DIVA TALK: Chatting with 9 to 5's Megan Hilty Plus Kander/Ebb Memories, Guys and Dolls Gals

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting with 9 to 5's Megan Hilty Plus Kander/Ebb Memories, Guys and Dolls Gals News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
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MEGAN HILTY
It's been some week for singer-actress Megan Hilty, who is currently starring in the new musical 9 to 5 — based on the 1980 film of the same name — at the Marriott Marquis Theatre. On Monday Hilty was nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award in the Best Actress in a Musical category for her performance as Doralee in the Dolly Parton-scored musical, which officially opens on Broadway April 30. And, on Tuesday Hilty was one of the many actors nominated for the Drama League's Distinguished Performance Award, which was won last season by Tony Award winner Patti LuPone. Earlier this week I had a chance to chat with the delightful artist, who compared the demands of playing a role created onstage by Kristin Chenoweth (Glinda in Wicked ) with stepping into a role created on screen by the legendary Parton (Doralee in 9 to 5); that interview follows.

Question: Congratulations on your Outer Critics Circle nomination yesterday.
Megan Hilty: Thank you! How wacky is that? [Laughs.]

Question: Were you excited?
Hilty: Yeah. I was so busy yesterday I forgot that it was happening, I'm so embarrassed to admit. My boyfriend is going out of town for a job, so I was at the train station, and my phone was blowing up, and I was [thinking], "Why is everyone trying to bother me right now?" [Laughs.] I was like, "Oh, I guess that's a really good reason!"

Question: How did this role in 9 to 5 originally come about for you?
Hilty: Well, I've worked with Joe [Mantello] before in the only other Broadway show I've ever done, which is Wicked. I was doing the national tour of Wicked. I was up in Toronto and got a phone call about doing one of the workshops several years ago. It was so funny because my boyfriend, literally the night before, [asked], "You know they're doing 9 to 5, right?" I said, "Yeah, I'd heard," and he said, "Why aren't you going in for Doralee?" The very next morning, I got a phone call saying that Joe was asking me to do a workshop of the show. This was several years ago, so I've done a couple of readings and a workshop after that. I guess I haven't made anybody mad in the meantime because I'm still here. [Laughs.]

Question: Had you been a fan of the movie?
Hilty: Absolutely. It was made a little bit before I was born, but it's such a classic. It's like a cult classic almost, so, of course, I've always been a fan of the film and of all three performances. Who knew? Who ever would have thought that I'd be playing this character? [Laughs.] Question: What has it been like working with Dolly Parton?
Hilty: It's really been surreal. She's a living legend and an icon. When I first got the job I was so excited, and then I kind of had a panic attack because I knew Dolly would be in the room. And, how do you perform someone else's role in front of them day after day? Especially someone as hugely famous as she is. The minute I met her, all of those feelings went out the door. She is one of the most genuinely kind people I've ever met, and she's been my biggest supporter from day one. I think the reason why it's been such a great experience is because she set that tone.

Question: Since you are playing the role that she created, did she give you any advice about the character?
Hilty: She didn't, and she wouldn't either. [Laughs.] I was kind of embarrassed because I was doing some interviews in Los Angeles, and they asked, "What advice has Dolly given you?" and I was like, "I'm really embarrassed to say that I haven't asked!" So I finally went and asked her, and she [said], "Honey, you're doin' fine. It don't matter what I say!" I guess that's the answer I would have gotten from the beginning. She's been really, really supportive of me doing, I guess, whatever I want with [the role].

Megan Hilty as Doralee
photo by Justin Stephens

Question: She's changed a lot of songs throughout the process, right?
Hilty: Yes, and they're all amazing, even the ones that they cut. [Dolly] has this famous line about all of her songs being like her children. Some of them are prettier than others, some of them are more successful than others, but she loves them all the same. And, it's true! They're all really great songs, but for serving the purposes of the plot and furthering the show, I think they made the right decisions in the changes they made along the way. Question: Has much changed since the out-of-town tryout at the Ahmanson in L.A. last fall?
Hilty: Oh yeah. It's funny because when we were in Los Angeles, [the show] wasn't bad, but after we came back from our break and we saw all the changes, it was like, "Oh, okay this makes sense." It flows better, and the sequence just makes more sense.

