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So, Who’s The Heroine of ‘Smash’?

So, Who's The Heroine of 'Smash'?

When “Smash” (airing Mondays at 10pm) kicked off a few weeks ago, the backstage Broadway drama was described by many critics as “Glee” for grownups. Now that the show’s a third of the way through its 15-episode season, that’s starting to seem as much a cautionary note as a nod to all of its song-and-dance numbers — like “Glee,” “Smash” has started to sacrifice the consistency of its characters in order to steer the plot in its desired direction.

The major question in “Smash” has become who, exactly, we’re rooting for. The first episode introduced us to the two actresses who aspired to become the star of a new musical about Marilyn Monroe — Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty), who’s been working on stage for years and feels it’s finally her time to take the lead, and Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee), a newbie from Iowa who’s been waiting tables and auditioning.

Ivy has the experience and the chops to play Marilyn, but Karen has an essential innocent quality along with the voice — or so “Smash” wants us to believe. Problem is, the show is telling one story while struggling with another. We’re meant to cheer for Karen as the ingenue whose gifts can’t help but shine through and who struggles against the adversity of lecherous directors and catty co-stars, including a suddenly diva-ish and increasingly unstable Ivy.

But it’s Hilty who’s the actual talented underdog, a Broadway performer who played Glinda the Good Witch in “Wicked.” McPhee’s voice netted her a runner-up spot on “American Idol” and she’s got more fame, but in terms of acting and charisma Hilty blows her out of the water. 

It’s funny to hear Anjelica Huston’s determined producer Eileen Rand get snippy when director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport) talks about stunt casting a movie star like Scarlett Johansson for the role of Marilyn because name recognition feels like the reason McPhee’s there.

The imbalance in talent creates a narrative undercurrent in which, instead of this seeming like the story of an up-and-comer set to get her big chance, it becomes one in which a newcomer is “All About Eve”-ing her way into the lead. And the two actresses have been given a dynamic that’s reminiscent of another showbiz film, “Black Swan,” with Ivy jumping into bed with Derek while Karen remains the uptight good girl who needs to get in touch with her own sensuality.

The big Marilyn dance number, below, that came toward the end of last night’s episode draws parallels between the stress and insecurity Ivy’s feeling and the difficulties the film icon she’s playing experienced as her fame took off. But it really serves to highlight how much more appropriate a fit for the role Hilty is than McPhee’s wounded-doe Karen. “Smash” is inexorably heading toward a scenario in which Karen gets her chance to shine, but unless she’s capable of much more than she’s shown on screen so far, it’s going to sound more like the creaking of plot mechanics than a star finding her voice. 

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I could not agree with this article more. They push Katherine McPhee down our throats, but then Megan Hilty has scenes like that performance and imo outshines her in every way.


I saw it completely differently, I guess it shows everybody has their own opinion. I don't watch American Idol, so I didn't know how talented Katharine McPhee was. When I watched Megan Hilty perform as Marilyn, I thought it was too much; she's trying too hard, & I disagree with the writer, because as "Broadway" as Hilty's voice is, I couldn't believe that out of ALL the stage actors in Manhattan (or LA, for that matter, because it was the role of 'Ivy), she was the one who was the "perfect" Marilyn. I don't care for her voice, & I LOVE Broadway musicals, so, it's not a thing for me needing a "pop star" voice for it to be enjoyable. Yes, Karen seems too new, but it just seemed odd that Ivy made the best Marilyn. By the way, as for whose "side" to be on, it did show both women's point of view equally. It also shows it helps to know the writers of the show, because I can't see Ivy getting that far without that little push… It just kind of seemed like a joke; during the audition when Ivy was in the baseball production number, she was so much larger than the male dancers around her. She was Marilyn before her miscarriage. I have to admit, I thought it was a set-up as one of the reasons Karen would be chosen, & when that didn't happen, I really didn't want to watch more episodes of Ivy thinking she was the epitome of Marilyn. It's just too odd. I was really looking forward to seeing this show. I hoped it would've been better, but, there's still time- it's not curtain call yet.


Your article starts with a faulty assumption; namely, that the creators of SMASH want us to root for just one of the two women. The theme of ensemble has been there from day one, and in the "Cost of Art" episode, the point was clearly made to Karen that she was showing off too much for an ensemble member. Ivy may be shown as being a diva at times, but her experience and time spent in the chorus is always emphasized, and when she does act out, it's pretty clear to anyone watching that it's out of a place of vulnerability. SMASH is doing a good job of going beyond categorizing people with cliches as your article seems to do.

Bill Cunningham


If you can't see that McPhee's character will eventually win the part after Hilty's crashes and burns then you truly haven't been paying attention.


The writer of this article, while obviously thoughtful & intelligent, is over-thinking it. It appears to me that Katherine McPhee is a decent actress. She may not be a broadway veteran or trained actress but that doesn't mean she is a slouch. Some people have natural talent. Its not like we're talking about rocket science.

"Indie" people all think their s&@! doesn't stink. Guess what, it stinks to high heaven just like everybody else's. It sounds like hypercritical, jaded mumbo jumbo but hey, everyone is entitled to their opinion. The show isn't for everyone but what is? My advice is if you don't like it, turn the channel.


This is the least "indie" thing ever to appear on Indiewire.

A better Q might be, "Why do smart people waste time watching mediocre junk?"


Agreed. And I felt this after watching just the first episode!

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