Nigel Lythgoe on How to Save Reality TV, ‘On the Town,’ and ‘Brokeback Ballroom’

Nigel Lythgoe, the producer behind American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance, talks candidly about the startling state of reality TV and producing his first Broadway show.

Elena Scotti/The Daily Beast

Nigel Lythgoe has a knack for resuscitating pop culture tenets that seem on their death bed.

He was among the original executive producers of American Idol in 2002, the show credited with rescuing the flailing reality TV talent competition genre and spawning the spate of copycats that have invaded television since, The Voice and The X Factor among them. Three years later, at a time when dancing was hardly on the cultural radar, Lythgoe co-created So You Think You Can Dance. The Fox dance competition premiered in 2005 around the same time Dancing with the Stars debuted, and has since become a summer reality TV staple.

And now Lythgoe is one of the producers of the just-opened Broadway revival of the 1944 Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green musical On the Town, which was showered with rave reviews from critics last week for its athletic dancing and aw-shucks slapstick performances. In a Great White Way overcrowded with big-budget musicals based on movies, jukebox shows, edgy envelope pushers, and A-list Hollywood celebrities struggling to hoof it on the chorus line, On the Town—the first full musical from the legendary creative team—is a reminder that they, truly, don’t make them like they used to. (And why they maybe should.)

Like Broadway, the landscape of reality TV has been changing drastically and rapidly in recent years. Ratings for talent competitions like Idol, once viewership juggernauts, are plummeting. Searches for the next superstar aren’t even yielding so-so stars. The standard bearers of reality TV—American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance—are aging.

So on the occasion of his shepherding one song-and-dance classic to (hopefully) hit success on Broadway, we picked Lythgoe’s brain, too, about the state of song-and-dance reality TV: what’s gone wrong with shows like Idol (which he no longer produces) and SYTYCD, and how he thinks they can be saved.

So your involvement with On the Town started while looking for a So You Think You Can Dance prize?

I wanted to find something for the winner of So You Think You Can Dance. Every other year Adam Shankman was doing a Step Up movie and we could give them a role in that as a prize. There is very little you can give a dancer as a prize. On American Idol we can give them a recording contract. So I always try to find them something, on top of the money, to do. They go on tour straight afterwards, so that’s good. But after that tour, they go back to being nobody apart from “I’m a dancer.”

That’s so true. There’s no obvious prize to give a dancer to lure them onto a talent competition.

So I heard that An American in Paris was coming to Broadway and spoke to their company and asked if they wanted dancers and if we could put the winner of So You Think You Can Dance in it. But they don’t open until next year, so they couldn’t offer anything at the time. Then I got to hear of On the Town, contacted them, and asked if they were interested. They said yes, so I went to see some of their work, loved it, and found out that I could become a participating producer.

When you were talking with them about bringing the SYTCD winner into the show, was there any handwringing on their end on what if it was a hip-hop star who won?

No. I mean the kids who win SYTYCD can almost do anything. We went back and asked if someone like Fik-Shun, who won the previous year wins, could you handle that, and they were like, “Yeah.” Plus, they get publicity for it. So we help each other, to be honest with you.

I had a chance to talk to Ricky Ubeda (this year’s SYTYCD victor) after he won.

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He really is beloved. I have to be honest with you, when we first saw him we really did know that he was going to win. Unless he did something dramatically terrible, everything was beautiful about him. But my vote sort of drifted to Zack halfway through the series.

Really? Your vote was with Zack instead of Ricky?

Yes. Obviously Zack’s a tap dancer, which I love. But he also grew before my eyes. Ricky was already there at the top. But Zack grew, and that was beautiful to watch.

Ricky and I talked about how his instant frontrunner status could’ve been a hurdle that he’d have to get over.

Without a question. But he actually won every week. He won every single week by a large margin. The only other one I’ve ever seen do that was Carrie Underwood.

So when does Ricky join On the Town.

February, if it’s still on. [Crosses his fingers.]

You’re crossing your fingers, but I think it will definitely still be on. But it does have an interesting place on Broadway right now, where it’s a lone classic musical alongside musicals based on popular movies, and bio-musicals, and jukebox musicals.

And everyone is pushing to the edge as well. I went to see Cabaret the other night, but it was over the top slightly. For me. But this whole idea of putting actresses in a singing and dancing part who cannot sing or dance, I do not get. When you have a number like “Maybe This Time” that is so powerful you need to have a standing ovation afterwards. To just get some scattered applause because the kid can’t sing is just sad. One thing I was frightened of was that there are no huge names in On the Town.

I was going to ask if you had nerves about opening on Broadway without a marquee name.

It’s based on talent. And each one of those kids is hugely talented. Who do you cast now that is a triple threat? Who is the singer, dancer, actor who can do what Tony Yazbeck is doing? There are very few around. It’s a tough one. I agree with you that this deserves to be on Broadway and deserves to last on Broadway, not just because I invested in it but because it’s a true, blue Broadway musical.