Question: How are Broadway audiences reacting so far?
Hilty: It's awesome! I had no idea… I mean, I've never gone through a process like this before. I've just stepped into somebody else's shoes, and I guess technically I still am. But I've never done an out-of-town and brought it to New York, and I was kind of nervous. Who knows how audiences are going to react? But people have been receiving it really well here. The audiences seem to be having just as much fun as we are, and that's a lot of fun! We go to work and just have fun for a couple of hours. So I'm hoping and I'm thinking that the audiences are having as much fun as we are.

Question: Tell me about working with Joe Mantello as a director.
Hilty: He's an actor's dream. I always look forward to our note sessions. Since he was such a great actor before he moved into directing, I think that really helps in how he communicates with actors. He just knows how to talk to us. Whenever he sheds light on a scene, it's like, "Oh, of course that makes sense!" It doesn't take a lot of tooth-pulling or anything to get these scenes to where he needs them to be, because he knows how to communicate so well.

Question: How would you describe Doralee?
Hilty: She is the "uber-feminine"… is that even a word? [Laughs.] She is all woman and she celebrates that in a time and a place where that isn't [championed]. I think that's kind of why she's an outcast in the beginning — because she celebrates being a woman and all that comes along with that. But she also doesn't apologize for it, which I so admire in her and in Dolly. It's kind of hard because Doralee was based off of Dolly Parton, so it's a balancing act trying to pay homage to Dolly, who has made this role so iconic — paying homage to that performance and also bringing my own stuff to it so that it's real and it's not just an imitation of somebody else's performance.

Megan Hilty in 9 to 5
photo by Craig Schwartz

Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for Doralee?
Hilty: I have several! [Laughs.] I love the pot-smoking scene, just because it's just so much fun. I love performing with Allison [Janney] and Stephanie [J. Block]. Those two women are these powerhouse performers. I think that scene embodies how much fun we really have together. It's kind of silly. Again, I'm new at all this. You always hear about how women working together will catfight. I have never experienced that, and I feel like I am so lucky to be grouped with such powerful and amazingly strong women. They're so talented, too. And I think that scene, for me, shows it all. We have it throughout the show, but that's where we all get to let loose and have fun, so that's my first favorite. And then my second favorite is when I get to tell off Mr. Hart. There's that famous line [about] changing him from a rooster to a hen! [Laughs.] So that's my second favorite. Question: Do you think the show has a message?
Hilty: Absolutely. A lot of people come thinking that it's a feminist show, and to a point it is. It is about empowering women, but it's also empowering people who feel like they've been treated unjustly. It's not just women. I think there's a line in the show that embodies exactly what this show is: "People need to be treated with a little dignity and a little respect." That's it. I think the show says that and empowers everybody in the audience. I keep getting calls from people who have seen the show, saying, "I just wake up the next morning and feel so good after seeing the show." And that's so powerful, especially now when our country and our economy are in such a crisis. It's so important to have those things where you can go and have fun for a couple of hours and remember to treat people with respect.

Question: Since we haven't spoken before, I wanted to go back a bit in time. Where were you born and raised?
Hilty: I'm from Seattle, Washington.

Question: When did you start performing?
Hilty: I was very young. I was always singing. I wanted to be Whitney Houston at first, and when I started taking voice lessons, my voice teacher kind of geared me more towards opera. Then I wanted to be an opera singer, and then I found out that I wouldn't work until I was in my 30s at least, so I started doing musical theatre and that was just more fun. [Laughs.] Hopefully I'll get to do opera at some point in my life. It was kind of a snowball effect. I did all kinds of youth theatre and community theatre and performing arts high school: One thing led to another, and here I am.

Question: At what point do you think you knew that performing would be your career?
Hilty: I really think it was something that I always wanted to do. I didn't know if I'd be successful as an actor, but I'd always be doing it. I had so much fun doing community theatre and all that stuff for free. If nothing else, I would have done that on the weekends. [Laughs.] But I think it was always the goal since I was little. It was the Jekyll & Hyde national tour. That was the first show that I saw. It came to Seattle, and I saw it and I said, "That's what I wanna do! I wanna do that!" So, thank you, Jekyll & Hyde!

