For most of its two-year run on NBC, the series Smash was pretty much a hot mess. Ostensibly about the creation of Broadway musicals, it only tangentially resembled the real thing. And its plots and characters got soapier and soapier as the show went on.
Still, I recorded every episode on my DVR, if only because the program offered a weekly glimpse of some of the finest musical-theater actors on the Broadway stage — among them Megan Hilty, Christian Borle, Jeremy Jordan, Krysta Rodriguez, plus occasional guest stars like Bernadette Peters — singing and dancing. It also featured location shots from right in the heart of the theater district.
NBC pulled the plug last season, though, and that, I thought, was that. But a few weeks ago came the announcement of a concert version of Hit List, the Rent-like musical from the show's second season, with some of the actors from Smash starring in it. It turns out I wasn't the only one curious to see it; the three performances sold out in half an hour.
Last week, I attended a press preview at 54 Below, the swanky cabaret where the show was to be presented, and got to meet some of the performers as well as Joshua Safran, the showrunner for Smash's second season. The first season was centered around a fictional Broadway show called Bombshell and around the two actresses vying for the lead role of Marilyn Monroe. But Safran, who replaced Smash creator Theresa Rebeck, wanted to shake things up.
"So much of the process of Bombshell had been seen," he says, "from the initial idea to the workshop to an opening out of town. And, obviously Bombshell's journey wasn't done, but you also couldn't repeat those moments with Bombshell, because it had moved past it."
Safran found inspiration in the documentary Show Business, which looked at four musicals of the 2004 season — not just the big hit, Wicked, but the little engine that could, Avenue Q (which eventually bested Wicked in the Tony Awards), as well as the Boy George flop Taboo and Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori's Caroline, or Change.
"So that was where the idea of having a second or competing musical came about," Safran says. "And we wanted to make the sound of the second musical and the tone of the second musical completely different."
Where all of the retro-by-design songs for Bombshell came from the Tony Award-winning team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray), Safran recruited a bunch of up-and-coming musical theater writers, among them Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (A Christmas Story) and Joe Iconis, to write tunes for the competing show, Hit List.
"I knew I wanted the other musical to sound like a rock musical, like Rent, like Next to Normal," explains Safran. He listened to Joe Iconis's tunes "Broadway, Here I Come" and "The Goodbye Song," and knew it was the tone he was looking for.
"So, in a very strange way, those songs actually created Hit List," Safran says. In fact he had a few weeks in the schedule before he had to even come up with a plot for the fictional musical.
Tony-nominated actor Jeremy Jordan (Newsies) was brought in to play Jimmy, the angst-ridden songwriter with many secrets, for Smash's second season. His character was also Hit List's composer and star, and had a tortured love affair with actress Karen Cartwright (Katherine McPhee).
Jordan says that somewhere around the middle of the season, he and the other actors began to have an inkling of what the fictional Hit List was about. "But for the purposes of Smash," he says, "I think it was more geared towards forwarding the story for the characters in Smash."
And, apparently, as the second season of Smash continued, that plot became kind of flexible, says Krysta Rodriguez. She played Karen's roommate, then Hit List castmate, then bitter rival.
"It was more important to know how the songs related to the (TV) plot that everybody was watching, rather than the plot of Hit List," Rodriguez says. In the concert version, though, "we get to bring out what we originally intended, and that means that songs that were sung by [certain] characters are now being sung by different characters, because that's how they would fit in Hit List and not how they worked on Smash."
The idea for the concert version came from Jennifer Ashley Tepper, program director at 54 Below and a self-professed theater geek who was a big fan of Smash. She contacted Safran, "and we started having a conversation about doing it live. We just wanted to show the songs in order, and what the show would be, if it was something you went to see at the Winter Fringe."
She got enthusiastic responses from many of the Smash cast members, including Andy Mientus, who played Hit List's doomed book writer, Kyle.
"It's been so sweet," he says. "I feel like it's our 10-year reunion, but it's only been six months. But in television that's 10 years! It's a really sweet, joyous experience."
