'American Idol' diary: A behind-the-scenes look at finale week
Wednesday night’s “American Idol” finale, in which David Cook was crowned as the winner of Season 7, was a TV entertainment spectacle comparable in scale only to the Oscars. Yet unlike that event, the “American Idol” crew has just one week to pull it together. Richard Rushfield -- the first journalist ever allowed to observe rehearsal’s for the show’s finale -- recorded this diary of the week leading up to the show.
SANTA MONICA BOULEVARD, HOLLYWOOD. FRIDAY, 5 P.M.
If every "American Idol" show starts with the music, then this humble white bungalow on a lot off Santa Monica Boulevard is the top of the assembly line -- where the basic pieces are put in place that will become in four days’ time the biggest television spectacle of the season.
Inside, the bungalow’s current tenant, "American Idol" music director Rickey Minor, is conferring with his staff over rights clearances and arrangements, pouring over song lists and supervising his three backup vocalists, who are in the studio to lay down their tracks for the medleys of George Michael and Donna Summer songs that will be performed in Wednesday night’s results show.
“I’ve got three things to do now and 10 minutes have gone out of my life already,” Minor gently but firmly reprimands his crew after the conversation takes a detour into something not completely relevant to the task at hand.
Just 48 hours earlier, David Archuleta and David Cook became the two finalists in the last of its weekly extravaganzas set at the Idoldome, the show’s home studio in Burbank. But now the clock is ticking toward the finale, and Minor has to oversee the clearances, arrangements, productions and performances of, he estimates, 35 songs between the two nights (including 12 in medleys).
“It doesn’t make sense to start working on this show early. Everything just ends up getting changed,” says Matt Brodie, the show’s assistant music director, as the three backup singers clustered around his laptop in the bungalow’s central mixing room, listening to and quietly singing along with their parts in Summer’s anthem “She Works Hard for the Money.”
Bill Smith, the engineer, cues them to begin, and the three launch into a beautifully harmonized rendition of the backing vocals. "She works hard for the money. So hard for it, honey. She works hard for the money, so you better treat her right."
As they record, Minor explains that these tracks will actually play under the live singing at Wednesday night’s show. “The problem is that in a huge place like that, the mikes pick up all kinds of room sound, it sounds like you are in a Tidybowl box. So you need this base there to give it that power. ... It's like you have 12 voices singing. Otherwise, when you want more vocals, they tell you to turn up the mikes on the girls, but all you are doing is picking up more room noise and making it muddier.”
When the singers finish their second shot at the song, Minor presses a button to address them on the intercom between the two rooms. “Remember guys, we’re actually live now so you need to do it with a little more attitude. You sound like you’re doing a record.”
“Its like a chihuahua trying to be a lion,” singer Sharlotte Gibson quips, quoting judge Simon Cowell's dismissal of Archuleta’s performance that week.
As the singers begin to go through the song again, stopping to correct themselves, and then doing it again, and again, Minor moves into the bungalow’s outer foyer to confer with his assistant, trimming the leaves on the ferns that fill the little house. Asked why he isn’t supervising the takes, Minor explains that while he is listening from where he is, “these singers have been with me for 10 years. So for a certain amount of time I push and I push, and then I let them do their thing and have trust that they have the professionalism to do it well.”
There is so much to do, he explains, caressing his plants’ long thin leaves: “We have four days to prepare two shows. That’s why all the people we have on the show are on it. They will come and deliver, from the lighting guys to the director.”
There’s an art to seeing your way through it, he says. “When you are
going into the storm you have to learn how to make that storm work for
you. You want to move forwards, but there are times when in the middle
of a storm, if you move forwards, you’ll just get blown over, so you are
much better off just standing still, waiting until the winds are
blowing your way. The storm is a force you can’t control. But for you
to do your work, you have to learn to minimize the damage it can do and
look for the places where it can help you.”
IDC DANCE STUDIO, HOLLYWOOD. SATURDAY, 10 A.M.
The floor is lined with McDonald’s bags. Outside the giant picture windows, a few pedestrians mill along Hollywood Boulevard in front of the Guiness World of Records museum. Two stories up, Season 7's Top 12 "American Idol" contestants, all summoned back for the finale, are drilling their numbers. Their faces show signs of bleariness, but they dutifully step into place when ordered to go through the routine one more time.
The "American Idol" production group may be a machine of highly experienced, top-of-their-field professionals, but at the core of this machine, and out front and center on screen, are 12 very young, mostly very inexperienced singers. Almost none of them, when 2008 began, had ever been part of a humongous television spectacular before. Over the course of the season, they have been through a rare kind of boot camp in show biz.
At the moment, as the boys file out so that the girls can begin running through their number, the reunited cast members are focused largely on cracking each other up. Carly Smithson and Ramiele Malubay stand back to back and mime sultry, burquesque-type moves in front of the mirror.
“Really girls,” cries choreographer Mandy Moore. “I have only an hour and 15 minutes left with you and you have 75 hours until the show.”