Question: When did you get to New York?
Hilty: I got to New York the summer of 2004. It was Wicked. I auditioned for it while I was still in school, and then came to New York to be — this sounds so silly — in this Broadway show, Wicked. [Laughs.]

Question: That must have been pretty exciting to get cast while you were in school.
Hilty: That is the understatement of the year! It was, and it still is a dream come true. I thank my lucky stars every day because I know it doesn't normally happen that way… I thank my lucky stars, and I thank Joe Mantello. [Laughs.]

Question: What school were you in at the time?
Hilty: I was at Carnegie Mellon University.

Megan Hilty in Wicked
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: What was it like playing Glinda?
Hilty: Oh my goodness. It was horribly daunting because Kristin Chenoweth is such a genius and she set the bar so high. It instantly had this cult following, almost, where the audiences were packed with people who were expecting you to hit those places that she had set. So it was nerve-wracking, to say the least, but also one of the most fun jobs I've ever had in my life. I did the role for about four-and-a-half years, and I really think that I could do it for another ten because it's written so well. She becomes a completely different person by the end of the show so, as an actor, is gives you so much stuff to work with. That sounds a little pretentious, actor talk… but it is. It just makes it fun. Question: Do you have any favorite Wicked memories, any mishaps onstage?
Hilty: There were so many. [Laughs.] There was one — it's probably not appropriate to talk about, but I will anyway. In "Popular" . . . I was trying something new with the ball gown, trying to get her dress to change into a ball gown, and I did this plié in second [position] if you can picture that. I'm doing it for you in my living room. [Laughs.] I'm concentrating really hard on the wand, and as I'm going into this plié, I blow out of my mouth really hard, really focusing. But the problem is that I blew straight up into my mic, so you can imagine the sound that it made as I was doing this big plié in second. It was not the daintiest of sounds or movements. [Laughs.] I think you can understand what it looked and sounded like. And the audience went crazy, because obviously they thought I was farting. So what's a girl to do? I blamed it on [co-star] Eden Espinosa. [Laughs.] And then she started laughing! Those things happen all the time, and you have to just kind of go with it and figure out how to fix it. You can't ignore it.

Question: How would you say the demands of that role compare to Doralee?
Hilty: Well I have to say, as terrifying as it was to step into those shoes in Wicked… I don't know if you can compare them. I guess it prepared me for stepping into someone else's shoes who is a living legend and who already made this performance so incredibly iconic worldwide. It helps me understand that there are going to be expectations that I'm never going to meet. I'm never going to be exactly like Dolly Parton. I'm never going to be able to please everybody, but I think because of Wicked I understand that my best is okay.

Question: Do you have any other projects in the works or are you just focusing on 9 to 5 at the moment?
Hilty: It's kind of funny, but I have my own little coffee line. [Laughs.] It's always been a dream of mine to have — it seems so silly — a coffee and a little bookshop. I've always loved coffee, and I've always worked in little independent coffee houses. I was approached to have this little coffee and tea line, so I've been working with these roasters and figuring out what that whole world is about. Just kind of this side project that has always been a passion of mine. It's through Net Worth coffee brokers, networth.com.

[9 to 5: The Musical plays the Marriott Marquis, which is located at 1535 Broadway, between 45th and 46th Streets. For tickets visit Ticketmaster.com or call (212) 307-4100.]

Debra Monk

KANDER AND EBB REMEMBERED, PART I
Raúl Esparza, Terrence McNally, Debra Monk, David Hyde Pierce, Chita Rivera, Tom Wopat, Karen Ziemba and Liza Minnelli — artists who have been attached to musicals by songwriters John Kander and the late Fred Ebb — will appear in Come to the Cabaret: A Celebration of Kander and Ebb, a one-night Broadway concert to benefit The Acting Company. Directed by Tony Award winner John Doyle (Company, Sweeney Todd), with Mary-Mitchell Campbell (Company, The Addams Family) as music director, the May 4 evening will be held at Broadway's Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

To help celebrate the upcoming Kander and Ebb concert, it seemed appropriate to ask some of the evening's participants to recall memories about working with the famed songwriting duo. What follows is the first of a two-part series:

