Megan Hilty Couldn’t Be Happier (or More Busy)
It is a rare actor that can graduate from college, and within a few short months, find themselves on Broadway, cast in a lead role in the biggest blockbuster musical in town opposite Tony Award-winning actors. But that is indeed what happened to Megan Hilty, who was cast as standby for G(a)linda in the Broadway production of "Wicked" opposite Idina Menzel less than three months after graduating from Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama, in 2004.
Thus began a tight relationship between Hilty and "Wicked," who had performed the show on Broadway, on tour, and in the Los Angles sit-down production on-and-off for four and a half years. This was between other gigs, including the workshop of the Broadway musical "9 to 5." After her final performance in "Wicked," in 2009, she returned to "9 to 5," this time to open on Broadway as Doralee Rhodes, the Dolly Parton role, opposite Emmy Award-winning "West Wing" star Allison Janney, and fellow "Wicked" alum, Stephanie J. Block. Not bad for a young lady from Bellevue, Washington, who craved music as a child because her mother wouldn’t sing to her.
But we all know Hilty best from her breakout role as the sometimes scheming but more recently earnest Broadway actress Ivy Lynn, on the television musical-drama series "Smash," again in stellar company with Broadway veterans Christian Borle ("Spamalot," "Legally Blonde"), Brian D’Arcy James ("Titanic"), and Bernadette Peters as her mother, as well as such television and film veterans as Deborah Messing and Anjelica Huston. Critics and audiences have waxed scornful at the show’s often preposterous writing, and implausible plot points, but have universally praised Hilty’s genuine high wattage screen presence and dynamic vocals, no more evident than when she belts out the Grammy Award-winning song "Let Me Be Your Star," from the fictitious "Bombshell," a Marilyn Monroe bio-musical, which rests at the center of the television series’ action.
Life imitating art
Hilty’s "Smash" character Ivy Lynn, spent the entire first season vying for the lead role of Marilyn against the inexperienced but sweet-voiced Karen Cartwright, played by American Idol runner up Katherine McPhee. Lynn loses the role to Cartwright at the end of Season One, only to win it back in the currently airing Season Two, just prior to the Broadway opening, and becomes the toast of the town.
In a clear case of life imitating art. Hilty has become the toast of both coasts, performing her cabaret show, "Megan Sings the Blondes," at San Francisco’s Rrazz Room in 2011, while performing last year in the Encores! Production of "Gentleman Prefer Blondes," in the lead role of Lorelei Lee, created on Broadway by Carol Channing, but immortalized on film by Marilyn Monroe. Critics have haled Hilty’s performance as surpassing those of Channing and Monroe.
In fact, Theatermania declared, "If Hilty wasn’t already a star (now courtesy of TV’s "Smash"), her singular take on Lorelei -- a blend of calculatedly exaggerated comic line readings and powerhouse vocals --would make her one. Now, she’s a supernova." Hilty will shine her light on the Boston boards this coming week, appearing with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall on May 23-24.
Hilty graciously spoke with EDGE about her recently released CD, some ’Wicked’ moments, close encounters with Dolly Parton, and her appearance with the Pops. And the bubbly personality you see on ’Smash’ isn’t a put on. In fact, like champagne, it would take high pressure to contain her irrepressible exuberance.
EDGE: Who has been the most valuable mentor or influence on your singing/performing career and why?
Megan Hilty: Oh man, like a personal mentor? There are so many. The most cliché answer, is my mom. She’s always to pushed me to think outside the box, and not try to fit in. I try to apply this to my career as well.
EDGE: Your ’9-5’ experience on B’way playing the Dolly Parton roll went from terrifying to something you will always cherish, thanks to Dolly Parton’s genuine support. What was that first meeting with Dolly Parton like, and when did you breathe that sigh of relief?
Megan Hilty: Well, like you said it was terrifying. I must have changed my clothes 15 times that morning before meeting her. I had no idea what I would say to her. Heck, she’s a living legend; she doesn’t have to be nice. But the instant you meet her, she just puts you at ease. She has a way of making you feel extremely important, and ironically she is one of the most real people I’ve ever met.
EDGE: Was there anything you learned from working with Dolly Parton that you apply to your current work?
Megan Hilty: Yeah. I came up with this little thing: ’What would Dolly do?’ I kept seeing her handle such tough situations with grace, dignity and respect, while getting her business done. She’s the best example.
Her new CD
EDGE: Your recently released solo CD, ’It Happens All The Time,’ is a departure from the Broadway genre we are familiar with from ’Smash’ and your musical theatre career? Are these songs a reflection of another side of you?
Megan Hilty: It started out all cover songs from the movies, my favorite soundtracks, but Columbia started sending me demos of original songs, and we tried them out and abandoned the original concept. Lyrics are very important to me, coming from a theatre background, so I totally fell for all of the songs, because I felt the connections to the lyrics. They are universal. Who can’t relate to a break-up song?
EDGE: Will your Boston Pops show include songs from your CD?
Megan Hilty: No, I won’t be doing anything from my album, because the album is just a little more intimate, and playing with the pops is grander and I wanted to make use of that.
EDGE: You recently had your Carnegie Hall debut with the NYC Pops, singing the music of Frank Sinatra. What was that experience like, and will your Boston Pops show contain any of that material?
Megan Hilty: It was thrilling. I have dreamt about that night my whole life. It was a different show than what I will do in Boston. That show was more a Frank and Judy kind of deal. In Boston, I’ll be doing more songs from musical theatre and ’Smash,’ and other Broadway shows; some that I’ve done and others that I want to do.
EDGE: Will you work only with Pops musicians, or will you have any special accompanists or musical director with you?
Megan Hilty: I’m bringing my friend, Matt Eusson, who is from the Boston area. He’s an amazing singer, pianist, and songwriter.
EDGE: You were with ’Wicked’ for four and a half years, and you said you could do it for another ten because of the complete journey the character takes. What is the turning point for Glinda in the show, where she goes from self-absorbed to a more fully conscious being?
Megan Hilty: I would say it is the song ’[Thank Goodness/] I Couldn’t Be Happier.’ You see her change before your eyes. I guess you could argue it is earlier, but that is the main point. It’s my favorite song in the whole show. I feel like it’s perfectly written so you don’t have to do anything; it’s all in the music and the lyrics.
EDGE: Like Glinda, your character Ivy in ’Smash,’ goes from self absorbed, ambitious, and devious to a more worldly, confident, and caring person, though still fiercely determined. The writers and you have created a more sympathetic Ivy in Season Two. What accounts for that?
Megan Hilty: She has this humanity in Season Two that was desperately needed. She’s a little more relatable and more human. It was something that we talked about in between seasons.
EDGE: Will ’Bombshell’ open on Broadway?
Megan Hilty: It already did (laughs)! Oh you mean outside the show? It would take a whole lot of work, but I would love to see it happen, and I would absolutely audition for it!
Megan Hilty will appear with the Boston Pops Orchestra on May 23-24, 8PM at Symphony Hall, 301 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston, MA. Tickets: $22-$92. For tickets, call 888.266.1200 or visit http://www.bso.org/Performance/Detail/49313/.
Watch Megan Hilty sing "Don’t Forget Me" from "Smash":
Watch Megan Hilty sing "Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend" from the Encores production of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes":
Watch Audra McDonald, Kelli O’Hara and Megan Hilty sing "At the Ballet" from "A Chorus Line":