RECAP: Dueling Marilyns Are A Ratings Smash

"Why doesn't anyone do new musicals anymore?"

So laments Julia Houston (Debra Messing) to her writing partner Tom (Christian Borle) and his personal assistant Ellis (Jaime Cepero) in one of the opening scenes of Smash. Julia and Tom are veteran Broadway writers, and their current show, Heaven on Earth, is a hit on the west end. They're taking some time off from the hectic Broadway scene, Julia so that she can adopt a child with husband Frank (Brian d'Arcy James), and Tom . . . well, actually I'm not sure about that guy. I guess it's not important.

So when Ellis asks why no one's done a Marilyn Monroe musical before, they first dismiss the idea out of hand, and then can't get it out of their heads. Pretty soon they've written a demo, you know, just for funsies, and ask pal Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty) to help them record it. Ellis records the performance and makes the mistake of emailing it to his mother, and somehow it ends up on YouTube and goes viral (or the TV equivalent of YouTube, anyway). It's just one song, Julia tells her husband, but pretty soon that one song spirals into genuine interest in the project, which takes off practically without Julia or Tom's permission.

Enter producer Eileen Rand (the always terrifying Anjelica Huston), whose production of My Fair Lady is on permanent hold during her messy divorce from husband and ex-business partner Jerry (Michael Cristofer). She needs a new show, and she wants Marilyn. She strong-arms Julia and Tom into letting her bring talented but difficult director Derek Willis (Jack Davenport) on  board, with whom Tom has a rancorous personal history. Willis is extremely annoyed that he has to "audition," but he turns "the baseball number" into something that even Tom admits is genius. He mines "The National Pastime" for every juicy double entendre possible, and the resulting number is both fun and full of spectacle. Ivy Lynn, once again working for nothing in hopes of landing the role, is wonderful in the performance, but Willis practically ignores her, and that makes Tom even angrier than he already was.

Ivy herself is probably annoyed that she has to audition for a role that was practically tailor-made for her, but she never lets us see it. Ivy has been a chorine on Broadway for years, and is currently a member of the chorus line for Heaven on Earth, which is how Tom and Julia know her. She looks like Marilyn, she's a killer performer . . . the choice should be easy, right? Then comes Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee), the green girl from Iowa. She's the only girl who doesn't dress up like Marilyn or sing a Marilyn song, and instead of focusing on Marilyn's sex appeal, she focuses on love. Her audition blows everyone away -- even Tom, reluctantly -- but most especially Willis, who gets this creepy predatory gleam in his eye. Karen takes this approach mainly because she's extremely inexperienced and doesn't know any better, but it works. Both she and Ivy get callbacks.

Karen and boyfriend Dev (Raza Jaffrey) celebrate at home by studying Marilyn movies. Karen was told she nailed Marilyn's innocence, but it's not going to work a second time; this time, she needs to bring the sex. Her "practice audition" is interrupted by a phone call -- from Willis, who invites her to his home. So of course she goes -- the guy holds her career in his hands. She's so naive that it takes her a while to realize why she's really there. When Willis tells her to show him what she's got, she backs out of the room and grabs her stuff. This scene is probably my favorite in the episode because it combines great performances by McPhee and Davenport with the complicated and icky power dynamic between the two characters. You can see how humiliated Willis has made her feel, and how powerless. At first, I thought she was going to walk out of the apartment in moral outrage, but she's not that kind of girl. She wants that part and she wants it bad. She takes a moment to compose herself in the bathroom, brushing away tears and calming herself down, and emerges five minutes later dressed in nothing but one of Willis's dress shirts.

She's chosen to emulate Marilyn's infamous birthday performance for JFK. She crawls into Willis's lap and croons to him. She makes him believe that she wants him, but when he moves to kiss her she turns it off. She gets up off of his lap, and without even looking back at him says, "Not going to happen," and walks out on the egomaniacal sleezebag. I kind of loved her in that moment.

The pilot comes to a close with a duet between our dueling Marilyns as they make their way to their callbacks. "Let Me Be Your Star" is part daydream fantasy, and it's an indication that the show will probably use musical numbers in one of two ways: 1) The realistic way with stars performing on stage or in auditions, as with McPhee's "beautiful" or 2) Fantastical non-diegetic numbers that take place halfway between reality and imagination, like this one, or "The National Pastime," which we saw half in reality, and half in the fantasy world of Tom and Julia's imagination. In Karen and Ivy's imagination, they're both dressed in glittering Marilyn gowns with Marilyn hair and Marilyn diamonds*, and only next week will tell what happens next.

*Katherine McPhee can't really pull off the Marilyn look, no matter how talented she is. She's too small; she looks waifish. Hilty seems born to play this role, and I find myself hoping the show will come to the same conclusion.