I noticed, with Newsies and with this especially, that dancing on Broadway has become so much more athletic than it used to be.

Well Newsies is stacked with former So You Think You Can Dance dancers. Dancing has really taken off in the last ten years, with Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance. People are realizing how tough this is to do. Sports stars going on Dancing with the Stars who are big, butch, and energetic are talking about how exhausting it is. Kids now in dance have raised the bar to such a difficult degree. It’s a whole different world. And it’s become far more athletic, especially on television, and because of that you don’t want to see people just mincing about on the Broadway stage. You want to see the same exuberance. That’s what’s changed.

Have you seen a change in the kind of dancing that’s being brought to you at auditions between when you started SYTYCD and now?

The street kids are now training, which is terrific to see. The whole acceptance of it. Let’s be honest, “boy dancing”—this is one of the few industries, and it bothers the hell out of me, that people question your sexuality just by you being in it. What the bloody hell does it have to do with anything? If I want to be a dancer, why are you getting personal with me? It’s put a lot of boys off dancing, straight or gay.

And that’s changed?

I think nowadays a lot of fathers have been coming up to me and saying, “I wanted my boy to be a football player but he wants to be a dancer and I guess that’s good, isn’t it?” There’s an acceptance. And if that’s the only change that SYTYCD has done then I’m happy we did it. The warmth and the soul that you get out of dancing, if someone was going to stop you from doing that? It’s almost evil.

You mentioned earlier how there’s no record contract or comparable prize to give a SYTYCD winner. So in doing the shows for all these years, naming so many winners, have you seen, then, what being on the show or winning the show can do for a dancer’s career? I mean, you can’t measure it with record sales or number one singles or anything like that.

Exactly. They have conventions for dance, and these kids go around the country as the winner. And they make, I believe, a reasonably good living being there and teaching and selling merchandise. They are stars within that community. A lot of them become choreographers. The most successful ones, like Travis Wall, start their own companies. A lot of them have been on Broadway. Some have gone on to movies, like Twitch. Allison Holker has gone on now to Dancing with the Stars, as most of my dancers have gone on to Dancing with the Stars. They’re even doing Bollywood on Dancing with the Stars now!

So much Dancing with the Stars shade!

Again, I won’t knock any way we get dance on television. Excluding Dance Moms. [Laughs] It’s a tough life. We’re not going to make stars. So the next thing is what are they going to now? They become dance teachers. I know Chehon, who was the male winner one year is a brilliant photographer. So as much as they can transition into physiotherapists, dance teachers, dance administrators, dance photographers, anything like that to stay in the dance world, because if you lose that part of your life when you love dance, it’s too tough.

There are former contestants from America’s Next Top Model who have talked about how being identified with that show, and with reality TV, has hurt their careers. Have you seen any kind of backlash like that with So You Think You Can Dance?

You’d have to ask them, to be honest with you. What I would’ve said is, we try and keep a real integrity to the show. If we see something that is not, we’ll be honest about it and try to put it right with what we say. And I think any dancers watching the shows will know what these kids are going through and how hard they are pushed. And that the amount we’re asking them to grow would embarrass them if they don’t get it. And would understand that it’s an honest competition. So I don’t see why there would be a backlash, because dancers all know how hard you have to work to achieve a certain level. And if you have to do that in front of so many people live, that can be uncomfortable. So they should be proud of the ones who pull it off.

What are the challenges, then, of keeping the show fresh and challenging this long into the run?

Well I want to give it a new facelift. If we get recommissioned…

Is there any inclination either way?

Yes…But I’m still working on the concept. My problem is that there’s little drama at the end of the day. Because we get a Top 20 that is fucking brilliant. And then from that we get a Top 10 that is really fucking brilliant. I had nowhere else to go after saying fucking brilliant to elevate it. So if all we’re saying to everyone is, “Wow you were fantastic,” or, “God you were brilliant,” how many superlatives came you come up with? And then you have three or four people all saying the same thing. So I need to give some jeopardy, and I think I’ve worked out a way to do it so that if you are brilliant at what you do there’s still somewhere to go.

But I can’t help but wonder if, with something like American Idol, for example, its age and its longevity is also a reason why people don’t watch it anymore in the same amount.

Yeah. It became about the judges, which is terrific on The Voice. And The Voice has that amazing format—and not just the chairs swinging around—but so that you can steal a contestant, so that it’s me against you so that it can be about the judges. Idol, apart from Cowell and the interaction between him and Paula, was always about the contestants: their backstories, where they came from, everything about them. Then all of a sudden it started being about the judges.

With the celebrity casting of the judges panel?

