If You Like Smash, You'll Love Slings & Arrows

I like Smash. I like its energy, I like the ensemble, I like the musical numbers and I like the way the show's writers have concocted a version of Broadway that feels rooted in a recognizable reality, while also allowing for the dramatic conveniences (and contrivances) that come with the territory of primetime network soaps. I also like that the show seems to have found a modest, but decent-sized audience. The premiere attracted 11.8 million viewers and if that number holds or increases in subsequent weeks (and here's hoping it does increase, because the show improves greatly in the coming episodes we've screened), Smash should be with us for a while and could turn on a whole new audience to the pleasure of an evening out at the theater, be it the Great White Way or your local repertory company. If you were one of the 12 million folks that tuned in and liked what you saw, I'd encourage you to check out an even better show about all the blood, sweat and tears (and laughs... don't forget laughs) that go into mounting a theatrical production: Slings & Arrows.

Haven't heard of it? That's not a big surprise. Originally produced and shown in Canada in 2003, the first season of Slings & Arrows didn't air in the U.S. until two years later on the relatively little-seen Sundance Channel. Two more six-episode seasons followed, premiering in the U.S. roughly a year after their respective Canadian debuts, and while the show developed a devoted following in the States, it always remained small. But that felt appropriate somehow. Where Smash takes place in the theater world's big leagues, Slings & Arrows -- which was created by Mark McKinney (of Kids in the Hall fame), Susan Coyne and Bob Martin -- unfolded in the more rarefied atmosphere of a Shakespeare festival, modeled after Canada's annual Stratford Festival. (Full disclosure: I spent part of my childhood in Canada and we made regular trips to the lovely town Stratford, Ontario to attend that festival. I saw some great productions there, including Guys and Dolls and Shakespeare's Scottish play, and I like to think that experience paved the way for my days as a Drama Club nerd in junior high and high school.)

Despite the difference in scale, the two shows do have a number of things in common, including storylines involving backstage rivalries, creative differences amongst the production team and the eternal problem of money, money, money. They also both share an interest in how the industry functions as a business behind-the-scenes. But Slings & Arrows approached this material in a nimbler, less predictable way than Smash is... for now, at least. S&A also distinguished itself in the way that events on the show often mirrored what was going on in the specific Shakespeare play the actors were preparing to perform.

To be fair, Smash does do this to a certain extent, most notably in the way it posits Katharine McPhee as the plain-Jane Norma Jean to Megan Hilty's bombshell Marilyn. S&A carried the conceit even further, though. Take Season 1, which found the members of the New Burbage Festival (including a pre-fame Rachel McAdams as the resident ingénue) readying themselves for yet another production of Hamlet, starring an American movie star, Jack Crew (Luke Kirby) with no stage experience in the title role. (The writers were obviously riffing on that time Keanu Reeves randomly appeared as Hamlet in a production staged by the Manitoba Theatre Centre.) While the actors rehearse onstage, the play's temperamental director Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross) endures his own Hamlet-like trials and tribulations, including regular conversations with the ghost of his deceased former mentor and rival, Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette), a strained relationship with one-time lover Ellen (Gross's real-life wife, Martha Burns) and a general crisis of faith in his abilities. These storylines run parallel to each other until opening night, when Geoffrey puts aside his own drama and coaches Jack into giving the performance of his life. If you don't get chills during the rendition of Hamlet that follows, I'd recommend checking your pulse. Even as someone that's already read and seen several versions of Shakespeare's masterpiece, I felt like I was experiencing it for the first time.

The subsequent seasons of Slings & Arrows aren't quite as grand as the first, but there're still tons of fun for theater lovers and novices alike. The play at the center of Season 2 is Macbeth and the offstage action finds Geoffrey dealing with a hammy star who arrives with his own ideas about how the play should be performed. (A second, and weaker, storyline involves a pair of forgettable young actors -- replacements for McAdams and Kirby, who were written out in the season premiere -- falling in love while rehearsing Romeo and Juliet.) And for the show's third and final year, the writers understandably chose to tackle King Lear, with Geoffrey handing off that plum role to a veteran actor who is succumbing to age and illness himself. And just as Lear's kingdom threatens to collapse into chaos, the New Burbage Festival is poised for a major shake-up as the show reaches its end. (Perhaps my favorite part of Season 3 is a storyline involving the world premiere of the festival's original musical East Hastings, a hilarious and absolutely dead-on parody of Rent.) The series finale ranks among the best I've seen, bringing the events of the past few years to a logical end and closing the book on these characters we've grown to love while still laying the groundwork for a new chapter in their lives that will continue off stage and off screen.

That sense of camaraderie, of artists pulling together to put on a show that will delight and transport audiences for the few hours they sit in the dark, is perhaps the most special thing about the theater and Slings & Arrows. Smash, in contrast, is taking a little too much delight in the backbiting and bickering that accompanies a difficult artistic endeavor like a Broadway musical. It's easy to understand why -- conflict equals drama after all and it's certainly a lot of fun to watch the various rivalries play out. But here's hoping the show eventually puts that aside and embraces the same love and affection for the magic of the stage that courses through Slings & Arrows.

Slings & Arrows is readily available on DVD courtesy of Acorn Media and can be purchased in single season sets or a complete series edition. Gift it to the theater nerd in your life if they don't already own it.

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