She’s a ‘Smash’

05.08.14

How Megan Hilty Survived TV Flops ‘Smash’ and ‘Sean Saves the World’ With Grace

With ‘Smash’ and ‘Sean Saves the World,’ Megan Hilty weathered two of TV’s most public cancellations. Now the former ‘Wicked’ star is back in ‘Oz’—and talking about her journey.

Megan Hilty is heading back to Oz.

The radiant blond actress, as effervescent as the bubble she used to come and go by eight times a week, first sparked industry whispers of “this girl is good” 10 years ago when she made her Broadway debut as Glinda in the smash musical Wicked. This weekend, her warm, spritely voice will be featured in the animated musical Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return, playing the China Doll Princess, a scene-stealing diva with a heart of gold. Err, heart of porcelain. 

“I can’t stay away from Oz,” Hilty giggles when talking about how The Wizard of Oz is, once again, playing a major part in her career. “But I don’t want to either!”

Between trips down the yellow brick road, Hilty has made a name for herself as one of Hollywood’s brightest, most underrated talents—albeit on two highly publicized projects that each whipped up tornadoes of controversy and drama strong enough to whisk Dorothy’s from Kansas to Oz and back again: Smash and Sean Saves the World.

After weathering the negative press about Smash’s creative struggles (while still earning raves for her performance as a scorned and immensely talented Broadway actress clawing her way out of the chorus line) and reports of cast wars backstage of Sean Hayes’s heralded—and then maligned—return to NBC’s Thursday night comedy lineup on Sean Saves the World, Hilty is in an unusual place for an actress. She’s survived two of the most high-profile television cancellations in recent industry memory, and has come out on the other side with more brains, heart, and courage when it comes to the business. And that’s not to mention the good will of critics and fans who have seen her shine on the respective series and can’t wait for her to find a better outlet for her light.

It’s fitting, too, that following those experiences, she finds herself on a press tour promoting yet another project connected to The Wizard of Oz, 10 years after her star-making Wicked debut. After all, as they say, there’s no place like home. And now that she’s there, there are a few records we’ve written about her journey that she needs to set straight.

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If you live in New York City, you’re most likely familiar with Megan Hilty even if you’ve never seen an episode of Smash or Sean Saves the World. A clip of her absolutely setting fire to one of Smash’s original songs, the torch ballad “Keep Moving the Line,” played almost incessantly on those little TVs in the back of taxicabs for what seemed like months last year.

Watch the brilliant performance, almost criminally effortless, in the clip below just once, and you’ll see why no one seemed to mind its taxicab omnipresence. No one, that is, except for Hilty’s young nephew.

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“That was crazy,” Hilty says. “I was in cabs all the time watching myself sing. At one point my sister was visiting with my nephew, who was very little at the time. We were all in the cab—I was in the front and he was in the back. And he was just like, ‘Auntie Megan, you’re in the front seat and the back seat.’ Ugh.’”

Her nephew may have been the only one groaning, though. The vocal tour de force proves exactly what got Hilty, a burgeoning Broadway bombshell who had made her name in Wicked and originating Dolly Parton’s role in the musical version of 9 to 5, plucked from the Great White Way to star in the splashy, glitzy new TV series, Smash, in 2011.

“It’s hard to be a brand new show and compete with The Big Bang Theory and Glee and be a sitcom in the middle of all these single-cam shows.”

The series—a musical drama that pulled curtains back on what it takes to produce a Broadway show and the toll that takes on the actors, writers, and producers’ personal lives putting it on—was going to feature original songs each week. It boasted a cast that included Debra Messing and Anjelica Huston. Steven Spielberg was the executive producer and NBC funneled a reported $7.5 million into its pilot. And Hilty, largely unknown to Hollywood, was going to be one of the leads, a talented actress named Ivy Lynn vying for the role of Marilyn Monroe in a musical about her life All About Eve-style against an off-the-bus Midwestern ingénue played by American Idol alum Katharine McPhee.

It was what is commonly referred to as “a big freaking deal.”

“I was terrified,” Hilty says. “I also felt like I had a lot to prove, being the theater gal in the cast, because we get a bad rap. People think that theater actors are too big for the camera. It’s like,  ‘No, we’re actors and we adjust for our audience.’ So without being like, ‘I’m going to show that every theater girl can do it!’ I felt like I had to prove something.”

The pilot was spectacular, and Hilty was clearly a star, commanding every scene she was in and dominating every musical number. It was a blessing and a curse for the show, particularly when the writers tried to convince viewers that her character wouldn’t be cast as Marilyn, despite Hilty being so talented that the decision, though fictional, became increasingly ludicrous.

But that was just the beginning of the series’ creative struggles. Characters began to act so irrationally and plot twists began to be so ludicrous and unrealistic that fans who once tuned in to the show because of its strong pilot and theater-geek appeal began to revolt. The term “hate-watching” was quickly coined to describe their relationship with series.

Ratings plummeted; NBC fired the show’s creator, Theresa Rebeck; and the second season of the show, despite employing a new executive producer in Gossip Girl’s Joshua Safran and promising a creative resurgence, fizzled as quickly as the first. As Buzzfeed’s Kate Aurthur chronicled at the time, “Smash was supposed to be the show that saved NBC—but people laughed at it instead.”

