Smashed

One of the criteria I like to apply to my present purchasing for family and friends is “is this something I would like to borrow in the future?”. For example, my sister, mother and I have very similar taste (and actually my Dad too, but to a lesser extent as his wishlist usually consists of very weighty biographies), and therefore we tend to do a certain amount of inter-family loans as far as books and DVDs are concerned.

[In case you think I’m too self-centred, other criteria I use include: “I love this, therefore my sister/mum/friend will probably love it too”; “they’ve mentioned wanting this in the past”; and “this is random…they’ll love it!”.]

This year, I bought my sister Miranda Hart’s live DVD with the express purpose of borrowing it at a later date (actually, that sounds a little too mercenary – I actually thought it would make for quality Christmas family viewing, had we got around to it while in Belfast). Last year, I spotted a TV series on her wishlist which sounded intriguing – something about a musical being staged on Broadway – and figured that giving it to her could only benefit me in the long run. Sure enough, once she had finally got around to watching it, it was then passed on to me with enthusiastic recommendation!

smash-musical-drama-nbc-poster

Smash is effectively Glee for grown ups. Now, I know that Glee is for grown ups too, but it is set in a High School, which gives something of an indication of its intended audience. Smash is set on Broadway, featuring the kind of people the students in Glee aspire to be – members of the chorus ensemble; divas; directors; and composers/lyricists. The first season revolves around the writing a brand new musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, beginning with a workshop process, just like many a Broadway or West End show.

Those that know me and my penchant for musicals should begin to see why Smash was an instant hit with me. To be honest, I probably would have sped through its first 15 episodes regardless of its cast. The tunes are catchy [the soundtrack for season one is playing as I type this], the acting excellent, and they play the Glee trick of bringing in exceedingly appropriate guest stars. For goodness sake, Bernadette Peters plays the mother of one of the wannabe Marilyns!!

The icing on the cake is that the main cast is fabulous. I sat down to watch the first episode with no idea of who was in it, and practically yelled when I discovered that Debra Messing (aka Grace in Will & Grace) was a lead. The mean British director who appeared later that episode seemed familiar too, but it took a bit of Wikipedia-ing to discover why. Turns out Miles from This Life did good. So good, he was playing a Broadway director and looking like he had aged very well! [Incidentally, it turns out most of This Life is on YouTube. If you can handle the realisation of just how long ago 1996 was, I highly recommend the nostalgia trip!]

Most of them have a background in Broadway, so it’s real. As is my custom, I hit Wikipedia hard to discover some juicy factoids about the cast (well, initially to work out who the dishy Brit was), while avoiding plot spoilers. It turned out that the composer to Messing’s lyricist had originated the role of Emmett in Legally Blonde. Most of the ensemble had been on Broadway in some shape of form. If you watch the documentary in the DVD extras (yes, I am *that* person), you discover that the real-ness of Broadway depicted in the show was a motivating factor in them getting on board with the project. (The fact that Spielberg is Executive Director can’t have hurt either.)

Anyway, the point of this post is that I’d have never known about Smash, were it not for my sister’ wishlist. [It was on Sky, which I do not have.] I can’t bear the thought of other musical theatre nerds being without this gem, so felt the need to share the love. It’s not on the streaming services of choice in the UK, so you may need to go old school with DVDs, but it’s SO worth it.

Don’t you need a duet between Monroe and DiMaggio in your life?

[I actually wrote this post a month ago and left it sitting in drafts. Since then, series 2 has wound its way to me. Having resisted the temptation of opening it for a few weeks, last week it became the ideal remedy for a season of life that featured frustration; big freelance projects; and essay writing. A couple of episodes of Smash at the end of a long day is exactly what this soul needs!] 

At the ballet…

This week marked four years since I made my first ever venture into the world of ballet watchingCinderella at Sadler’s Wells. It was an experience that had been on my list of ‘first’ things I wanted to achieve in 2010, and I managed it with 10 days to spare. However, it was subsequently pointed out to me that while the work of Matthew Bourne is certainly excellent, it falls more into the ‘modern dance’ category rather than ‘ballet’. (I’d never seen a Bourne production live either, so it was still a first!)

Days before the anniversary of this auspicious event, I finally realised my First properly. Surely no one could argue that the Royal Ballet performing at the Royal Opera House doesn’t count as ballet??

