Why I Think Smash Is A Tragedy


People want to talk to me about the TV show Smash all the time. Without preamble, they’ll excitedly tell me they saw one of the actors in the park, or confess they lurked while a scene was being shot on their street, or start singing one of the songs at me. It’s a fair assumption to make, that I know and love this show, given my obsessive love of all things musical theatre.

But I can’t watch it.

It’s not that I don’t want to, or that it’s not interesting. It’s a TV show about making a musical, for God’s sake. Throw in an iced coffee and a chocolate croissant and it’s the intersection of everything I love in this world.

But it also hacks me to shreds. It makes me sweaty and anxious and teary-eyed. It makes me crave slice after slice of thickly buttered toast, washed down with pudding.

I know, my theater major is showing, but here’s the thing. At the center of Smash, at least the episode I was able to sit through before I ran screaming from it, is the relationship between songwriter Julia and composer Tom, played by Debra Messing and Christian Borle. Julia and Tom are best friends who are also a creative team.

Julia and Tom are everything I had, once. Julia and Tom are everything I lost.

When I was a teenager, I had a friend. A best friend, who we’ll call ES. He was theatrical, smart and funny, with puppy dog eyes and a thick mop of shiny black curls. He was cherubic, mercurial, adorable. He was a straight guy who loved musical comedy as much as I did. It was pure pleasure, he felt like home from the start. We loved all the same things — Shakespeare, black Converse sneakers, Woody Allen’s movies, driving at night, pitching a fit over nothing. All those things that matter so much when you’re young. We spoke the same language. We sought the same talismans.

We grew up together. And in growing up, we first became creative partners, and then lovers, and then a married couple. We were a truly inspired creative team. We were an utter wreck at the rest of it.

Here is the kind of magic we did together: when we were still in high school, we convinced a local town in Westchester, NY to fund a summer theatre program and let us run it. I was the artistic director, he was the executive producer. Over the course of four years we successfully produced big musicals, straight plays in rep, and original children’s theatre — all by the seat of our pants, just making it up as we went along. When we moved to New York after college, we produced a series of shows and cabarets that were pretty good, even in retrospect. We were never happier than when we were working together. When we were working together, you could believe we were actually in love. We could even believe it. But really, what we had was what Julia and Tom have — the abiding affection and trust, the secret language and safety that grows around and between two people who are genuinely, platonically ideal for one another in the pursuit of a common passion.

And oh, how we screwed it up.

Looking back at it now, I think we just didn’t know how to separate the fire we felt when we were working together from the kind of sexual, romantic love we both craved so acutely. It would have been so much easier if one of us had been gay, but there we were, absolutely besotted, married really, through our work, and our dreams of the future. We were going to Broadway, to Hollywood. We were going to have an office overlooking Times Square, with a partner’s desk. Al Hirschfeld would make a sketch of us at that desk, and it would have 5 Ninas in it.

We were partners for 12 years. We were married for 5. I cheated on him first. He was the one who eventually left me. For another woman. With whom he’d been having a prolonged affair. Four days before Thanksgiving.

Like I said, theatrical.

And when he left, I wanted to die. I was so angry, so bereft, so utterly boiled and peeled, all I could do was howl like a wounded creature. Not for the loss of him as a husband, certainly, but for the loss of my friend, my partner, my creative other half. I couldn’t imagine how I’d work without him, even as he was blowing my life to pieces.

Remarkably, it passed.

The last time I saw him, he said to me, “You’ll see. We’ll be like a Woody Allen movie. Years from now, when all of this is in the past, we’ll be friends again. We’ll have lunch. We’ll laugh at each other’s jokes again. Maybe someday we’ll work together again.”

And I said, “You will never see me again. Ever. Say goodbye to me.”

I have been true to my word. He’s tried to friend me on Facebook, and I’ve blocked him and his entire family. He’s emailed, and I’ve deleted them unread. (That’s a lie. I read them. Then I deleted them.) I know it makes me look like a villain, a bitch. But it’s an act of self-protection, not agression. He was an elemental part of my life from the time I was 15, and when he left, I had to obliterate him to have any chance of surviving. He was so large, you see, so tremendous. He took up so much space in my head. For so much of my life, most of the things I believed about myself were the things he told me. I desperately needed space, even if it was my own little corner in hell, just to meet myself. To begin constructing a life that didn’t include him, his voice in my ear, his interests directing mine, his dreams weighing more. I couldn’t do that if we were meeting for lunch once a month.

It’s been a long time now, more than a decade, since that day he proclaimed we’d find our way back to each other and I called him a fool for it. I haven’t changed my mind; I don’t want him in my life. But I think I’ve finally gotten to a place where I can miss him.

Not too long ago, the Internet went crazy with a rumor that Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny were involved in real life. It made me nostalgic for the 90s, and while I walked to the subway, my thoughts were full of Hootie and The Blowfish, Pop Up Video, and The Real Live Brady Bunch, a stage show from the Clinton era that was exactly what it sounds like – comics acting out entire episodes of The Brady Bunch, saturated with sexual innuendo and Gen X irony. It suddenly seemed like the best idea ever — EVER! — to produce a Real Live X-Files, somewhere in the East Village or Brooklyn, with the audience waving around tiny flashlights and the actress who plays Scully singing that Bree Sharp song as a finale.

I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, and reached for my cellphone to call ES.