Throughout it all, Hilty remained relatively good-natured with the press, a proper balance of self-aware and self-deprecating. (It’s not many actresses who would, with charm and grace, answer a barrage of questions about the “failure” of TV shows she worked tirelessly on while promoting an unrelated animated film.) But looking back, it can’t have been that easy to go through, right?

“Honestly, we were so separate from it all,” Hilty says. “I dealt with the cast and the crew all the time, but it was just them. I was aware of all the other drama, but that’s it—I was aware of it. And it’s so far out of your control when that’s going on, whatever the fans or critics or whoever is saying and whatever anyone is doing at the network. There’s nothing I can about it.”

Though there were times that she did step in.

For “hate-watchers” of Smash, few moments are as hallowed as the time Hilty’s character took prednisone because she was getting sick—as actresses often do—but inexplicably started hallucinating and acting erratically as a side effect—as almost no one does.

“There were times when I told them, listen, this can’t physically happen,” she says, remembering the prednisone arc. “Like, ‘I’m on prednisone now!’ They tried to justify with her taking all these other pills and blah blah. Whatever. There’s only so much that I can do.”

After all, this was just her first major TV gig. She didn’t exactly have a lot of clout.

“My job is to go and make the words work,” she says. “And if they don’t, then what am I going to do? I didn’t throw a lot of fits. I chose when to throw my toys, and when I did, they actually listened to me. But especially at the beginning, what am I going to do? Tell DreamWorks and NBC how to do their show? I can only do so much.”

It’s important to remember, too, that the din of press buzzing, good or bad, about the show hardly changed the fact that it was a life-changing experience for her. And, you know, a really fun one, too.

“There was something magical that happened every day on that set,” she says. And, it bears repeating, that Hilty was really good on it. So good that when Smash was canceled, NBC inserted her into the cast of one of their most hyped and most promising pilots for the next season, Sean Saves the World, even though the pilot had already been shot with actress Lindsay Sloane in the role Hilty ended up playing: Hayes’s work best friend, Liz.

“I was sooo excited to get that job right afterwards,” Hilty says. “Sean is so special. It’s really something to watch him work. It’s like watching a mad scientist trying to figure out his next amazing breakthrough right in front of your eyes.”

But, though hopes were high for the series, Hayes’s first regular sitcom since Will and Grace ended, ratings were abysmal from the get-go and the series was canceled in January before even a full season had aired.

“We were on a night when people were watching other networks,” Hilty says. “It’s hard to be a brand new show and compete with The Big Bang Theory and Glee and be a sitcom in the middle of all these single-cam shows. Who knows why the show didn’t work, but the odds were not necessarily in our favor.”

Not only did the series struggle in the rating, though, but, once again, rumors about behind-the-scenes drama swirled in the press. Most of it focused Hayes passing the blame for the show’s ratings woes, with one report claiming that he was “at war” with his co-star, Linda Lavin, over the issue.

“That was so crazy!” Hilty says of the reports. “I don’t know why somebody would start something like that. I remember hearing that report about him and Linda. I was like, if anybody had any idea the love fest that was happening at this set at all times. That was just the craziest thing ever.”

It’s a pleasure, then, to talk to Hilty about a project without a hint of drama. “How can you not love this movie?” she laughs, in a way that, corny as it sounds, lights up the room on a very rainy New York day. “It’s freaking adorable.”

She’s, as expected, an absolute trip in Legends of Oz, playing a character not that unlike the one she inhabited for so long in Wicked. When Dorothy returns to Oz to help fight a new evil villain, this time the Jester, Hilty’s China Doll Princess is one of the rag-tag compatriots she picks up along the yellow brick road to help in the endeavor.

“They have the same journey,” Hilty says of the similarities between the China Doll Princess and Glinda. “They start as little spoiled brats that haven’t heard the word ‘no’ ever. And then, because of the new, unique, and unexpected friendships they encounter, they become better people.”

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In addition to the film, out Friday, Hilty is shooting her final scenes for a still-untitled film about Howard Hughes written and directed by Warren Beatty—though production needs to hurry up before the actress, who is expecting her first child in September, has a baby bump for Beatty to shoot around. There are dozens of concerts lined up, too, and she’s desperately trying to get the limited run of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes that she headlined in May 2012 (to raves, we might add) mounted into a full-scale, perhaps Broadway production.

“Every time I see a live performance of something, I’m like, ‘I want to be doing that!’” she says. “But I don’t want to be doing that. I want do be doing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes on a stage like that. I’m so not done with it.”

And we’re so not done with her. Or, really, have we ever been. After Smash was canceled and she was cast on Sean Saves the World, there was almost a sigh of relief from the show’s fans that the talented actress had landed another big job so quickly. And Hilty wants you to know that following Sean Saves the World’s cancellation, she’s doing just fine again—and you’re so sweet for asking.

“It’s funny because on social media and stuff, everybody’s like, ‘Oh, poor Megan. When is she going to catch a break?’” she says. “It’s like, guys. Do you know how hard it is to even get on TV? I’m lucky to have any of these opportunities at all. Don’t cry for me. I’m going to be just fine.”