So a couple of days later, I joined an enthusiastic audience of Broadway babies and Smash fans to find out just what the fictional musical Hit List actually is. Safran had told me that "Hit List really deals with the power of fame these days in the music industry or the arts. And the idea that in order to be somebody, you have to pretend to be somebody else."
Which is probably the best way to describe the convoluted plot of the show, which has a wannabe American Idol-type singer, Amanda, stealing the songs of her Brooklyn boyfriend, Jessie, and running off to California, where she squares off with The Diva, a Lady Gaga-esque singer. Fame is found, even as hearts are broken and lives are shattered. And lots of songs — 18, in fact — are sung.
The show got an energetic reading, with a rock band that also featured a violin and cello, and a superb singing cast. Jordan played Jessie, a character not that different from the one he played in Smash, with vocal aplomb. Mientus, as his friend Nick, also rather charmingly contributed stage directions.
Rodriguez slinked through the audience and onto tables as the very sexy and completely unhinged Diva. And in the McPhee role, Carrie Manolakos, who did many of Hit List's original demos, had a chance to show off her considerable pipes.
So, would Hit List actually be a smash in the real world? I'm not so sure, but there are some genuinely impressive contributions from the young songwriters Safran hired.
Pasek and Paul wrote several of those contributions, including an excellent power ballad, "Caught in the Storm," sung by Jordan at the end of the first act.
And Lucie Silvas, a British songwriter I wasn't previously familiar with, contributed two superb numbers: the energetic Act 2 opening, "Calling Out My Name," and a lovely duet, "Heart Shaped Wreckage," that Jordan and Manolakos sang late in the show. If they make a cast album of this concert version of Hit List, I'd definitely buy it.
If you're looking for good role models for your teenagers, the local cineplex may not be the place to go.
PG-13 movies are awash in violence, and the violence is almost always linked with sex and drinking, according to an analysis of top-grossing movies from 1985 to 2010.
The PG-13 movies, which are supposedly OK for teenagers, had the same amount of violence as R-rated movies.
Violence took up about one-third of the movies, researchers found.
In more than three-quarters, the movies, which included G-, PG-, PG-13 and R-rated films, violent characters also engaged in other risky behaviors, according to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. They looked through all hit movies from 1985 to 2010, looking for violence, sexual content and use of tobacco or alcohol.
"We're not quite sure of the effect of the clustering of the behaviors on children," says Amy Bleakley, a research scientist at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, who led the study. But parents should be aware of that, she says, and also that there's plenty of evidence showing that exposure to movie violence makes teenagers more aggressive.
"There's also a lot of evidence that onscreen smoking is linked to smoking in teens," Bleakley tells Shots.
Sensation-seeking teenagers who are more drawn to novel and intense experience may be more vulnerable to exposure to risky behaviors bundled with violence in movies, she speculates. Her study was published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.
"We'd like to connect this to actual teen behaviors," Bleakley adds, to see how seeing bad behavior onscreen affects teenagers' beliefs and behaviors online.
Probably the only good news out of this study is that the amount of cigarette smoking in movies declined since the 1980s, a trend Bleakley says is due to less social acceptance. Alcohol use in movies dropped a bit, but not as much as did smoking.
Her numbers on the pervasive violence in PG-13 movies squares with a study last month led by Brad Bushman of Ohio State University. He found that the level of gun violence rafter 2010, when Bleakely's study ends. They used the same survey data.
When we talked to Bleakley this summer, she had just published a study showing that kids watch TV the way their parents do, regardless of what we tell them. So if you're watching films with grisly violence, your kids probably are, too.
But we couldn't help but notice that this most recent study ignored another key influence on teen behavior — music. "No rock and roll," Bleakley says, laughing. "We left that out."
NASA's Curiosity rover has found evidence of an ancient (nearly) fresh-water lake on Mars that could have sustained life billions of years ago.
The salinity in the lake, which covered a small part of the 96-mile-wide Gale Crater, would have been so low that it could "plausibly be described as drinkable," according to The Washington Post. The findings are being published in six separate papers on Monday in the journal Science.
"This long and skinny freshwater lake likely existed about 3.7 billion years ago, researchers said, suggesting that habitable environments were present on Mars more recently than previously thought."
