By Andrew Gans
24 Apr 2009
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!"
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].
|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.
|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.