When you love theatre as much as I do, it's tempting to fill every night with a show. And, if you have been paying attention to this website, even a little, you might think that's exactly what I do. I wish! But the cost of tickets, even discounted ones, adds up, and it's not always possible to get to a theatre, so I have to find some way to get my theatre-fix in other ways.
Of course, there's always Twitter, which can be endlessly entertaining; I love reading comments, news and general silliness from those in the theatre industry and those who love it. But there are also some theatre-themed entertainment options that involve more than 140 characters, and only require turning on a computer or the television from the comfort of my couch: a current network television show, a Canadian television show from several years ago (available on Netflix), and a web-only series about the humor to be found in the life of auditioning actors (on both sides of the table).
"Smash" / NBC Tuesday nights / Season 2 starts Feb 5
Yes, I know. It's not a documentary about the making of a musical :). It's a primetime soap opera with the theatre as its milieu. And I love it. For the most part, the acting is great (full disclosure: I'm not a huge Katharine McPhee fan), and the cast is drawn, in part, from real-life stars of the stage, which is huge draw for me.
The basic premise? Musical theatre composer/lyricist, Tom (Christian Borle, wildly talented stage actor) and book writer, Julia (Debra Messing, best known for TV's "Will & Grace"), just off the success of their hit musical "Heaven on Earth" begin work on a new musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. The major producer, "Eileen" (played by the great Anjelica Huston), is in the midst of a bitter divorce from another Broadway producer who is bound and determined to prevent her production plans from coming to fruition without proving she can't do it without him.
The primary first season storyline focused on the competition between the two women vying for the lead role (played by Broadway actor Megan Hilty of "Wicked," and Katharine McPhee, American Idol finalist), one a veteran of prior shows ("Ivy," portrayed by Hilty) and one, a newcomer with no real experience ("Karen," portrayed by McPhee). Throw in a highly talented, highly temeramental director, prone to sleeping with his leading ladies, and the show has some major pitfalls to overcome if it's to make it to opening night :). Guest stars from the first season included Bernadette Peters as Ivy's stage-star mother, difficult to please and prone to stealing Ivy's spotlight; and Uma Thurman as the film star (with issues :)) brought in as "Marilyn" to bring the show the needed press. Press it got; a successful lead actor it didn't.
The creator and original writer of the show, Theresa Rebeck, has moved on to focus on other projects (her recent Broadway play, "Dead Accounts," ran this past November/December), but if the casting news and preview of the second season (currently available on the web and on demand cable channels) are any indication, the show has upped the ante in the way of star power, bringing back Bernadette Peters and adding Jennifer Hudson as an already-successful stage star. If you follow the real-life rising stars of Broadway, you might recognize the name Jeremy Jordan, most recently the star of the Broadway hit "Newsies," who joins the show as an up and coming composer/performer. I really loved his first appearance toward the end of the preview episode, where he sings a wonderful song "Broadway Here I Come," written by another real-life up and coming musical theatre pro, Joe Iconis. I've had the pleasure of seeing Joe perform in NYC and he's one talented guy. Even the ensemble that makes up the "cast" of "Marilyn" features some very talented dancers and singers. I've enjoyed seeing dancers I recognize, including Alex Wong a fabulous dancer from the original cast of "Newsies" (and a former contestant on "So You Think You Can Dance") and Spencer Liff (a choreographer whose work I've admired on SYTYCD).
If you like story-driven primetime dramas that don't have to take place primarily in the courtroom and/or involve abundant violence, and enjoy a bit of sudsy romance, great music, and a unique setting (behind the scenes of a musical theatre venture), give "Smash" a try! The first season is also available on the web and on demand, and will shortly be available on DVD. The show's Wikipedia page is also a great overview of story, characters and cast.
"Slings and Arrows" / Canadian television series which ran from 2003-2006 / available on DVD (Netflix streaming as well)
I don't think I could do a synopsis better than the one from imbd.com: "In the fictional town of New Burbage, legendary theatrical madman Geoffrey Tennant returns to the New Burbage Theatre Festival, the site of his greatest triumph and most humiliating failure, to assume the artistic directorship after the sudden death of his mentor, Oliver Welles. When Geoffrey arrives he finds that Oliver is still there, in spirit anyway, and with his guidance (and often in spite of it) Geoffrey attempts to reconcile with his past while wrestling the festival back from the marketing department. Despite a bitter leading lady, a clueless leading man, and a scheming general manager, he manages to stage a remarkable production of Hamlet -- the play that drove him mad."
I am currently only part of the way into the second season, and so far it's a hoot! I was introduced to the show via Twitter, after seeing it mentioned several times by some theatre folk I follow. It was easy to find on Netflix (instant streaming available) and I was quickly drawn into the wacky world of New Burbage, its quirky denizens, theatrical and otherwise, and the constant question of whether the show will go in...in spite of itself :). The fact that the company focuses on the works of Shakespeare just adds to the fun!
The show reminds me a bit of "Northern Exposure" or "Ballykissangel" in the willing suspension of disbelief that it elicits from me; especially with the cast of characters, all of whom I find myself rooting for, no matter their relative madness! I have a strong feeling I'm going to be sad when I get to the end of the episodes.
By the way, you might notice a young Rachel McAdams (around the time she gained fame with the film "The Notebook") as the hopeful ensemble member desperate to make it as an actor.
"Submissions Only" / web series / Season 3 in the works, first two seasons available on the show's site
What's not to love about a hilarious peek into the trials and tribulations of auditioning for the theatre? This series, created by two uber-talented actors, Kate Wetherhead and Andrew Keenan-Bolger, centers on the character of "Penny," (played by Wetherhead), a reader for a casting agent (with aspirations of course, both on the stage and in love). The series has garnered an avid fan base; the third season is the result of a successful kickstarter campaign. It has a constant stream of recognizable faces, both from stage (Keenan-Bolger, Anne Nathan, Beth Leavel, Annaleigh Ashford) and screen (Jesse Tyler Ferguson made a cameo during the finale of the second season). If you want to see the full list, here's a link to the show's page on imdb.com.
The deadpan delivery of the snarky, not-so-assisting assistant, "Gail" (Lindsay Nicole Chambers) is always fun, as is the capable Colin Hanlon as "Tim," the casting agent who must deal with the revolving door of crazy that brings in auditioning actors, predatory producers and his friend Penny in the throes of her latest misadventure.
I've seen and enjoyed both Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Kate Wetherhead on stage as well; Andrew in "Newsies," and Kate in "The Other Josh Cohen," and it's a treat to see their talents aimed this way!
Each episode runs about 15-20 minutes; a perfect "snack" of giggles and grins with a theatre theme.
So, if you like the theatre, and want to enjoy it in a slightly different way, you might give one or more of these a try. I'm glad I did!