It was pure instinct. Because there was a time when I could call him, and he’d pick up and say “What?” and I’d say “Real Live X-Files!” and he’d say “I love it! Flashlights! And the tickets look like FBI badges!” and I’d say “Bree Sharp song!” And he’d say “Scully sings it! At the end! And the guy who plays Mulder plays guitar! And Skinner and Krycek sing back up! And Flukeman!” And I’d say, “I want to play Scully.” And he’d say “No! You’re too tall! You direct it!” And I’d say “I am not! She’s 5’3″, I’m only 5’5″! I’ll wear flats!” And he’d say “You’ll be a nightmare if you don’t direct it, you’ll just end up complaining and giving whoever we get to direct it so many notes that they’ll quit.” And he’d be right.

There is no one I can talk to like this anymore. There never was, before him. There has never been, since he left.

I started crying, in the street. Because losing that kind of friend isn’t just sad, it isn’t just terrible. It’s fucking Greek tragedy. It’s the end of Hamlet.

I don’t ever want to see him again. But I think it’s a good thing, to be able to miss him. To allow myself to think of him without feeling like I’m about to spontaneously self-immolate, or turn to dust, or freeze and then shatter. To cry a few tears in the street and move on.

I can miss him now, without wanting to die. But I just can’t watch Smash.

So This Happened

The first rule of Salad Club is you don't talk about Salad Club.

I am constantly telling people they need to read “The Gift of Fear.” I am a freaking one woman Gavin De Becker parade, to the point where I have to re-buy it several times a year because I keep giving it away. Until now, my de Becker immersion has been mostly theoretical, which is how you want it. But it all got real this afternoon, when some totally normal-looking dude almost punched me in the face at Chop’t.

Yes, Chop’t. The salad place.

If you’ve been to the 17th Street Chop’t at lunchtime, you know it’s a madhouse. The line is always out the door. Today at around noon, I was in line behind a woman who kept checking her phone and doing that bird head thing people do when they’re waiting for someone. We kept getting closer to the door, and I’m sure she was thinking about how to handle it if we got to the counter before her friend got there. Do you step put of line? Order for yourself? Go to the back of the line again? Ah modern life, you are so full of etiquette quandaries.

Just as we crossed the threshold of the restaurant, her friend arrived. Tall guy. Red hair. Jeans, button down shirt. Nice shoes. Like I said, totally normal looking. They greeted each other with kisses, and started chatting about … whatever. I wasn’t really listening. The line continued to move, and then, when they were next to step up the counter and order, she said to him, “Oh! What are we going to have?” They began debating various lettuces and mix-ins, perusing the menu on the wall. A wrap? A custom salad or one of the classics? Which dressing?

Look, I get it. It’s a high stakes game we’re playing in the Chop’t. If you don’t go in with a strategy you can get sucked into the abyss of arugula vs. baby spinach vs. mesclun mix. So I waited patiently for a few minutes, because as a Chop’t master I was willing to give them a little time to get their act together. Finally, when it was pretty clear they weren’t anywhere close to choosing between grilled chicken and bacon, I interrupted them with a friendly, “Hey guys?” They stopped discussing tomatoes and turned to look at me. And I continued, “Would you mind if I scooted ahead of you while you make up your minds?”

Now remember, the line is out the door, there are MANY salad makers waiting, and it is completely acceptable to move ahead at Chop’t if you know what you want and you are behind people who are still looking at the menu and making up their minds. This is not deviant behavior. It is the social norm of make-a-salad culture. In fact, most people don’t even ask, so accepted is this practice.

Apparently, these folks really don’t understand the Chop’t rules, because they lost it. She immediately got huffy and demanded, “WHY WOULD WE LET YOU DO THAT?” I tried to explain that I meant no offense, they just seemed to need a little more time, but of course they should go ahead if they were ready. She was dripping with indignation and overreacting, but I figured it wasn’t worth dealing with. He, on the other hand, went insane. Clenched jaw (I have never actually seen a clenched jaw before, not a look I recommend), hands in fists, red face, leaning forward into my space, and yelling that I was a pushy bitch and I should shut the fuck up.

Salad, people. We’re talking about who gets a salad first.

He scared the hell out of me. And he triggered all my de Becker warning bells. Because this was not the response of a rational human being who was having a bad day. This was the response of a furious, dangerous person who was just looking for an excuse to go off. You ask how I know that. I know because I was there. Because I could read it in his stance, in his smell, in the chemicals coming off him and his dilated pupils, in his twitchy fists. A big part of what de Becker teaches is that your good manners, your unwillingness to trust your gut, your fear of offending the lunatic in front of you, will get you hurt. Sometimes, it will get you killed.

I was about to turn tail and hijack it out of there (no salad for me) when the manager of Chop’t swooped in and asked if I was OK. I informed him that I most certainly was not. Meanwhile, Red’s temper is escalating by the second. At this point, the manager put his arm around me and escorted me to the very front of the salad station, leaving Red and his lady friend to work out their issues. He deposited me at the salad maker closest the the register and asked me what happened. I explained, and he said he’d watch to make sure I got out of the restaurant ok.

I ordered my salad, paid, and got the hell out of there, checking behind me to make sure Red wasn’t following. As soon as I was a block away I burst into tears (I regret nothing).

So I’m fine. My salad was delicious. I have an undying respect and affection for the manager of Chop’t at 17th street. But here’s what’s haunting me: the woman he was with. Yes, she acted like a real bitch, but I can’t help imagining her life. If this is how he rects to a stranger who wants to bypass him on the salad line, how does he react to her when she wants to do anything he deems unacceptable? What would have happened if she’d told him to calm down? What will the rest of her day be like? What’s going to happen to her tonight?

I wish her well, is what I’m trying to say. I hope she’s OK.

But my gut tells me otherwise.