Earlier this month, I spoke with Katharine McPhee, season five runner up on “American Idol,” about her journey to what could be a career-changing role on NBC’s “Smash.”
The risky Broadway-themed drama debuts Feb. 6, the day after the Super Bowl and paired with the second season launch of surprise hit “The Voice.”
(Before we move on, in other “Idol” news, Kellie Pickler releases her new album “100 Proof” today to good reviews. Scotty McCreery is set to play a guest role in CW’s “Hart of Dixie.” Astro from “X Factor” will appear on “Person of Interest.”)
In case you haven’t yet seen the pilot, which is already available on Xfinity on Demand, McPhee plays Karen, a Midwest waitress in New York City trying to get her big break on Broadway. McPhee is part of an ensemble TV cast that includes the always likable Emmy winner Debra Messing and superb Oscar winner Anjelica Huston. Karen vies for the lead role in a new Broadway production about Marilyn Monroe against a more established actual Broadway actress Megan Hilty.
I’ve now sampled the first four episodes. It’s a lush, well-written show that could have been edgier if it were on Showtime, which considered “Smash” but ultimately passed. McPhee, though, said if it were a Showtime production, she wouldn’t have made the cut because the show would have involved far more seamier scenes than she would want to do.
The music, both the covers and originals, are top notch and immaculately choreographed. And while McPhee only showed glimpses of her dance skills on “Idol” (”Black Horse & the Cherry Tree,” anybody?), she really can dance on “Smash.”
NBC has invested tens of millions in production and promotional muscle behind “Smash” but that hardly guarantees a smash. First of all, NBC’s overall scripted department is in shambles. And a show about Broadway is hardly a ticket for big audience numbers. But it’s a worthy gamble and a change of pace from crime procedurals and shows set in law offices and medical facilities.
Here’s the Q & A I did with Katharine:
Q: I met you at Children’s Healthcare at Egleston in Atlanta a little over a year ago. At the time, you were thinking of doing a TV movie out of Atlanta. Guess “Smash” superseded that, eh?
McPhee: That movie never happened!
Q: I solicited questions from your fans. Dana Kiehl asked this: Did your agent get information about the Smash pilot so you could go audition for it like what usually happens or did the producers invite you to audition? Some critic said on Twitter that [executive producer] Steven Spielberg recommended you to the producers. True or false?
McPhee: No. I believe my manager got me the audition. He told me, ‘Okay, there’s this part you’d be perfect for.’ I had known about the project. It’s been in development for a couple of years. But I didn’t know when it would go. It was one of those things. We called. “Can we get in?” They were putting a short list of girls that they were going to see in L.A. and a few in New York. I got on the short list. I made the list.
Q: What role did Steven Spielberg play in picking you?
McPhee: He had to approve the list of girls on the short list.
Q: What was it like meeting Spielberg for the first time?
McPhee: I actually haven’t met him yet personally. I did meet him in a meeting years ago.
Q: How did your experience on “Idol” five years ago prepare you for this?
McPhee: I don’t know. I can’t say there was a direct correlation in terms of preparation for me. It was a wonderful stepping stone for me. More so I’ve learned quite a bit auditioning the past four or five years, pounding the pavement. It’s not something people see or hear about, being up for a lot of parts, getting close to getting them, then not getting them. I had lot of heartbreak and disappointment and frustration. In preparing for this part, those are things that build you as an actress.
Q: How much credit do you think “Glee” has in getting “Smash” off the ground?
McPhee: I do want to give Steven Spielberg some credit. He was developing this with [NBC Entertainment chief] Bob Greenblatt for several years long before “Glee” even existed. I will say that we are very grateful to “Glee” as a show. Both rely on music. Music in scripted television usually didn’t work. It was often a laughing stock. [Think "Cop Rock" or "Viva Laughlin"]. “Glee” has proven everyone wrong. We’re a different show but I think “Glee” followers will love our show.
Q: You’ve had work over the past five years but not massive success. How would you personally assess your career trajectory?
McPhee: My trajectory at times was disheartening and frustrating. ["Shark Night 3D" anyone?] The medium is very tough on people who come off shows like “Idol,” and there are expectations for you to have immediate massive success. But careers aren’t always like that. Sometimes, it takes several years. In retrospect, I’m gratified it happened the way it’s happened. It grounded me. It humbled me. It makes this process more rewarding. It’s what I want to be doing anyway. I was an actress before I was on “Idol.” “Idol” happened to be something I did as a vehicle to get me further ahead. But I learned it doesn’t guarantee instant success. It depends on how you view success in your own life. I have been very very blessed. I can’t complain. I’ve been down and out and it’s been hard. But I’ve been very very fortunate.
Q: We know you can sing but how much dancing experience did you have before this?
McPhee: When I tested for the role, I had to do a really quick dance. I wouldn’t say dancing. More soft movements. That was probably the most challenging and exciting. Fortunately, I danced a lot as a kid. I have training. I’m not a polished dancer by any means. They do a good job making me look good.
Q: NBC is having a tough time right now. There are high hopes for this show to help lift it. How are you handling those expectations?
McPhee: I was talking to Debra [Messing] about this. It’s unfortunate that NBC has gotten in this position. But I have complete faith in Bob to turn it around. I know NBC supports us. But we have to find out if it stands out on its own. People will love it – or not. We can’t focus on, ‘Oh God! This has to save NBC!’ We’ve just got to focus on our show and do the best show we can. Hopefully, it helps the entire network. And hopefully, it stands on its own.
Q: This show was originally set for [pay cable network] Showtime. Do you think if it had stayed there, the show would be fundamentally different?
McPhee: It would have been very different. And I wouldn’t be on the show. My character would have gone a different direction. [This involves a decision Karen makes when the director comes on to her early on.] It’s not something I would do, not the kind of thing I would have been comfortable with.
Q: What do you think of “The Voice”?
McPhee: I love “The Voice.” Last season, when we were shooting the pilot, we were really happy how well “The Voice” did for NBC. But little did we know we’d be paired up with it. Selfishly, we want “The Voice” to do well again. That will only help us.
Q: What makes “The Voice” work to you?
McPhee: It’s the judges. You don’t know what’s going to happen with the four of them. I’m looking forward to seeing them again.
Q: What do you think of XFinity on Demand airing the pilot early (starting January 16?)
McPhee: It’s a great idea. Anything to get the word out and get buzz.
Q: As a Los Angeles girl, what has been the biggest adjustment to living in New York City?
McPhee: So many things. I’m in Los Angeles right now to promote the show. I’m such a Californian. I’m sitting in the sun, soaking up every bit of it before going back Sunday to New York. It’s going to be really cold there. I’m an L.A. person. But “Smash” has to be shot in New York. Everything looks so cinematic. It’s just beautiful. Megan and I shot in Times Square. We had people screaming at us. But I’m totally spoiled. I don’t think I’d live in New York if I didn’t have to.
Q: If this show is a success, do you think it will help propel your singing career?
McPhee: I’m working on my music independently from the show when I have spare time. We will put something out. I’m with a record label. Having more exposure never hurts. But even coming off “Idol,” if you don’t make a great record, it doesn’t matter. People don’t care. I’m not going to just throw something out there because I’m on “Smash.” I have to be thoughtful about it.
Q: Final question: what style of music do you want to do next?
McPhee: I have a direction. A pop artist. Pop can mean a lot of things. It could be Adele. It could be Celine Dion. But the bottom line is I’m a pop artist.
By Rodney Ho, Radio & TV Talk