You have to be awfully ambitious—or just plain talented—to tackle classic stage roles once played by Marilyn Monroe, Carol Channing, Dolly Parton, and Kristin Chenoweth. It’s also pretty gutsy to play the legendary Monroe in a fictional musical about her life. But Megan Hilty, best known for her role on the short-lived NBC series Smash, has done exactly that to great critical and commercial success. When she and her band perform Thursday, September 24 at the Valley Performing Arts Center, she will showcase all these roles and more. Here Hilty talks about the music that moves her, the roles that inspire her, and how she chooses her projects.
When you are preparing a concert, how does the venue and its size impact the choices you make? Certainly a show that works in a cabaret doesn’t work the same way in a concert hall.
You’re absolutely right. Every venue is so different, so we tailor our shows to the venue. This is going to be a really fun show. It’s longer than we normally do. They want two acts. Our material really varies from the American songbook to Broadway to jazz. And, of course, there’s a lot of Smash in there.
Smash was such a love it or hate it show for so many people. Why do you think that was?
It was kind of unfortunate—it seemed that the very people we were making the show for kind of hated it more than anything else. It was ironic and a little sad to see hate-watching coming from the people it was made for. What I loved about Smash is they did a great job of hiring people from our community. At the end of the day, we were part of something really special by bringing Broadway into people’s homes once a week and exposing them to musical theater performances. People still come up to me about that.
Earlier this year there was a one-night performance of Bombshell, the musical based on Marilyn Monroe’s life that served as a plotline in Smash. It was one of the toughest tickets in New York. Will there be other performances and would you be a part of them?
I would love to sing Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman songs for the rest of my life. That’s what I do in my shows. I’m so glad it will have a life after Smash. What that would be, I’d have to be a part of it. The Hollywood Bowl would be a dream come true. It’s terrifying but exhilarating.
You played Monroe in Bombshell, and you tackled her role in the musical Lorelei (also closely identified with Carol Channing). Ben Brantley of the New York Times raved about your performance. Any future life for that show?
Praise aside, that’s something we were planning as soon as it was done. Unfortunately I booked another job and had to move to Los Angeles. It was short-lived, but we’re still trying to figure out how to make it work and get everybody’s schedules together. It’s not as easy as it looks. I’m not done with it.
Later this year you’ll be tackling a role made famous by Ethel Merman, Bernadette Peters, and even Reba McEntire when you do a concert presentation of Annie Get Your Gun. Is this a way to explore potential future roles?
This is just what I do. I started out taking on a role Kristen Chenoweth made iconic [Glinda in Wicked], then I went to a role Dolly Parton made famous [Doralee Rhodes in 9 to 5]. Then Marilyn and Carol Channing. Who’s next? I try to take the most daunting roles.
You said that, “Even with all the stuff we had to do on Smash, nothing is as difficult as eight shows as week on Broadway.” You return to the Great White Way in Noises Off this season. What’s calling you back?
I am so excited. When I said that it’s hard, I don’t mean that as a bad thing. I mean that as a deep respect for the work we do in the theater. It just takes a lot more stamina, I think. It’s the perfect comedy. They’ve revived it every 10 years, so I’m thrilled to be a part of one of those revivals. I can’t wait to get into rehearsals in November. I’m ready for it.
Do you still get nervous about shows and concerts?
Of course! There’s always the fear that nobody is going to come. That’s what I’m always nervous about. I’ll find a million things to be nervous about, but I think that’s a good thing. Nothing good can come from, “Oh I got this,” or, “Oh I nailed that.” There’s always room for improvement.