Megan Hilty :: Sings (and schemes) to Broadway stardom on ’Smash’
On "Smash," Megan Hilty plays the Broadway up-and-comer Ivy Lynn, a fitting role since she is a real life Broadway performer, having made her name as one of the replacement Glindas in "Wicked" and originating the Dolly Parton role in the musical version of "9-5." (That show failed on Broadway, but Hilty got great reviews.)
On "Smash" she pays one of two actresses competing to star as Marilyn Monroe in a new Broadway musical, "Bombshell," that chronicles the star’s ill-fated life. And while co-star Catherine McPhee does her best, it is Hilty that nails Monroe week-after-week. Who could think otherwise after a recent episode where she sang a touching rendition of a new Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman ballad, "Second Hand White Baby Grand?" The song would be perfect for Marilyn to sing in the show, but instead is given to a chorus playing the star’s inner voice.
Has the vocal chops
The reason? It turns out that the film actress cast as Monroe (slyly played by Uma Thurman) hasn’t the vocal chops to pull it off. Hilty does, she just doesn’t have the box-office appeal that Thurman’s star, Rebecca Duvall, has; which is one of the numerous plot threads to this addictive series, that mixes (like "Glee"), musical numbers into a soap operatic narrative. By this point in the story, Ivy has triumphed as Marilyn in the show’s workshop production, but now that the show is headed to Broadway, has been relegated to the chorus. That she’s dating the show’s director/choreographer only complicates an already thorny situation.
With only three episodes left in the show’s first season, Hilty shared some scoop about the upcoming song, dance and drama. Music-wise, there’s a song coming up with both Hilty and co-star McPhee.
"It’s fantastic, and we had so much fun doing it," Hilty said. "We actually learned that in about an hour. It was fast and furious."
In recent episodes, Ivy has been nice to Karen (McPhee), the upstart ensemble star who poses the most threat to the old guard. It started out as an act, but with Duvall (Uma Thurman) horning in on the lead role of Marilyn Monroe, Ivy has actually made a genuine alliance with Karen.
As true drama goes, Hilty says that friendship may be short-lived. "Would it be a good show if it maintained the same? I mean, I think part of the beauty of the show is that they are constantly going back and forth, and it’s not just one note all the time."
A backstage romance between Ivy and director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport) has also proven complicated. Did Ivy only get the role in the first place because she slept with him? Things only get worse by the end of the season, and Duvall could have a lot to do with that.
"Like everything else in her life, [their relationship] is not in a good place," Hilty said. "And with these threats, these new threats, even the movie star, she threatens more than just her job. She threatens everything, her personal life too, so there’s a lot that Ivy’s going to have to deal with in the coming episodes."
Most rewarding job
Fortunately, "Smash" has been renewed for a second season, so Hilty will be back in the fall to continue Ivy’s story. We’ll just have to wait all summer to find out what happens after the inevitable cliffhanger.
"It doesn’t end on a cliff hanger," she teased. "It ends on many cliff hangers. Like every single character has a thrilling moment in the finale. I can’t wait to find out what happens to all of the characters."
Broadway stardom can be contained to New York City. National television has brought Hilty to a new level of fame. Even if people don’t watch the show, she is on billboards all over major cities.
"I keep saying it’s 15 dreams coming true at the same time," she said. "It’s everything I ever wanted in one job. I get to represent my community essentially on television. I get to sing. I get to dance. I get to play this amazing character and posters in Times Square. It’s crazy, but it’s been the most wonderful and most rewarding job I’ve ever had. I actually went home to Seattle last weekend and people recognized me, people that I didn’t know, like in Starbucks and stuff. It’s great."
"Smash" is the most in depth look at Broadway to ever be attempted on television. Hilty validated the authenticity of the show’s details. "There are slight things that I’ll see in the script and I’ll say, ’Well, we wouldn’t really say it like this. We wouldn’t stand like this formation’ and stuff and they’re very receptive to those details."
Ivy: driven to be a star
As a character, Ivy is completely defined by her fame. Her insecurity isn’t even subtle as she clings to the recognition she gets from stardom.
"I have empathy for her certainly because I think we all have moments where we wrap our identity up in what we do. In our profession it’s really hard to separate the two. So I actually empathize with her on that."
When the Marilyn musical "Bombshell" was on hold, Ivy returned to a chorus role in the show she had before the workshop. She showed her contempt by going onstage drunk and stumbling into the other dancers. While not that extreme or malicious, Hilty has had some real life mishaps of her own.
"Oh, there are mishaps all the time and I’ve caused many of them. Granted I wasn’t intoxicated but they happen all the time. That’s kind of why you love live theater. You go because that’s the only time you’ll ever experience that show. You can’t recreate it. Mishaps always happen and you want to be a part of it and see how they get out of it. I was in ’Wicked’ for almost five years and it was kind of interesting because the longer I was in it, the less I remembered of it. So I would forget entire scenes. Oh my God, it was the craziest thing. Oops."
On "Smash," Hilty has gotten to sing the best song so far. "Let’s Be Bad" is an ode to Marilyn’s films and her tragic reality. You can download the song on iTunes. Hilty is modest about it though.
"I was very grateful. [McPhee’s] Bollywood number is unbelievable (aired in a recent episode). It’s epic. So just you wait, but I was very grateful for that song."
During her two-month hiatus from "Smash," Hilty hopes to find time to record an album herself. "We’re going to do it pretty quickly because I’m going to try and get most of it done before we start shooting in July. I think a lot of it is actually going to be new material. We’re not quite sure what the sound is going to be yet but it’s going to have very few covers and mostly original stuff."
They won’t be songs written by Hilty, but she has some aesthetic ideas for the songwriters. "I interpret, I don’t create. I would like to do kind of an old school pop kind of sound like Amy Winehouse, Adele kind of thing. So we’ll see if I can make that happen."
Playing Lorelei Lee
Another hiatus project will be in an Encores production of "Gentleman Prefer Blondes" in a role, Lorelei Lee, immortalized by Marilyn Monroe in the musical’s film version.
"I’m going to do a stage production of ’Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ because I can’t stay away from things that have been touched by Marilyn. It’s in New York through Encores in City Center in May. It’s very short. It’s only six performances in the second week of May because it’s a glorified reading. They want to see if they want to bring back these old musicals which is why it’s called Encores, so hopefully if we do a good job, somebody’ll bring it back to Broadway."
Now Hilty can be a role model to aspiring theater stars. Not that it was easy, but in the face of pressure to "fall back" on something or choose a practical living, she showed that hard work can pay off.
"Listen, everybody has a very different path on how they get into this business. Ultimately you have to ask yourself why you want to be in this business and then everything else will fall into place. I actually took two years off between high school and college to see if this was what I really wanted to do and I did community theater and every odd job you could possibly imagine to support myself while I was doing it. That was what my two years was about. It was about really digging down deep to see if I really wanted to commit myself to four years of training and that much money to go into debt with student loans. I realized that this is really what I wanted to do and there was no backup plan. I just knew that I wanted to be in the arts somehow and that it was going to happen."
During the "Karen" stage of her career, Hilty worked part time day jobs to support herself. "I was hostess, a server, every retail, dog walker, pet sitter, everything. I was terrible. I was actually a really good hostess. I take that back. Yeah, I was pretty great. I’m really good with dogs [but] I can’t do multiples."
"Smash" airs Monday nights at 10pm on NBC.
Watch Megan Hilty sing "Let Me Be Your Star" from "Smash" (from LIVE @ New Year’s Eve with Carson Daly)