Why I Think Smash Is A Tragedy

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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.

A Petunia By Any Other Name

I don’t have a nickname (unless you count “Stef,” which I do not). I’ve been trying to make “Scully” happen for years now. Alas, just like “fetch,” it’s not going to happen.

But when I was very small, I was my father’s Sweet Petunia. And it suited me then, all chubby cheeks and giggles. I’m pretty open about the fact that my relationship with him was complicated, and this nickname represents a big part of that. Long after he lost any right to call me anything at all, he still persisted in using this nickname, and it infuriated me. When I finally cut off all contact with him, I dumped Petunia, too.

Enter Alice Walker.

This sounds far too hokey to be true, but I first encountered Walker’s poem “Revolutionary Petunia” painted on the wall of a building down the street from the office where I saw my first therapist.

Yes, really.

Painted huge on a brick wall, in purple, the words adorned with flowers:

The nature of this flower is to bloom.
Rebellious. Living.
Against the elemental crush.
A song of color
Blooming
For deserving eyes.
Blooming gloriously
For its self.

The first time I saw it I stopped dead in the street, gobsmacked, and I thought, “Oh yeah? Fuck you, Alice Walker.”  I gave it the finger every time I passed it, through 2 years of therapy. Then I switched therapists and didn’t have to see it anymore.

I think what made me so angry was that I couldn’t possibly imagine a time when I would bloom gloriously, least of all for myself. My whole life was elemental crush, and I had been lying there taking it for so long, I truly didn’t know that I had it in me to do anything else.

This past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about Sweet Petunia, 6 years old, with a curly mop of hair and tremendous brown eyes. Full of mischief, full of love. I know it has everything to do with Emerson being 6, and coming face-to-face with what 6 knows and feels. She fascinates me, this younger self, in the the same way photos of the Titanic before it sailed do. I want to yell down the years at her, and warn her where the ice is.

But life is full of surprises, and here’s what’s most surprising of all: somewhere along the line, I reclaimed her, this small girl with her heart and hopes intact. She used to be inextricably entwined with my father, but I’ve found a way to pry her out of his arms. She’s mine now, and she’s brought with her a fresh peace, pale green, with sturdy roots and the smell of rich earth.