Debra Monk
"I fell in love with John Kander and Fred Ebb during Steel Pier. They have been my teachers, mentors, friends and my biggest fans. It has been unconditional love. They loved rehearsals, getting to know all the kids, telling stories, giving advice, and of course working on the show. They never stopped working. They certainly enjoyed their successes, but the real thrill for them, was creating something new. I miss Freddy so much — to be in the rehearsal room with him or be able to call and tell him a new dirty joke or hear one from him…and he would have loved Curtains, and I'm so sorry he didn't have that experience with us. Thank God John Kander is in my life. His brilliant talent, quiet wisdom, dirty twinkle in the eye and absolute love for the theatre continue to inspire me. Just saying 'Kander and Ebb' makes me smile, not only because I love them, because of all of the wonderful music they have given the world. I will never forget arriving in Venice, Italy, late one spring evening, and they were playing 'New York, New York' as the water taxi docked. John and Freddy have always been passionate about guiding and encouraging new talent, and so being honored by The Acting Company is perfect."

Terrence McNally
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Terrence McNally
"I did three shows with John and Fred. Each was wildly different from the others but all were equally challenging. They didn't make a librettist's life any easier by their choice of subject matter: an old woman hell-bent on revenge (The Visit ), Marxism, homosexuality and torture (Kiss of the Spider Woman) or an impossibly toxic mother/daughter relationship (The Rink ). What made collaborating on these 'difficult' shows so enjoyable was their joy in tackling the problems at hand and the consummate professionalism with which they solved them. As a tyro librettist, I was lucky to have such mentors. Just about everything I know about writing for the musical theatre I got from them. They are of the Grand Tradition and always will be. They were audacious innovators, too. Is there a more brilliant opening number than 'Willkommen' or a more chilling milieu than Cabaret's? Who knew a musical could take us there (and make us like it) before John and Fred? And with all apologies to Ol' Blue Eyes himself and Liza, too, no one, but no one, ever sang 'New York, New York' better than Fred Ebb in a white suit at Radio City Music Hall with John Kander on piano. It was definitive — just like their body of work is."

Chita Rivera

Chita Rivera
"John Kander and Fred Ebb. Where to begin. I am so lucky to have such great lifetime friends as John Kander and Fred Ebb, and even luckier to have had them write such wonderful roles for me. From Zorba to Chicago, The Rink, Spider Woman and The Visit. . .We are all so lucky to have their beautiful songs in our lives. I sometimes forget who they are and that they belong to the world until I do something like go to Yankee Stadium and hear 60,000 people singing 'New York, New York'! It blows me away, and I feel this little thing inside me say, 'Oh my God…John and Freddy wrote that, and they are my friends!' I would call them many times, and they would be working but would say to me, 'Hey Cheet…listen to this,' and proceed to play for me a brand-new song for the first time. They'd laugh because I cry at being so privileged. I miss Freddy terribly. John and Freddy have contributed their talent, dedication and love to the musical theatre, which will survive long after we've gone. In times to come, there will be productions of Cabaret, Chicago and all the others, as well as musak in outer space playing 'New York, New York.' The world is a better place with your music in it. We honor you, love you and keep you close to our hearts. Especially me." [Tickets for Come to the Cabaret are priced $100, $125 and $250 and are available through Telecharge.com or (212) 239-6200. Premium tickets at $500 (performance only) and $1,000 and up (performance plus Patrons Dinner with the cast), are available through The Acting Company at (212) 258-3111.]

Greene in "Pushing Daisies"
photo by ABC

GUYS AND DOLLS in CONCERT
How exciting that Little Shop of Horrors and "Pushing Daisies" star Ellen Greene will play the long-suffering Miss Adelaide in the Hollywood Bowl's summer production of Guys and Dolls in Concert, which will be directed by Richard Jay-Alexander, who also helmed last summer's acclaimed Les Misérables in Concert . With the exception of the role of Arvide Abernathy, the complete cast for the upcoming weekend of concerts was announced earlier this week. The starry company boasts Jessica Biel (as Sarah Brown), Scott Bakula (Nathan Detroit), Brian Stokes Mitchell (Sky Masterson), Ken Page (Nicely-Nicely Johnson), Ruth Williamson (General Matilda Cartwright), Herschel Sparber (Big Jule), Jason Graae (Benny Southstreet), Bill Lewis (Harry the Horse), Danny Stiles (Rusty Charlie), Amir Talai (Angie the Ox/Joey Biltmore), Jody Ashworth (Lt. Brannigan), Cindy Benson (Agatha) and Grace Wall (Martha).

