In the most recent episode of Smash, a TV series about the team trying to create a musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, we see a preview performance on the road in Boston. We see a lot of the musical, which looks great, and then we see the final scene, in which Marilyn dies. Blackout, no applause. The audience looks kind of stunned. And so the creative team gets together for a post-mortem, and agree that the ending is a downer. Show needs a new one.
Julia (Debra Messing), the show’s writer, likes the ending they have. As she points out, Marilyn did die. I mean, everyone knows she died, everyone knows how she died. We all know the Elton John song. So how does one create an upbeat ending around Marilyn Monroe?
One question I’ve had all along is: how do you create a musical around Marilyn Monroe at all? She was a victim. She was a non-volitional protagonist. She wanted to be loved–she mostly surrounded herself with men who wanted to use her. Plus she was–how to put it delicately–troubled. Joe DiMaggio loved her, but boy did he have different expectations for that marriage than she had. Arthur Miller loved her, but she was pretty far gone by then. The recent movie Marilyn and Me handles her life beautifully–by making someone else the main character. One misguided review asked “how do you make a movie about Marilyn Monroe, Laurence Olivier and a gofer, and focus on the gofer?” I say, that’s the perfect solution. It’s brilliant. You observe her, from the outside, and get just that glimpse of that tragic, gifted, lovely young woman.
So she died, drug OD, naked in bed, phone in hand. How do you make that the final number in a musical that, presumably, you want people to see?
Try to imagine a musical about any famous person who died in a famous way. JFK: The Musical. Pretty much have to end it in Dallas, don’t you? MLK: The Musical. Maybe, you get away with ending it with the ‘Been to the Mountaintop” speech: “And I’m so happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” Yeah, that’d work.
Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story has a neat ending. Curtain closes, you see his guitar on-stage, spot on it, and you hear a radio news broadcast of the plane crash that killed him. Then the curtain opens, and Buddy and the Crickets perform one more song: “That’ll be the day,” if I’m not mistaken. Great ending.
But for a musical theatre final death scene, nothing, nothing beats this. It’s the last scene in All That Jazz, 1979 auto-biographical film by and about Bob Fosse (fictionalized as Joe Gideon). Gideon/Fosse is played by Roy Scheider; Ben Vereen is brilliant in it, I think. Enjoy: Bye Bye Life
Top that, Smash.