They Keep Moving the Line: What Can Be Learned About Authorship from Smash

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Many movies and television shows show the artistic process as a simple one — one where the singular author writes alone in the modern equivalent of a garret in Paris. When the author is stuck, a friend or a muse helps the process along until the “By Jove, I think he’s got it” moment. And scene!

However, despite its many failings as a show (with the exception of Megan Hilty and the supporting dancers/singers), Smash (presently on NBC) does show the complicated nature of completing a work — here two very different staged musical productions, one on Broadway, one off Broadway.

For both musicals, Bombshell (about the life of Marilyn Monroe) and Hit List (about the fleeting nature of fame, I think, maybe or it is just a post-modern Spring Awakening sans death?), the original writing team (lyricist and composer duo) has a very clear vision of what they want their musical to be. However, at almost every turn, their original vision is stymied, by others trying to make the musical more marketable and acceptable to a wider audience. But unlike the traditional narrative about creation, some of the changes forced upon the productions make the shows better.

Two Marilyns from Smash
Two Marilyns from Smash

One of the most interesting aspects on Smash regarding authorship and control is based around the inclusion of a dramaturg on both productions. At least within the context of the show, a dramaturg helps the authors to focus the narrative of the musical, thereby changing the structure of the musical, including adding or eliminating songs and characters. Having a non-author voice helps both productions become better, because the authors are too emotionally connected to their work.

While only a stepping stone to ridiculous plot twists, I appreciated that the authorship contribution of the director was considered on Smash. When the director leaves Bombshell for Hit List, the need for him to sign off on the continued use of his choreography is shown through the new choreography being … dreadful and a mockery of the song The National Pastime. However, the new version is needed to avoid any remnants from the original — thankfully not needed to a sign-off within the same episode (without negotiation or a payoff? Seriously?). Unlike Television Without Pity, I would like “episode after episode of thrilling contract negotiations” considering how rarely transactional issues regarding authorship are dealt with (but I realize my interest is not that of the average viewer). Hit List has a similar disagreement between one of the authors and the director, solved not through logic, but by the *other* author (AKA the only non-jerk, thereby fewest lines).

And this is just what we see on the screen. According to the creator of Smash, playwright Theresa Rebeck forced out at the end of last season:

“One of the points of contention last year was that the network thinks they have the right to say to the writer of the show, ‘We don’t want her to do this. We want her to do this… And I would sometimes say back to them, ‘She would never do that.’ And they’d look at me like I was crazy, and I’d be like, ‘Nope, it’s not crazy, it’s just who the character is.’ You have to respect who the character is. It has its own internal truth and you can’t betray that. And if you don’t betray that, it will not betray you. There is this sort of sense that if you don’t fuck with the muse—if you don’t fuck with the muse, the muse will stand by you. … It turns into bigger questions about power and art, power and storytelling. Is power itself bigger than storytelling? And I would say no.”

As someone who has watched the show since the beginning, I think that power and boring storytelling has now finally overtaken the remaining interesting aspects of the show. And considering the potential — They Keep Moving the Line — is a perfect song that *should* be in a Broadway production starring Hilty. To-day. While a broader view of authorship can help to widen the perspective of audiences about the creative process, Smash‘s time to get the balance right unfortunately is over, considering it is more interested in Gossip Girl style plot twists and out-of-character interactions. The creative process is complicated — and Smash‘s on- and off-screen drama prove how complicated actual, let alone legal, authorship can really be.


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