Last fall, Zach booked musical theatre legend Bernadette Peters to bless the Topfer Theatre with its first performance. Now, for the launch of its new TOP Concerts series tonight, the theatre has recruited Peters' screen daughter on the TV series Smash and musical theatre legend in the making Megan Hilty to do the honors.
Fans of the NBC series, which looked behind the curtains at a fictitious musical about Marilyn Monroe being developed for Broadway, know Hilty as Ivy, one of the dueling divas after the starring role in Bombshell. But on the road to that breakthrough part, the Bellevue, Wash., native made notable stops in Oz – playing Glinda in Wicked on Broadway, on the national tour, and in Los Angeles – and Dollywood, or at least Dolly Parton's musical stage adaptation of 9 to 5, in which Hilty took on the role that Dolly played in the 1980 film. Hilty's performance was nominated for LA Ovation, Drama Desk, Drama League, and Outer Critics Circle awards. Last year, between the first and second seasons of Smash, she headlined an acclaimed revival of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in a limited run in the Encores! series, and in March, she released her first solo album, It Happens All the Time, produced by award-winning producer, mixer, and sound engineer Andy Zulla, who happens to live in Austin. In the month preceding tonight's two performances, Hilty appeared on the series finale of Smash and the Tony Awards telecast (joining Laura Bernanti, Andrew Rannells, and Neil Patrick Harris in a very funny number bemoaning Broadway stars who can't make it on TV), and was hired as a regular on Sean Saves the World, a new sitcom starring Will and Grace alum Sean Hayes. The day after getting that gig, she spoke with the Chronicle about her whirlwind career.
Austin Chronicle: Congratulations on the Tony number. That was very, very funny.
Megan Hilty: Oh, thank you. We had a great time.
AC: How were you approached about that?
MH: Um, I got a text from Neil saying, "Hey, do you want to do this thing?" My only request was that I didn't sound bitter or ungrateful, and he was like, "Okay. Done."
AC: Apparently, they gave all that material to Laura [Bernanti].
MH: Exactly. [Laughs] But she pulled it off and still made it fun, instead of – it could have gone the other way.
AC: You've spent some time in Austin before. You did some preparation for your album down here.
MH: Yeah. I love Austin. I spent a lot of time there last summer because the producer of my album lives there. I went down like three or four times for a good maybe five days each trip, and it was great. I love the food and the people and the music, and it's just beautiful. So I'm really, really excited to come back.
AC: Did you have a chance to visit the theatre where you'll be performing?
MH: No, I've never been there. I've just seen pictures online. My friends say it's beautiful, so I'm super excited.
AC: Were you aware that Bernadette Peters did a concert to open the theatre?
MH: No, I had no idea.
AC: So you have all these connections. You're meant to be here. That's the message we should take away from this.
MH: I choose to take that away from this, too. [Laughs] 'Cause I agree. I love it there, so when this opportunity came up, I said, "Yes yes yes yes yes. Please. Any excuse to get to Austin."
AC: Are you able to spend any time here, or is it just a quick in, perform, and you're gone?
MH: I've got another concert in Vancouver after that, but I arranged it so that my boyfriend and I and my accompanist, Matt Cusson, and his wife are going to be there as well, so we're going to stay another day and a half, so we can go eat everything in Austin and play a little bit before we leave.
AC: Excellent. So your career has already encompassed so many different areas: Broadway, touring theatre, television, concerts, and now a solo album, and you're still doing so many things at once. Is there one place you'd rather land, or do you enjoy the diversity, keeping all those balls in the air?
MH: I do enjoy the diversity. I don't do very well with down time. So I do like to keep things going. I think that's kind of the key to longevity in this business, too. You have to kind of do everything now. There's no such thing as an actor who does one thing anymore, you know. Which is great, because that's how you grow, when you stretch yourself. So, yeah, I love it. I prefer it.
AC: "Stretch yourself" is a phrase you've used in connection to your album. How did that stretch you as a singer, as an actor, as a recording artist?
MH: Well, it was material that I've never really done before. The first stretch is that I've always done musical theatre music, and very specifically I've just done music that's been connected to characters or story, nothing as personal as this album turned out. I couldn't hide behind anything, so that was a stretch. And it was a different style than I'm used to singing, so it took a while to figure out what that sound was and how to manipulate my voice or not put anything on top of it in order to get it done. I hope that makes sense.
