DIVA TALK: Catching Up With "Smash" and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes Star Megan Hilty

By Andrew Gans
May 4, 2012

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.



Megan Hilty
It's been an especially exciting year for singing actress Megan Hilty, the Wicked and 9 to 5 star who landed one of the lead roles in NBC's new musical series "Smash," which airs Monday nights and was recently renewed for a second season. In the hour-long drama, which was created by playwright Theresa Rebeck and features new songs by Tony winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, Hilty plays Broadway performer Ivy Lynn, a triple threat who, after several years of ensemble work, is finally given a chance to play the leading role in the workshop of a new musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. Through many twists and turns, Lynn eventually loses the role, but don't count this determined character out just yet.

Hilty also recently signed a record deal with Masterworks, a subsidiary of Columbia Records, and she will soon star in the City Center Encores! production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, playing Lorelei Lee, the diamond-loving blonde made famous by Carol Channing. Directed by John Rando with music direction by Rob Berman and choreography by Randy Skinner, performances are scheduled for May 9-13 at the Manhattan venue. Last week I had the chance to chat with the busy actress, who spoke with refreshing candor about her many projects; that brief interview follows.

Hilty on "Smash."
photo by Will Hart/NBC

Question: How did you originally get involved with "Smash"? What was the audition process like?
Hilty: Well, I auditioned like everybody else, but I was in L.A. They were casting out of New York, [but] the script stuck out like a sore thumb because it was about my world, essentially. And, I immediately wanted to be a part of it, but then I saw in the character description that Ivy Lynn was a dancer — not just a dancer, but part of the ensemble for like ten years, which means she was a dancer — which I am not! [Laughs.] I called my manager and was like, "I think we should probably pass on this" just to save myself from humiliation in the dance calls. She was like, "Just put yourself on tape and we'll see what happens." Luckily, they hired a choreographer, Josh Bergasse, who is incredible. He's the biggest star out of anybody in this show, and he makes it look like I know what I'm doing. [Laughs.] Thank God for Josh Bergasse!

Question: How long was the audition process?
Hilty: I probably found out within a week.

Question: Oh, wow, fast…
Hilty: Yeah, it was very, very quick.

Question: Did you have any idea that it was going to be as successful as it is when you first read the script?
Hilty: You can never imagine if people are going to like it or how it's going to turn out, but all I really know is that when we were doing it, it felt like we were doing something special.

Question: In what way has your life changed since you have been on the show?
Hilty: Well, a lot more people like to talk to me on the streets! [Laughs.] … Which is great. I love it. I love that people feel like they can come right up to me and tell me exactly what they think about the show and the character, and they get so into it. And, I love talking about the show with people. It means that they're invested in the show and the characters. It means that they're watching, so I love it. [Laughs.]

Hilty and Bernadette Peters on "Smash."
Photo by Eric Liebowitz/NBC

Question: One of my favorite episodes was the one where Bernadette Peters played your mom. What was it like working with Bernadette?
Hilty: Unbelievable, because she's been my idol my whole life and really is one of the main reasons why I wanted to go into musical theatre in the first place. This goes deep for me — she is the only person that I've ever written a fan letter to. So when I heard that she was not only going to be in the show, but she was playing my mother and we were going to have scenes together — like very intimate scenes together — I was such an idiot around her on set. And, I still kind of am. [Laughs.] I haven't really gotten over it, but that's okay. I think that kind of works for their relationship.

Question: What was it like for you playing the first scene with her? Do you remember what you were thinking or did it seem out-of-body in a way?
Hilty: Well, slightly out-of-body, but I was able to get it together a little bit and just play the scene with her. I tried to brace myself the night before. I was like, "Don't let this get in the way. Don't be too in awe. Just remember that this is a scene partner. Try to forget…" And, I try to do that with everybody. I mean, there's Anjelica Huston, who I'm doing scenes with, and Debra Messing and Jack Davenport and Katharine McPhee, so I've had to kind of turn that off and just say, "Look, you're just doing a scene with a scene partner. Don't worry about the things that they bring with them or the things that they've done before because that will just get in the way. Just play the scene with them, and then you can act like an idiot afterwards." [Laughs.]

Hilty on "Smash."
photo by Patrick Harbron/NBC

Question: What would you say has been the most surreal moment on the series in terms of art imitating life since you come from the theatre world?
Hilty: You know, I think it was the moment that Christian [Borle]'s character, Tom, comes to me and says, "We love you. You're perfect. But we just need a star." We've all heard it. Everybody in this business has heard it. And, it's just a reality. It's not something that I judge or anything anymore. Before I used to be like, "Oh, man!" [Laughs.] This is a delicate subject, so I'm trying to tread lightly — because it is a sore spot for people. People work their hearts out in these workshops and readings and, ultimately, what sells tickets sometimes is a star — a recognizable name. I'm not saying that they're not right for the part, but it is a sore spot for people who go into these creative processes and pour their hearts out into these characters and then [are told], "Sorry, but… In certain people's eyes, you're not a star." [Laughs.] "You're not going to sell this show" — it's hard to hear, but it's a reality.