Even at the latter stages Simon and Ryan took over the mantle and it became a little dark. Then it became about Nicki and Mariah. All of a sudden the kids started disappearing, so you couldn’t even remember who the contestants are. That had something to do with it. Plus, at the age it is, which is 13 years old, the kids who were 10 then are 23 or 24 now. Their kids are starting to watch and they want their own show. Everybody wants their own show. Idol was mom and dad’s show. They want their own. But quite frankly it’s still huge. It’s still the number one show on Fox, but everyone dumps on it because of this vast drop.

The other thing about Idol was that it really was a star-maker at first. Now, and it’s not just Idol, but none of this shows—The Voice, The X Factor—has produced a star in a really long time. Why do you think that is?

I think in the last few years of Idol they’ve not done the depth on the contestants. I didn’t know anybody last year. I think The Voice is about the judges. The X Factor is about the judges. And I think the record industry has a lot to do with it, too. You can just download everything now. You’re not really creating a record-seller. And to be frank, maybe the talent hasn’t been something that at the end of the day people want to buy. If you think about who did become stars, they were all personalities. Jennifer Hudson was sixth before she took off. Ruben Studdard I thought was fantastic, the best crossover singer since Luther Vandross for me. And then he came out with an urban record. But on the show he was singing Neil Sedaka songs. So you can screw up careers as well. These shows are great platforms. That doesn’t mean to say they’re going to be springboards anymore.

So what is the appeal to being on these shows for hopeful talent if they’ve become all about the judges?

You’re still seeing them. They can still turn that into work. But at the end of the day it’s the record companies. You have to like the music. You’re not going to buy something you don’t like or want to listen to just because you like the personality of the person who is singing it.

What do you think the state of dance shows is, then? SYTYCD’s fate still hangs in the balance, although you seem to be indicating that it could get another season, and Dancing with the Stars has seen its ratings tumble.

We’re getting old. I never dreamt we’d make it to 12 seasons. I thought one season would be it. It was Simon Fuller who said to me, “You were a dancer, weren’t you? We should do the same thing with dance that we did with American Idol and singing.” I said it’d never work. He said, “Why?” It was because there was nowhere to look at dance over here. There was no program on like it. And he said, “Well can you come up with a competition?” I said no. And didn’t for nine months.

But he kept on at me and on at me. And the very first SYTYCD was horrible. We were scoring it like the Olympics: presentation, technique. 6.7 for this. 3.4 for this. Adding it all up. It was horrible. So we thought let’s just make it like American Idol. A bottom three. You vote someone off. And thank god we did. I never thought we’d make it past that first year, but we’re still hanging on and I’m thrilled. But like everything, it’s cyclical. They’ll disappear and then maybe in 10, 12 years come back again. I don’t think dancing is going to go away now. Like reality. No matter what they say about reality it’s not going to go away, if good things come up.

All of these shows make backstories and the human element of the contestants a big part of the telecast. One interesting thing about The Voice is that it actually addressed contestants’ sexuality in a way that Idol never had, or really any other talent competition had before.

I touched on that earlier a little bit. What does any of this have to do with sexuality? What does that have to do with anything on these shows?

But if their personal lives are part of human interest packages in the show, it is relevant.

But again, how much do you show of somebody’s life? Do you really want to say there’re straight, they’re gay, they’re bisexual? What does that have to do with anything? That’s up to the individual. If they want to say, “I’m gay!” I’m happy put it out there. If they want to say, “I’m straight.” Ok. But why? I just don’t get it. I think there are things that are just personal. If you want to come out, come out. If you don’t want to come out, don’t. I don’t go to my dentist and ask him if he’s straight or gay. You should take pride in who you are, end of story.

Then why do you think there’s such fascination over that question—gay or straight?—when there’s a contestant who the audience feels like should address it?

I don’t know. But like I said, I think it’s been a barrier to dance for years. I don’t want to create barriers. I want to knock barriers down. It’s frustrating for me that we’ve got to pigeonhole people. We’re all just talented people, end of story. People this year were telling us, “Where were the African-Americans?” I was like, “Excuse me?” Critics were like, “There was only one African-American on the show.” Did we? I don’t think about it. Maybe I should.

But that’s an interesting question. How much does a producer need to be thinking about something like that?

Exactly. We’ve had a lot of black kids win. We just don’t think about that. Straight. Gay. It’s can you do this? Can you do that? Are you talented? Can you connect with an audience? I got into real trouble with GLAAD, to be honest. I did a gag—we had a couple of ballroom boys. In the end, he put him into a backbend and kissed him. And I said, “I really don’t like Brokeback Ballroom.” Oh, a scandal came out of it. Adam Shankman had to say, “No, he’s not homophobic. He kissed me once.” And I had to be like, “No! Adam! Don’t put that.” You have to smile and laugh at that.

To bring it back to On the Town, what’s your favorite moment from that show?

I think “Lonely Town” is very special. There’s something sound and eerie and lonely about it. I think that’s an amazing moment. I think Alysha Umphress doing “I Can Cook Too” is a powerhouse number. She’s so sexy with it. As much as I love the dancing, those are the two things that touched me.