Megan Hilty’s career has sort of been the opposite of a Cinderella story: She’s constantly fitting herself into another diva’s shoes.
Equal parts girl-next-door sweet and lock-up-your-husbands seductive, the actress and singer got her big break in 2005 playing the future Good Witch of the North in Broadway’s “Wicked,” taking over the role created by the preternaturally perky Kristen Chenoweth. Next came “9 to 5: The Musical,” starring as sexually harassed secretary Doralee Rhodes, a character made famous on the big screen by Dolly Parton three decades before.
Then Hilty landed NBC’s Broadway-themed prime-time soap “Smash,” in which her character, Ivy Lynn, engages in a tooth-and-fake-nail cat fight to land the role of Marilyn Monroe in a fictional musical dubbed “Bombshell.”
On Saturday, Feb. 8, Hilty will take the stage with the Phoenix Symphony to sing a mix of standards and songs from her career on stage and screen, as well as from her 2013 CD “It Happens All the Time.” Selections will include the Sinatra hits “Luck Be a Lady” and “The Best Is Yet to Come” and Monroe’s signature “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”
Although “Smash” got mixed reviews and was canceled last year after two seasons, it earned a cult following and was packed with juicy roles for a who’s who of stars from both Hollywood and Broadway — including Anjelica Huston, Uma Thurman, Jennifer Hudson and Christian Borle (a 2012 Tony Award winner for “Peter and the Starcatcher”). The show even spawned an original cast recording for a Broadway show that didn’t exist.
It was a huge career boost for Hilty, who currently stars on the NBC sitcom “Sean Saves the World.” She spoke with The Republic by phone about her career path from understudy to star.
Question: Is there a thread to the material you’ve chosen? How did you pick what you wanted to sing?
Answer: For this show, not really. They’re just songs that I really love. I do a combination of “Autumn Leaves” and “When October Goes” that’s probably my favorite out of all of them. There are some that I don’t want to give away. (But) I am doing “They Just Keep Moving the Line” and “Secondhand White Baby Grand” from “Smash.”
Q: “Smash” had such a great cast. Who was your favorite scene partner on the show?
A: Lucky for me, I got to do a lot of stuff with Jack Davenport (as skirt-chasing director Derek Wills), and he’s incredible. He’s the nicest person on the planet, and he’s done everything, so he’s got stories about everything. And Kat McPhee (the “American Idol” alum who played chorus-girl rival Karen Cartwright) has turned into one of my best friends on the planet.
Q: So many Broadway veterans were on the show as well, including one of Phoenix’s hometown heroes, Kathy Fitzgerald, who played your character’s co-star in “Liaisons the Musical.”
A: It’s really great that NBC did that, that they took a chance. They could have just hired a bunch of pretty faces from LA, but they really employed most of the Broadway community, which was awesome.
Q: The show-within-a-show aspect was a lot of the fun of the series. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman basically wrote two Broadway musicals’ worth of songs. How real was “Bombshell” to the cast of “Smash”?
A: It’s funny, everybody keeps expecting for there to be a “Bombshell” show on Broadway, and it’s like, well, there’s no book, and I’d love to meet the woman who can sing all of those songs once a week, let along eight times a week, because they’re all just incredible show-stopping numbers. So I don’t know.
It was my favorite part of filming that series, because it was like summer stock. It was really fast and really furious. Sometimes they would hand us the music, we would go record it that night, in the morning we’d have to listen to the recording a bunch of times to hear how they ended up mixing it, and then the choreography would come really, really quick. And instead of having a bunch of time like we do in theater to properly do the (technical) rehearsals, that happened in about 30 minutes before we started shooting these huge, epic numbers. So it was thrilling, actually, to get to do all those “Bombshell” numbers, seriously Broadway-quality numbers, with no time.
Q: What was your favorite set piece?
A: I think my favorite was “Let’s Be Bad.” There were so many levels to it. I mean, I was playing Ivy, who was playing Marilyn Monroe, who was playing Sugar in “Some Like It Hot” and having a meltdown in the middle of it. So it was epic. It took a whole day to shoot, and we could have kept going all night, it was just so much fun.
Q: “Wicked” launched your career. What was it like stepping up into a role created by another actress?
A: It was terrifying. I had just graduated from college, and it was nine months after they opened that I joined the company, so it had just become this huge monster hit. I came in as the standby for Jennifer Laura Thompson, who took over for Kristen, and then I ended up taking over for her and spending 41/2 years with the company, doing different productions. The worst thing about “Wicked” is that you are always being compared to someone else. And unfortunately, the two people that had done it before me are comedic geniuses.
Q: Then you got to originate a role in “9 to 5.”
A: I mean, kind of. I’d done all the workshops leading up to it. Altogether it’s been over three years with the project. And the very first one, I was terrified because Dolly Parton was going to be in the room. Since she wrote the music, she was going to be a huge part of the developmental process, naturally. So to play that role in front of her was nerve-racking, to say the least. But there’s something about her. When you meet her, she has this way where she just puts you at ease. She’s so down-to-earth and so supportive, and so genuinely lovely that all those feelings quickly went away.
Q: How did you make that character your own?
A: That’s pretty much been my whole career, doing roles that other people have made famous. It’s a really great and unique challenge to take something on that has already not just been made famous but iconic. “Wicked” was really good training for that, because I had to figure out a way to pay homage to what was set before me, but there was no way that I could try to duplicate it. In doing that, I’m doing somebody else’s performance, and that won’t make it honest, so nobody will laugh, nobody will cry. So it was all about finding a balance.
Q: You married your longtime boyfriend, Brian Gallagher, in November and announced your marriage via Twitter. Tell us about your Vegas wedding.
A: It was great. We planned it in nine days. I mean, we’d been talking about getting married for a long time, but we just decided that we were more concerned about actually being married instead of paying attention to getting married. So we decided, let’s go to Vegas and reach out to our closest family, really just our parents and our siblings, and they all pretty much ended making it except for one of Brian’s brothers, who had just had a baby. But they FaceTimed in, so it was like they were there.
It was the easiest thing I’ve ever done and the thing I’m most proud of. And our reception was a PJ party in our suite at the Venetian. We took everybody’s room-service orders, and while we getting married downstairs, they were setting up everybody’s food and the cake and everything, and then everybody got in their PJs, and we went up and ate and had cake and said our vows and had champagne and stuff. It was great.
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