As with my Bourne experience, the initiator was my balletomane friend Jules. In the heady days of summer, shocked that I’d never entered the hallowed ROH, she bagged some bargain tickets for a Christmas performance of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. [Top ROH tip: our tickets were £10 and in the heights of the Upper Amphitheatre slips, where the seats are actually cushioned benches. Being row CC and numbers 15 & 16 meant that we actually got a pretty good view. Any higher a number or row DD and things would’ve been tricky. Only one small part of the stage was obscured, and for £10, I’m willing to make that sacrifice!!]

alice & White Rabbit

Premiered in 2011, Alice is the Royal Ballet’s first full length ballet for two decades, choreographed by the rather fabulous Christopher Wheeldon. My biggest fear with watching dance is that I won’t understand what’s going on without words, but this made Alice a safe choice, given my familiarity with the source material.

Actually, even without the book and film versions, I think I would have understood the plot in this production. The beginning deviated from the source in that it featured a Lewis Carroll-esque photographer; and a handsome gardener chased away by Alice’s mother after discovering the pair kissing – but I picked up on this without the aid of the programme notes. The characters in the prologue went on to ‘play’ the Wonderland characters, Alice’s mother being the Queen of Hearts chasing the gardener’s Knave.

Alice-30

The production was just as bonkers and colourful as any version of Alice deserves to be. The Mad Hatter, resplendent in green and pink, tap-danced through his scenes; the caterpillar was a reincarnation of an Indian maharajah, whose Bollywood style moves perfectly captured the larvae’s undulating movement; and the Queen coasted in a giant acrylic heart for all of act 1! The set was reminiscent of Tori Amos’ The Light Princess, with animated shadow puppet style backdrops at points where extra narration was needed. Once released from her heart on wheels, the queen was the campest and most demanding prima ballerina the ROH’s stage can ever have hosted!

Caterpillar Alice

The ballet was magical and I highly recommend catching it at some point. (I’m pretty sure the entire run is now sold out, but it’ll be back…) But, almost more impressive was the sheer act of watching something in the Opera House. Fortunately, the 3 act ballet provided us with two intervals in which t take it all in – one spent admiring the auditorium space, and the other the sparkle and charm of the bars and corridors. Man, I love a good chandelier!

Looking up at the amphitheatre barObserving the observers in the amphitheatre bar.

It was an epic night out, one that might only have been improved had I still been living at my previous address, a mere 20 minutes walk from the ROH’s steps. Emerging to discover freezing rain would have been much easier to deal with knowing I’d be warm and dry in half an hour, instead of at the end of a 1 hour bus journey! [Three years in WC1 has spoiled me.]

Thinking back to that visit to Sadler’s Wells four years ago [incidentally, gosh what a lot has happened in those four years!], I’m pretty confident that a trip to the Royal Ballet would have been too much for a ‘first’. I simply didn’t know enough about the ballet world to have appreciated it.

What’s changed? Well, inadvertently, I’ve been on a crash course in ballet history, courtesy of a couple of BBC documentaries and a YouTube black hole. I knew a certain amount already, thanks to assiduous re-reading of the Drina books (last re-read in August!) and a certain fondness for stage/ballet school tv shows. The discovery of Dance Academy on Netflix early this year would partly explain my descent into ballet exploration. Set in a fictional Australian ballet school adjacent to the Sydney Opera House, it’s three seasons were a brilliant mix of ballet and Neighbours! Then there was the not fictional at all First Position – an award winning documentary about the Prix de Lausanne ballet competition. Mesmerising!

The above would probably be what I’d call an introduction to the world of ballet – they’re easy watches and in the case of Dance Academy, positively addictive. If you want to take things a little further, here are some links to gems that offered me some solace while finishing off my degree earlier in the year:

Royal Ballet School documentary (From the 90’s, featuring some famous names when they were young, and epic 90’s hair.)
Strictly Bolshoi (Christopher Wheeldon choreographs at the Bolshoi)
Ballet in Birmingham (Welsh pupils at Elmhurst School)
‘Agony & Ecstasy – a year with the English National Ballet’

 

Next year, I may have to set my sights higher – a classic ballet. Swan Lake perhaps, or Giselle? At least my childhood love of dancing books means I have an idea of their plots too! Jules, what do you reckon? Same place next year?