Best of 2013 (Behind the Scenes): Megan Hilty on a 'Smash'-ing song (and dealing with the show's haters)

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Image Credit: Will Hart/NBC

Yes, Smash is dead. (Sniff!) But its incredible original tunes will hopefully live on — particularly standouts like “Let Me Be Your Star,” “Let’s Be Bad,” and “They Just Keep Moving the Line,” a scorcher immortalized by Megan Hilty at the beginning of season 2. Like most of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s clever creations, the song’s lyrics work on multiple levels. In the context of Bombshell, Smash‘s show-within-a-show, the song finds Marilyn Monroe using an extended racing metaphor to lament the harshness of a business that keeps asking more and more of her. Hilty’s character, Ivy Lynn, has faced a similar series of struggles (years stuck in the chorus! A cheating director boyfriend! A brief and ridiculous addiction to prednisone!) within the show’s universe. And finally, the song’s world-weary lyrics can be read as Smash‘s way of reacting to its own harsh critics — those prepared to gleefully tear apart the series no matter what it did.

How did Hilty’s instantly classic performance come about? We chatted with the star, who’s moved from Smash to NBC’s Sean Saves the World, to find out. Oh, and just so you know: Hilty says that if she could choose any musical to perform live on NBC, Sound of Music-style, she’d go with Sweeney Todd. Even though, as she points out, “that’s probably not the most family friendly. They probably won’t be doing that at Christmas time.”

As Told By: Megan Hilty

I think the best part of the series in general for me was getting to be the first voice to Marc and Scott’s original music. People always say “they don’t make ‘em like they used to.” No — Marc and Scott are making them like they used to. They’re brand-new songs and tunes and lyrics, but there’s something familiar about them, where they all feel like they’re classics. It was amazing to get to hear that song and know that I was going to sing it.

They just sent me a file. It was like every other [song] — “Okay, we’re recording this tomorrow morning, so learn this tonight. And then we’re going to shoot it the next day.” Most of the time they wouldn’t have enough time to have a demo singer do it, so we would go in and work it out, or Marc would be the voice in the demo. I think with this one specifically, they wanted me to come in and be the first voice that they heard on it. So it was very quick. But I was so excited as soon as I heard it.

It’s got this perfect build, which is why I think so many people connect to it. Not to mention the lyrics — it’s the lyrics of the underdog. Everybody connects to that. It definitely had multiple layers to it, and that’s what Marc and Scott do so well. I could relate to it as a character, I could relate to it as myself. And the lyrics were kind of defending the show on some level too, I think. We were met with mixed emotions, so it was great to have a song that was like, “ugh, we just can’t catch a break.”

I think it is the only song in Smash where they don’t a montage out of it. It’s not overlaying some other scene. It’s just a person standing there singing, and the song’s not cut. I remember there being some debate as to whether or not to do that — but what do you cut out? It’s a very specific build. If you don’t do the whole song, then it just butchers it. I do remember there being some controversy over it, but it was very easily swayed in the right direction. So I think that’s another reason why the song is so powerful — [the performance] actually allows the audience to go through that storytelling process, like you were there in the [live] audience. Which in TV, we’re not really allowed to do often, because people’s attention spans aren’t what they used to be.

My version of lip-synching is singing full-out with the track. Unfortunately because of editing and how it’s shot and stuff, they physically [could] not do live recordings. So we’d record the song, and then they’d give us a rough demo of us singing it, so we knew what our phrasing was and stuff like that. Like I said, I sang full-out every take so that it looks like I’m singing. I tried it the other way — after the first time I saw myself singing on camera, I was like, “Oh God, I’m making singer face. Ugly, ugly singer face. And it’s so not pretty on TV.”

[But] very quickly it was like, “No, I’m just going to look ugly. I don’t care.” Because you’re not emotionally invested with someone who’s only thinking about looking petty. I would much rather you think that you were sitting right there for a live performance than think, “Oh my goodness, she looks so pretty when she sings.” This is more about Ivy getting her chance to say these things in front of people who have screwed her over, and to the whole Broadway community. So I thought it was really important to just keep my voice with nothing added, as raw as possible, and as honest as possible.

We were [filming the scene] at the Plaza Hotel, in one of their big ballroom spaces, and everybody was having so much fun. It didn’t take very long, because it was just one person singing, but there were a lot of people there. And it was the exact same thing as giving a live performance. There just happened to be cameras there. It took longer to set up the shots than it did to actually shoot it — getting the cranes up so you could see that beautiful room, and get a scope of how many people were there, stuff like that. We actually spent more time doing the scenes in that room, I think, than the singing part.

I’m one of those people that can’t go read everything that’s being written about the show, because I’ll just go crazy. And I’d rather just go and do the best that I can and not have other people tell me how to do the show. Because people are going to feel however they’re going to feel about it regardless, and it’s so out of my control. So I understood what was happening — I didn’t want to be blind to it. But I’m not one of those people that goes out and looks for all that stuff.

It seems so harsh these days, especially with the anonymity of the Internet. Everything strays so negative so quickly. I look at my Twitter feed sometimes, and there’s just people tearing apart other performers. It seems so counterproductive to what we’re all trying to do. I don’t know. I rarely see people celebrating other people. So that’s disheartening. But it’s everywhere. It’s in everything. It’s so much easier to complain about something than celebrate it. I’ve kind of taken a vow — if I don’t have anything nice to say, I’m not going to tweet about it at all. I can save my opinions. Everybody’s entitled to their opinions, but I don’t understand why we have to saturate social media with all the negative stuff.

The biggest shock [about moving from Smash to Sean Saves the World] was the hours. After a couple hours of work, we got to go home. I was like, “What?! I don’t understand! I have my weekends free and my nights free? This is crazy!” We spend one, maybe two days a week shooting. But the majority of the time, we’re rehearsing. It’s totally like theater — we rehearse a brand-new play every day, and then at the end of the week, we do it in front of a live audience. It’s amazing.

It was also really important for me to switch gears, because I don’t want to always be the girl who sings. I don’t want to get pigeonholed into one thing. Actually, if we do [sing], I hope my character’s terrible. I hope we build her up to be this huge, amazing karaoke aficionado or something like that — and then she’s just terrible.

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