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How a TV show inspired a theatre lover to fly across the country
What do you do when you love theatre but you live in the wild, untamed outlands of Seattle like I do? The sensible answer is to stay home and enjoy high-quality regional theatre and the occasional national tour. And usually, that's what I do. But then there was that time in 2013 when I flew all the way across the country to New York City to see just one show because of something I saw on TV.
My transcontinental journey was inspired by NBC's late and (in some circles) lamented series Smash about the making of a fictional, big-budget, Broadway-bound, Marilyn Monroe bio-musical called Bombshell. Sure, it was goofy in a lot of ways (and inspired much online comedy and commentary), but its season 1 songs by Tony winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (of Hairspray fame) often sounded like quality Broadway numbers. Then in season 2, Smash added a new competing fake musical-in-progress to the mix: Hit List. The songs by Joe Iconis, Tony nominees Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and others were more rock than Rodgers and Hammerstein, and it seemed like a latter-day Rent, which explains why it was being developed at an edgy downtown venue clearly modeled on New York Theatre Workshop.
After being banished to Saturday night due to low ratings and high production costs, Smash was canceled, and NBC aired its last episode on May 26, 2013. And I thought that was it. I'd have to feed my obsession via reruns and iTunes. But then in October, I read that Hit List, Smash's second theatre show within a TV show, was going to be done live in NYC for a handful of performances at the intimate cabaret club 54 Below. New numbers were going to be inserted to flesh out the story, and Smash (not to mention stage) stars Jeremy Jordan, Andy Mientus, and Krysta Rodriguez were going to headline. Odds were this was going to be the only time Hit List would be done as a full show, and there I was, stranded on the other side of the country.
So I did what I still contend was the sensible thing: After snagging tickets to a performance (no small feat --- it sold out fast), I flew from Seattle to New York, slept in a hotel, got up, had breakfast, saw Hit List, and then flew home, all within a 48-hour period. It was a weekend well spent, even if watching the show equaled about a tenth of the time I wasted on airplanes.
You see, the songs of Hit List are really great, especially when they're being sung two feet from you by the likes of Jordan, Mientus, and Rodriguez. There was even the semblance of a story, though I can't remember exactly how it went. (Not that it mattered, anyway. I've seen three different productions of Chess, and none of their plots matched up.) I traveled 3,000 miles for the music. Watching songs performed on television is a fundamentally different experience from hearing them sung live. The whole night felt like an Event. The Smash stars were thrilled to get a chance to do the material again, this time live. Meanwhile, the show's fans, mostly hardcore theatre lovers, were enthralled to be watching them up close and personal. There was a palpable sense of joy in the club. It was the bittersweet excitement of opening and closing night all rolled into one.
Two years later, Bombshell, Smash's original in-progress musical, staged a splashy, star-studded, Kickstarter-funded, one-night-only concert in a Broadway theatre, but I didn't travel across the U.S. for that one. For me, Hit List was the edgy underdog I would always love. How appropriate it took place in a basement club.
Have you ever traveled very far to see a special theatrical event? Tell us in the comments!
Monty Ashley lives in Seattle and goes to the theatre a lot. He also writes about television at Previously TV and is a regular panelist on The Incomparable.
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