seen if the series had aired on Showtime instead of NBC, as originally planned?
12. Linda the Stage Manager finally getting her moment
Hilty had just performed two songs back to back: the dance-intensive “National Pastime” and the dreamy duet “History Is Made at Night” (with Will Chase—hi, Michael Swift!). “I Never Met a Wolf Who Didn’t Love to Howl,” a brassy tune also originally performed by Hilty, was next on the program. But the diva got a breather when Smash (and Avenue Q) actress Ann Harada sauntered onstage, first in character as long-suffering Linda—calling places for the “Korean War USO number”—and then as a substitute Marilyn, complete with a sexy lacy dress. Harada switched easily between a breathy Marilyn impression and her natural strong alto; the audience howled along with the ensemble on every chorus. The fun, infectious number earned the night’s first major ovation.
13. Christian Borle in full effect
The patter song “Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking” never got the credit it deserved for being one of Smash’s most delightful tunes, thanks both to the song itself and an energetic performance by Borle—who otherwise didn’t do much singing on the show. Thankfully, the newly-minted two-time Tony winner had a moment to show off his best moves in this production number, featuring a chorus line of boys in towels. (Spoiler: They were wearing boxers underneath. Boo!)
14. Will Chase showing off his pipes
Michael Swift was never the most, uh, likeable character on Smash. But the man who played him is phenomenally talented—and we got to see that firsthand in Chase’s rendition of “Lexington and 52nd Street,” a soul-stirring breakdown ballad that came complete with lighting designed to mimick both camera flashbulbs and floodlights. They must’ve figured that out in tech.
15. “They Just Keep Moving the Line”
If a genie ever grants you three wishes, please promise you’ll use one of them to watch Megan Hilty sing what may be Smash’s greatest song, period.
16. Jimmy Collins, in the flesh
The sneering songwriter/ersatz Don Draper, last seen heading to jail at the end of season 2, must have gotten a night-long furlough—because he was on hand to open Act II with “Cut, Print… Moving On” (originally sung by McPhee). It was a savvy way to give Jeremy Jordan, whose character never appeared in Bombshell, something to do at the concert—and he absolutely killed the number, earning another standing ovation.
17. Bobby the Chorus Boy getting his moment
Whoops, I’m sorry—make that Bobby the ensemble boy. The fan favorite character, a.k.a. actor Wesley Taylor, had a small featured role in “Public Relations” as a nosy reporter prompting McPhee’s Marilyn to loose some of her most famous soundbites.
18. A quiet, powerful “Secondhand White Baby Grand”
A cynic might say that Hilty was simply saving her voice for “Let’s Be Bad” when she gently crooned this emotional ballad; a true Smashochist, though, would know that she used it to prove she’s more than just a belting machine.
19. The return of Sporto Sam
Gay Sam Who Likes Sports, a.k.a. star of stage and SVU Leslie Odom, Jr., was on hand to perform his character’s showcase number ”(Let’s Start) Tomorrow Tonight,” a swingin’ ditty in the style of Nat King Cole.
20. Vindication for Brian d’Arcy James
Bewilderingly, the three-time Tony nominee was cast as Messing’s non-singing husband in Smash; the only song he ever got to perform on the show is better left forgotten. (In case you forgot: it was a Bob Marley cover, and it was… not good.) Three cheers, then, for Bombshell in Concert for giving him “The Right Regrets,” a wistful number Borle and Messing shared on the series.
21. A rafter-shaking “Let’s Be Bad”
The show’s best production number was given an appropriate spot as the show’s 11 o’clock number; Hilty even put on a replica of the sparkly crimson dress her Marilyn wore while performing this song on the show. That’s only appropriate for the queen of the red-hot mamas.
22. A slightly less exciting “Hang the Moon”
A showcase ballad for Bernadette Peters… that wasn’t performed by Bernadette Peters. Eh, at least McKechnie and Hilty shared some beautiful harmony.
23. A climactic “Don’t Forget Me…”
Performed, thankfully, by both McPhee and Hilty, following an excerpt from Marilyn’s eulogy read by d’Arcy James. After their money note came a giddy curtain call, in which the two Marilyns could be seen giggling as they walked out only to realize it wasn’t their turn to bow yet—twice.
24. …leading to an even more climactic “Big Finish”
An encore? Of course there was an encore: the aptly named “Big Finish,” the Shaiman-Wittman original that closed out Smash’s series finale. (Unlike the rest of the songs performed at the concert, this one was never a part of Bombshell; it existed only in Smash’s dream theater, the glorious magical universe that’s also home to season 1’s crazy/beautiful Bollywood number “A Thousand and One Nights.”) The tune posits that by giving audiences a “big finish,” you can make them “forget what came before”—and “leave them wanting more.” The concluding number delivered just that, plus a bonus jolt of snark. In the series, the song ends with this exchange:
Hilty: “Come on, Karen Cartwright.”
McPhee: “Where are we going?”
Hilty: “Show’s over.”
In the concert, though, there was one more line:
McPhee: “It was over two years ago!”
Of course the Magical Karen Cartwright gets the last word.