Smash! folded on the road in 1981, the late television dramatist Jack Rosenthal’s only stage play, and even that’s putting it strongly. It’s a fairly enjoyable theatrical indulgence about the making of a musical in chaotic circumstances that stutters into town, has a rhapsodic first night and is then killed stone dead by reviews.
What actually happened was that Rosenthal’s television play, Bar Mitzvah Boy, was turned into a 1978 musical of the same name – lyrics by Don Black, music by Jule Styne, composer of Gypsy and Funny Girl – and folded after 77 performances at Her Majesty’s.
It was an enjoyable failure, believe me, with some good writing and a delightful cast including Joyce Blair, Vivienne Martin, Harry Towb, Sharon Lee Hill and Ray C Davis. It simply ran out of oomph, luck and money, and lacked killer punch.
In Smash! the show in question is an even worse sounding romantic musical, What Happened to Tomorrow?, convened by a Mittel-European Jewish producer Theo (Tom Conti, on fine shoulder-shrugging form) - who approximates to the Bar Mitzvah Boy producer, Peter Witt - adapted from her own novel by a Wimbledon neophyte, Liz (Natalie Walter), with music by a Broadway veteran, Bebe (West Wing star Richard Schiff making a welcome return, replacing Kerry Shale - who was also in Bar Mitzvah Boy - at short notice).
The director Stacey (a nicely swaggering Cameron Blakely) is also American, a full-of-himself monster, and the lyrics are by Mike from Ealing (Josh Cohen), who teams with fellow Brit Liz in a friendship nurtured on outlandish sexual fantasies exacerbated by impotency, which seems to be rampant at the moment in musical theatre.
We only hear one song, a rather good one, composed by Jason Carr, right at the end, and off-stage, when the troubled try-out in Manchester is followed by a mirage of success. The second act in Tamara Harvey’s production is much better than the first, which is hampered with tedious arguments about scenery and musical arrangements, and a series of repetitive cultural stand-offs between Broadway and the Brits.
The show seems doomed; even Liz suggests it looks like amateur night on Southend Pier, and Stacey makes a long simmering pass while admitting she’s right. Rosenthal’s daughter, Amy Rosenthal, has written “additional material,” while designer Paul Farnsworth has flung a gilded proscenium on a diagonal across the stage.
It’s bitty and stop-start, but the play pulls itself together as in one of those backstage movies where the audience cheers, friendships are sorted, resolutions made, the reviews are terrible and out of all this arises some barmy, kamikaze project to start all over again on Broadway. And there’s a lovely vignette from Carrie Quinlan as a waitress in the Manchester hotel who’s seen the show and found more holes in it than a kitchen colander. But what does she know?