The Hot Box Girls will be played by Sandahl Bergman, Valarie Pettiford, Jane Lanier, Kathryn Wright, Jillana Laufer and Tracy Powell. Male dancers include Oskar Rodriguez, Stefan Raulson, Angelo Rivera, Christopher L. Morgan, Chris Holly and John Todd, and the ensemble features David Raimo, Paul Dean, Daniel Guzman, Josh Christoff, Kyrra Richards, Nikki Tomlinson and Catherine Chiarelli.

I had the chance to chat with the always warm and delightful Greene about the Guys and Dolls concerts, which will thankfully bring the multi-talented artist back to the musical theatre stage after a much-too-long absence. About her casting in the eagerly awaited production, the singing actress explained, "I met [director] Richard [Jay-Alexander] through my dear, dear friend Greg Fauss, so to tell you about Richard, I need to tell you about my Greg. He wanted to become a lighting designer and had a love of costumes; in fact, he worked as a wardrober and in the costuming department on films and Broadway to make money. Years later, he went to work for Chita [Rivera] and Peter Allen. Anyway, I was putting together a show —portraits in song — for Brothers and Sisters and then Reno Sweeney, and I envisioned it lit by Clarence Sinclair Bull, Edward Steichen or George Hurrell. I wanted to create a composition of music, lights and costume as if being filmed for a movie. Greg helped me achieve that...We were both at the time, I believe, 20. I actually turned 21 onstage at Brothers and Sisters, but that's another story! And, it was at Reno's when Richard first entered my life. Greg brought Richard into my life, and I remember when Greg took me to see Richard perform his cabaret show with Bob Billig — my first friend in NYC — at, I believe, Don't Tell Mama. He was wonderful that night! We've also known each other through Cameron Mackintosh and have always wanted to work together. He came back into my life at a dinner with you, and we remembered how much we enjoyed each other. So, when Richard called me at 2 AM in the morning – yes, he did [laughs] — and asked me to go on stage again. . . . Well, Richard's enthusiasm for this project is so infectious, and his vision so keen, how could anyone say no to him? Not I! His joie de vive is just that palpable! So, of course, I said yes, for I love him and I trust him. I know he and [choreographer] Donna [McKechnie] — I am thrilled to be working with her! — will bring out the best in me. I will admit I am a bit frightened, but excited all the same. It has been a long while since I have appeared in a musical, but I am sure my sweet Greg is watching along with the rest of them up there, and they will be guiding me — along with Richard — and getting me through."

(l.-r.) Jay-Alexander, music director Kevin Stites and McKechnie

Tony winner Donna McKechnie, who will choreograph the production, added, "I am so excited about this production, especially the cast. We found wonderful dancers in L.A. and a dream come true with the casting of the Hot Box Girls — iconic showgirls all!" And, director Jay-Alexander summed things up this way: "Focusing for a moment on the 'Dolls' of Guys and Dolls this summer at The Hollywood Bowl, I would have to say it's been one happy surprise after another — Jessica Biel, The Hot Box Girls and the delicious Ellen Greene, who I've known since first moving to New York in 1975. Hard to believe, but true. And, I have to confess that I pinch myself when I sit talking about the show with Donna McKechnie or sit in auditions with her as the show's choreographer, because I still can't believe she said 'yes.' You should have seen the people auditioning in L.A. when they saw her at the table or when she was working with the dancers during the process. It was truly amazing! She has worked with all the 'greats' and is bringing so much to this production. I'm very excited and, so far, we've been having a blast!"

Show times at the Bowl will be July 31 and Aug. 1 at 8:30 PM and Aug. 2 at 7:30 PM.

The Hollywood Bowl is located at 2301 North Highland Avenue in Hollywood, CA. For tickets call (323) 850-2000. Visit www.hollywoodbowl.com for more information.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

(l.-r.) Sandahl Bergman, Donna McKechnie, Ellen Greene, Valarie Pettiford, Jane Lanier and Kathryn Wright
(l.-r.) Sandahl Bergman, Donna McKechnie, Ellen Greene, Valarie Pettiford, Jane Lanier and Kathryn Wright
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