AC: It makes perfect sense. Did you find yourself crafting a character or an arc for the songs on the album, or were you looking to play yourself as the singer of these songs?
MH: Oh, it's just all me. It's all me. [Laughs] No characters, nothing. I did kind of put myself in certain situations. There's some songs where I'm like, I'm going to pretend I'm singing to my nephew. But it wasn't like, "This is a character singing to my nephew." It was me. [Laughs]
AC: Did that experience make you hungry to record more? Like, "Let me back in the studio. I want to record this one and this one and this one …"
MH: Yeah, but next time I think it's gonna be a little different. It's going to be more like what I do in my shows. I've tried this adult contemporary pop sound, but it's so specific to – like I've thought about doing a little tour with it, but I don't think I can do it, because the sound is so different; I would need a very specific band and a sound person and … It requires a lot. Where normally, my shows, it's me and a piano. Maybe one or two of the songs I can do, but definitely not the whole thing.
AC: Will you be doing any of the songs from the album onstage in Austin?
MH: Yes, I'll be doing two of them – really, the only two that I feel like really work with just a piano. I'll have a piano and guitar in Austin.
AC: Is it fun to get away from the City and pop in on different parts of the country?
MH: Yeah, it's one of the best things about my job: I get to go see the world! I love it. I love traveling, and I love seeing and experiencing new cities, especially their food. [Laughs] So yes, it's a perk.
AC: I understand you're already signed for another TV series – a new series with Sean Hayes.
MH: Yeah, it happened yesterday. [Laughs]
MH: Thank you. It was a crazy quick thing.
AC: So how does the grind of doing a TV series compare to the grind of doing eight shows a week on Broadway?
MH: I will say that there's nothing harder or more rewarding than doing eight shows a week. I maintain that that is the hardest job ever. But wonderful at the same time. I don't want to say that, "Oh man, that's rough." But TV is different. And multi-cam, which is what I'm going into is very different than what we just did on Smash. Smash required a lot of time, whereas sitcoms are five days a week, and you have a very structured schedule, with a table read at the beginning of the week, rehearsals in the middle, and then taping in front of a live audience at night. So I'm going into another job with a live audience, which will be really fun. It's live theatre, with cameras in front of you. And the fact that I get to do it with Sean Hayes and the rest of that incredible cast. I can't wait!
AC: Has Smash changed the trajectory of your career? Have you come away from it thinking of other specific things that you want to do based on your experience there?
MH: Absolutely. It's opened all kinds of doors for me, and I'm so grateful for that. I want to do everything. And I don't think that's too ambitious. I think it's completely attainable. Who knows what's down the road, but I do, I want to try everything.
AC: Any big thing that comes to mind? Were you a kid who watched movies and imagined being in a movie musical?
MH: Oh god, that would be amazing. That would be the dream. A good one, too.
AC: You've already worked with a number of legendary women in the field – certainly Dolly Parton, Bernadette Peters. Have any of them offered you any career guidance? Anyone pull you aside and say, "Hey kid, here's what you gotta watch out for"? I mean, Bombshell [the musical on Smash] was littered with those kinds of lessons about Marilyn Monroe, right?
MH: Oh yeah. You know, the thing that's always stuck in my mind is, I was doing Wicked in Los Angeles, and on the opening night, Jennifer Garner was there. She came running back to my dressing room to say a whole bunch of really nice things, and I'll never forget, she said, "Stay who you are. Stay who you are. People are going to pull you in all kinds of different directions. Just keep doing what you're doing, and stay the person that you are." This was years ago, and I ran into her at the Golden Globes this year, and I told her, "That has always stuck in my mind, how gracious you were to even come back and say hello but to give me that little pep talk and those words of wisdom." And she was like, "I know. I remember it, too!" And she was like, "Don't forget!" [Laughs] She's so lovely, so generous.
AC: So is there a way that you feel you have been able to do that, that you make a part of your life or your work to stay grounded?
MH: Yeah. I guess the most important thing is to keep your family and your good friends close. And I always joke that having dogs makes anybody humble. Because, no matter what, at the end of the day you're going home and picking up somebody else's poop. Very grounding and humbling. [Laughs] Just when you think you're getting fancy … Nope.
Megan Hilty performs Megan Sings the Blondes Tuesday, June 18, 7 & 9:30pm, at Zach's Topfer Theatre, 202 S. Lamar. For more information, call 512/476-0541 or visit www.zachtheatre.org.