This June, the African safari of the Minskoff Theatre will be temporarily dismantled to make room for Marilyn Monroe. That’s right; everyone’s favorite cancelled television program, Smash, is being brought back to life with a performance of BOMBSHELL, the in-series musical. With a ton of stars attached and hundreds of thousands of dollars raised to fund the event, I thought it might be fun to do a full review of BOMBSHELL’s score. Within the context of the TV show, the music and lyrics were written by Tom (Christian Borle) and Julia (Debra Messing). In real life, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman wrote it- a stunning compilation of 22 songs and no reprises. On the BOMBSHELL “cast recording,” the role of Marilyn Monroe is split by Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty, whose characters competed for the part on Smash.
This review will attempt to answer two fundamental questions: does this CD constitute a “smash,” and whose portrayal of Norma Jeane is superior? Let’s get to it.
“Let Me Be Your Star” This is supposed to be a solo for Norma Jeane, but in the context of the TV show, it became a duet for Hilty and McPhee. It’s the song that is most closely associated with Smash and received a few award nominations. I too like this song a lot. It has a great, sparkling sound and the two ladies’ vocals play off each other nicely. I think McPhee sings the higher harmony and Hilty takes the lower part. This is odd, considering that Hilty is typically a soprano and McPhee tends to belt. But I digress. This is a solid opening for the album and, in the context of BOMBSHELL, does a decent job of establishing the starstruck aspiring of Monroe’s character.
“At Your Feet” Oh, Bernadette Peters. As the mother of Hilty’s character on Smash, it’s only fitting that she sing the role of Marilyn’s mother in BOMBSHELL. Peters sounds terrific, but I find the context of this number to be a bit strange. If this scene were to be staged, would they bring in a child to play Young Norma Jeane for about three minutes? The whole thing feels out-of-place, although it will make a little more sense later on. This said, I do like the placement of Grauman’s Chinese Theater to have star names (and handprints!) literally be “at one’s feet.”
“SMASH!” LOL…a title song. So many layers there. This is another number that turned into a duet for Hilty and McPhee, although their voices sound unusually similar here. I love the jazzy sound of the song, but there is one part of it that makes me cringe. It’s the lyric, “In your kidney-shaped pool.” Gnaygh! Much like “thrice” and “intrauterine” (Anybody get the reference?), “kidney” is a word that does not belong in a song.
“Never Give All the Heart” I don’t understand the point of this piece. It’s very pretty and sung well- but I don’t get how the lyrics relate to the plot of BOMBSHELL and they only give vague insights into Marilyn’s character. I do like the thoughtfulness of the last verse, though.
“The 20th Century Fox Mambo” This song’s really fun, but it again feels somewhat unnecessary. I don’t know why the songwriters felt a need to compare the different movie studios to dances. It’s a strange analogy and I think this number would have more relevance if it were plot-driven rather than a showcase for choreography. Katharine McPhee sounds fabulous, though.
“The National Pastime” Not one of my favorites, I’m sorry to say. I don’t like the way they make Marilyn out to be a complete ditz, unless the character was going for airhead remarks as part of her “image.” I am no expert on the real Marilyn Monroe; did she act stupid? Anyway, my favorite part of this song was the clever wordplay of “a baseball diamond is a girl’s best friend.”
“History is Made at Night” Okay, so first of all- Will Chase is a total heartthrob and a vibrant performer. I am so glad he got to shine as Joe DiMaggio in BOMBSHELL. This is a nice throwback to the drippy love duets of yesteryear, complete with a “ba-dum-ba-dum” background chorus. It tries to get a bit sexual near the end, and some of the lyrics are weird (“Let my lips do the teaching?”), but I do like the song, mostly because of Hilty and Chase’s fantastic vocals.
“I Never Met a Wolf Who Didn’t Love to Howl” This song irritates the crap out of me. It’s catchy as all-get-out, but that’s not a good thing when you find yourself mocking it as it plays in your head. It does work in the context of BOMBSHELL (Marilyn performing a fun number for the troops). Unfortunately, my opinion of it is also negatively colored by the way we first see it in Smash. I won’t go into that exposition right now.
“Mr. and Mrs. Smith” Here is an example of a song that really develops character and provides real insights. I don’t care for the music, but the lyrics are really quite good. They tell of Marilyn and DiMaggio’s inner feelings about fame and how nice it would be to live as an ordinary couple for a change. If only the sound of this ballad were more passionate and dynamic, this would be a real winner.
“Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking” Christian Borle all the waaaaayyy!! When this song first began, I anticipated something fairly mediocre. Then the tempo kicked up and Borle began to patter-sing his way through some really fun lyrics. And so was I hooked. This is definitely a standout on the album; it’s comical, it’s clever, it’s relevant to the plot, and it’s sung by a musical theatre pro. What more could you want?!
“On Lexington and 52nd Street” A bland song in which Joe DiMaggio mourns the loss of Marilyn to her career. Will Chase sings it with a lot of emotion, but it’s nothing special and could probably be cut. Unless, of course, you’d like to give DiMaggio’s character more to do in the show.
“Cut, Print…Moving On” This is my “guilty pleasure” song of BOMBSHELL. It’s not particularly well-written, and it’s pretty cliche, but I really like it anyway. Katharine McPhee sounds fine, and the staging of the number on Smash was very well done, but the background singers were unnecessary and I feel like it’s anticlimactic to end Act 1 like this. Why? Because you already know how the story’s going to end…
“Public Relations” A boringly-named but theatrically effective Act 2 opener. It would grab the audience’s attention after intermission, and the interaction between Marilyn and the reporters is well-written.
“Dig Deep” This song is entirely unnecessary and needs to be cut. If anything, what does on here could be easily replicated in a book scene. It definitely doesn’t need to be musicalized. Next!
“Second White Hand Baby Grand” I really like this number. It’s slow, emotionally satisfying, and beautifully sung. In context, it tells the sad story of how Marilyn’s only happy memory of her mother is the time they shared over a baby grand piano. My only problem, dramatically, is that it’s a little late now to be reexamining Marilyn’s relationship with her mom. Also, does anyone know if the backstory of the song is accurate?
“They Just Keep Moving the Line” Another moment that could have just as effectively been a book scene rather than a song. On the bright side, Megan Hilty belts her face off here, to amazing results.
“Let’s Be Bad” Unlike “Mambo,” this piece works on both the subtext and theatrical levels. It takes place on the set of Some Like It Hot, and Marilyn is shown to be emotionally declining. It’s hard to get all that just by listening to the song, but actually watching its performance tells the whole story. And that’s kind of what matters.
“The Right Regrets” Meant to be sung by Arthur Miller’s character, it is instead performed on the album by Debra Messing as Julia. Why? Because her character “wrote” its lyrics as a parallel to her own life. This ballad is the album’s big missed opportunity. It had the potential to be so philosophical and meaningful, but the lyrics seem forced and veer too close to preachy.
“Let’s Start Tomorrow Tonight” Gee, a lot of BOMBSHELL’s songs have fairly long titles, don’t they? Anyway, this is mostly a filler number, sung by Nat King Cole’s character to set the mood.
“Our Little Secret” Ugh! I don’t care for this one at all. Sung by JFK (no, really) and Marilyn, it’s jazzy in an annoying way. And the lyrics are pretty lousy, worst of which is “Every president has one, a pleasure that’s strictly taboo…let’s do it now for our country.” The JFK affair did not need its own song, let alone one as pitiful as this.
“Hang the Moon” Remember when I said the Marilyn’s Mom flashbacks would make more sense later on? This is why. In BOMBSHELL, right before her death, Monroe has one last vision of her mother, and the two of them exchange apologies and yearnings for what could have been. It’s a nice way for the characters to get closure with one another, but for the audience, it would still feel like their relationship wasn’t explored enough in the story.
“Don’t Forget Me” The finale of BOMBSHELL, in the context of Smash, was written by Julia and Tom in under three hours. Music critics in the real world weren’t a fan of this, but I happened to think it was wonderful. It may be a tad too optimistic for a dying character, but that also may be what makes it beautiful. Marilyn Monroe went through so much garbage in her life that it’s nice to know that her legacy didn’t perish with her. Who knows what she was really thinking just before she died, but I think anyone could relate to the sentiments of this torch song. After all, who wants to just fade away from history after they leave this world? Nobody.
The Verdict: Both Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty have their share of shining moments, but it is the latter who more believably stepped into Norma Jeane’s shoes.
A “smash” or a “bomb?” This is a little more difficult to answer. The album has a lot of wonderful moments, but as Joanna Gleason might say, they’re “only moments.” As a whole, the CD isn’t quite cohesive enough. But with some work on consistency, not to mention an excellent libretto, BOMBSHELL may someday come close to proving me wrong about one thing I’ve been adamant about: that Marilyn musicals don’t work!