Question: How do you view Ivy? I think people have different takes on her. How do you perceive her?
Hilty: Well, I obviously can't judge her, especially negatively, because I have to play her, so I have to love her — which I do. I think she's fantastic, and I think she's one of the greatest, well-written [roles]. There is so much to do with this character because she's a human being. She has flaws — deep, deep flaws — like all of us do. And, yeah she makes some bad decisions, and she might react to some situations terribly, but she shows remorse. She's also a really good friend, and tries to be a good partner. And, she loves her job. There are really great parts about her, but there's some parts that she needs to work on, but that's what makes her human and a totally dynamic character to play.

Question: I think that she's a lot of fun to watch.
Hilty: Well, you never know what she's going to do! [Laughs.]

Hilty with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes co-star Rachel York
Photo by Joan Marcus

Question: Getting to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, how did the Encores! role come about?
Hilty: Well, gosh… I think it was a couple of months ago, and my manager called and said, "Hey, do you want to do your favorite musical?" [Laughs.] I've never done the musical before, but I've always loved the film, and I've been a huge fan of the music forever. I used to have a cabaret — I still kind of do — it's called Megan Hilty Sings the Blondes, and I have a big medley from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. [Laughs.] I've been a fan of the music for a long time.

Question: What's it like now getting to actually play the role in the show that the songs are from?
Hilty: I'm in my third day of rehearsal, and I'm having the time of my life. John Rando is a genius, and I feel like we're having so much fun putting this play on. And, the whole cast is so fun. All the voices are amazing, and everybody is hilarious. I think it's going to be a really good show.

Question: Tell me a little bit more about working with Rando.
Hilty: Well, this is my first time working with him, and I've always been a fan of his work — I mean, who isn't a fan of Urinetown? I had a meeting with him about a month ago, and I think he's the greatest guy, and he's so smart. He really knows how to talk to actors and keep it really light and fun in the rehearsal room. I feel like we make so much progress in such little time, which is really great for us because we only have a week-and-a-half to put this on. He's just a lot of fun blended with a lot of brains.

Question: How would you describe the character?
Hilty: She is a lady who knows what she wants and knows exactly how to get it. [Laughs.] She is no dummy, even though outwardly people might assume that. She is someone who has been hurt by men before, and so she has this philosophy on life, and that is to use men to get the things that you really need — financial stability — so that you can depend on yourself. [Laughs.] She's a very, very strong independent woman with very strong ideas on life.

Question: Do you have a favorite moment yet for her or is it too early in the rehearsal process?
Hilty: Oh, it's so early. [Laughs.] We just worked on "Little Girl From Little Rock," and that was really fun. It has like 15 encores. It's hilarious. It's so old-school. We end the song, and you think it's over, and then I'll come running back on stage and keep singing. We do that over and over again. It's hilarious. [Laughs.]

Hilty in 9 to 5.
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: You're also working on a CD. What type of music will that be?
Hilty: Well, at first I thought it was going to be maybe musical-theatre covers with new arrangements or at least cover songs in general. But it turns out that we're going to do a lot of original music — not anything that I write. I am not a writer. But they've come up with some really great writers, and nothing's set in stone yet, so I don't want to say who they are just in case… But it's going to be a lot of original stuff, and I'm really excited because this is the first project that I've ever worked on that isn't character-driven. I've always had to mold my voice to whatever character I'm doing, and this is just me, so we're going to get in the studio in the next couple of weeks and figure out what that sound is.

Question: Where would you like to see your career go — now that you're on TV, but you also do theatre? What are your goals?
Hilty: My goal is to keep working. [Laughs.] Whether it's onstage or on TV or in voiceover or recording. I do not do well with downtime. And, I am a lot like Ivy Lynn in that I am extremely ambitious. I won't really go as far as she does to make those things happen… [Laughs.] But I want to do everything, and I don't think that's too high of a goal.

Question: What is your ultimate dream? Is it winning a Tony or an Emmy or an Oscar or all of them?
Hilty: None of them. [Laughs.] I mean, don't get me wrong, I would be extremely grateful if ever I were to be nominated or actually win anything — that would be a great honor, but that's not the goal. The goal is to do the best that I can do and keep growing. That sounds really, really cliché and pretentious, but it's true. I've been through award seasons, and that used to be the goal for me. And, realizing that that's not why I do this… [Laughs.] I do it for so many other reasons. And, to do it for a reward, while I would be honored, that's not where my heart is.

Question: When do you begin filming the second season of "Smash"?
Hilty: I think we're back at mid-July. That's the rumor I'm hearing.

Question: Do you know if there will be any changes in the cast?
Hilty: I have no idea. I don't even know what's going to happen to these characters! [Laughs.] Hopefully, I'll be back. But if not, I guess I'll do one of these other things. [Laughs.]

[City Center is located on 55th Street, between 6th and 7th avenues. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased at the New York City Center Box Office (West 55th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues), through CityTix at (212) 581-1212 or online at www.NYCityCenter.org.]

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