"'Quite honestly, it just looks very Earth-like,' said Curiosity lead scientist John Grotzinger, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena."
Curiosity analyzed sedimentary rocks called mudstones "which commonly form in calm, still water," Space.com says. "The mudstones contain clay minerals that formed in the sediments of an ancient freshwater lake, researchers said. Curiosity also spotted some of the key chemical ingredients for life in the samples, including sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon."
John Grotzinger, chief scientist on the Curiosity mission, who is also a geologist at Caltech, says the clay-rich minerals in the rock indicate it was a relatively fresh-water lake, making it more suitable to a wider range of possible life forms. "It's the kind of water where if you were really dying, you could drink it, but you probably wouldn't bottle it for resale." He says.
The Post says:
"The chemistry of the lake would have been congenial to organisms known as chemolithoautotrophs — mineral-eaters. Whether such organisms, which thrive on Earth in exotic environments such as caves and deep-sea hydrothermal vents, actually existed on the young Mars is a question Curiosity lacks the tools to answer."
As Space.com reported in September, there's been a veritable flood of evidence collected by Curiosity over the past several months that water once flowed on Mars.
"'We know that on Mars there was what we interpret to be a habitable environment, where water was good enough for us to drink,' Melissa Rice, of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, said after a presentation on imaging results from Curiosity's workhorse Mastcam instrument."
"She talked about rocks that Curiosity studied earlier this year, finding evidence that ancient Mars could have supported microbial life."
"'We know that we had an initial habitable environment when these rocks formed, and then sometime later — we don't know when — these rocks had water flowing through them, through these fractures, leaving calcium sulfate behind,' Rice said. 'We don't know if that era would have also been habitable, but it tells us that there were at least two major wet stages.'"
At one time, Area 51 was one of the most famous military installations in the world — a place widely talked about, yet so secret that the U.S. government refused to confirm its existence.
That's why President Obama's reference to the southern Nevada base Sunday raised eyebrows. It marked the first time a U.S. commander in chief has publicly acknowledged the facility that fueled countless conspiracy theories.
Obama used the annual Kennedy Center Honors ceremony to crack a joke at the expense of actor Shirley MacLaine, one of the five award recipients, who has claimed to have seen UFOs on several occasions.
"Now, when you first become president, one of the questions that people ask you is, 'What's really going on in Area 51?' " Obama said. "When I wanted to know, I'd call Shirley MacLaine. I think I just became the first president to ever publicly mention Area 51. How's that, Shirley?"
Conspiracy theorists have been obsessed with Area 51 for decades, claming — among other things — the government is holding aliens and crashed UFOs there.
The 1996 blockbuster movie "Independence Day" cemented that notion in popular culture by depicting it as a highly secure repository for extraterrestrial beings and alien spacecraft.
A year earlier, President Bill Clinton had added to the mystery surrounding the facility by issuing a presidential determination declaring the site exempt from environmental disclosure laws following a lawsuit. Yet the document never actually referred to Area 51 — rather, it specified "the Air Force's operating location near Groom Lake, Nevada."
It wasn't until last August that the CIA confirmed the existence of Area 51, officially known as the Nevada Test and Training Range and Groom Lake.
The newly released documents said the site served as a testing ground for aerial surveillance programs, such as the U-2 spy plane first used during the Cold War.
No mention of aliens or flying saucers, though.
Former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner was sentenced to three months home detention and three years probation for sexually harassing three women.
As we reported, Filner pleaded guilty to three criminal charges — including false imprisonment and battery — back in October. The charges were related to allegations that Filner grabbed and fondled three women while he was in office.
"Filner apologized to his family, his staff, the citizens of San Diego and the women he offended, saying the behaviors would never be repeated.
"At sentencing, he vowed to 'earn back my trust and integrity, no matter how long it takes.' ...
"Filner will be barred from ever seeking or holding public office and required to undergo mental health treatment while under court supervision. He also was fined about $1,500."
If you remember, Filner, 71, resigned as mayor back in August after more than a dozen women said he had sexually harassed them.
In 2012, Filner was elected San Diego's first Democratic mayor in two decades. He also served in Congress for 20 years.