Chastened, but still effervescent with mirth, the room falls silent. “Okay,” Mandy said, “we’re going to go on a field trip.” She led them through the studio’s hallway to a cold, dark, fire escape-like stairwell, making them line up on either side and practice walking down while singing the chorus of “She Works Hard for the Money.”
“The reality is, on stage, we’re a lot wider. We just need to see you walk down the stairs into the screen,” Mandy tells them, demonstrating how to fan out across the tiny landing when they reach the bottom.
“I know you’re tired, but ladies, when you walk down stairs you need to turn your body and step. It’s not a profile thing. Now let's try it again.
“OK, blondes, no chewing gum this time!” shouts gravelly-voiced rocker contestant Amanda Overmyer.
Back in the studio, the ladies spent the next hour remorselessly drilling, dissecting and perfecting every step of the two group numbers they will perform.
Given that the group members are not trained dancers but singers, Moore says she attempts to keep the steps fairly simple. “I try to push the envelope on what I can give them. I don’t want them to look silly on stage, but I want them to do more then step, toe, step, and I know they can handle more.”
Despite the simplicity of the basic steps, a mind-numbing amount of tweaks and adjustments are integrated. Just watching, one reels attempting to keep track of all that is occurring in the number, and wonders how the performers manage to learn all this, on top of learning the vocals, worrying about costumes, interviews and everything else that fills the life of an Idol contestant.
Breaking into two groups, they rehearse filing past each other to the music. “Pass into each other and remember, girls, you're going to be in heels, so when you move, make it like this,” she demonstrates a broader step. “1-2-3-4. Four steps will get you there.”
“OK, this is a dancer's secret. A lot of people when they dance, if you want to move quick, you just have to keep your stomach muscles tight.”
Contestant Syesha Mercado interjects: “But when we’re signing, we have to put our stomach muscles out.”
“Oh that’s true, so after you’re done, pull them in.” Discussion over, she continues: “So Carly and Ramiele, you sing, split and go to the side position, then Brooke go between the middle of them.”
As they run through it again, another choreographer working with Moore stops them, telling them they are accenting the wrong step. “No, works HARD for the money. So HARD for it honey.”
An hour and a half-million notes later, they run through the entire routine and pace seamlessly through their steps. “OK, great!” Moore tells them. “We’re going to get a little more time tomorrow to get to know it perfectly.”
Looking fairly stunned, but still giggling with excitement, the group files out and down the stairs to the SUVs waiting to take them for their next appointment. Outside on Hollywood Boulevard, a Star Tours shuttle bus driver is attempting to board a few customers. The group looks up and sees the "American Idol" Top 12 suddenly emerge from a doorway, and before its members can even ask for autographs, the singers rush past them into the waiting SUVs. The tourists look at each other, stunned, mouths agape in amazement. “Did you see...? Was that...?” the driver asks.
Getting into the car, Brooke White takes a deep breath, relieved they had made it through the dance training. "I’d like to take the contestants on 'So You Think You Can Dance' and just say, 'You’re going to have to learn to sing six songs. And play them on the piano,' " she says.
For one brief shining moment, on a smoldering hot Saturday afternoon, the entire entertainment world revolves around this one building of sound stages on Beverly Boulevard. The CBS lot. On this afternoon, the stage has been turned into a veritable multiplex of reality TV titans. On the ground floor, Fox’s "So You Think You Can Dance" (from the people who brought you "American Idol") filmed its final pre-season show in which the aspiring dancers were informed whether they had been accepted onto the show. Outside, dancers in sweats gushed on their cellphones, "Mom! Mom! I’m going to be on 'So You Think You Can Dance' " while unnoticed, 10 feet away, another dancer slunk out and walked off the lot, his head hung low in dejection.
Upstairs, a dozen women hunch over sewing in the "Dancing With the Stars" workroom. Finalist/former figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi pops in to check on the progress and greet the workers. Just across the hall, the "American Idol" contestants slump on couches, awaiting their turns with Miles Siggins, the show’s men's stylist, for their finale fittings.
Along a long rack of clothes, David Cook, in his own wardrobe of KC baseball cap and jeans, tries on Siggins' choices, sorting through some scarves he has brought.
“Logan has a guitar,” Siggins tells him, “with brown piping."
"If it’s a leftie, I’ll be amazed,” Cook says, carrying off a stack of clothes.
“Where’s David Archuleta?” Siggins calls for his next customer. “Yeah,” Cook echoes. “Where’s Archie?”
Magically, the show’s youngest contestant materializes. He pauses to chat with one of the staff, not seeing Cook standing before him, palm outstretched for a five. Cook pauses a moment, before tapping Archuleta on the shoulder, producing his trademark spasm of giggles as he gives Cook a fist tap. “He doesn’t just give it to you. You have to ask,” Cook jokes.
Siggins gives Archuleta a grey jacket and jeans to try on from the long rack of clothes he has brought back to the studio. Archuleta steps into the changing room to try them on and then comes back to be photographed against a red wall by Siggins. “We send the producers all the pictures to review,” he says. The outfit is for a black-and-denim-themed look the contestants will wear when they perform with visiting singer Bryan Adams.
Around the room, embracing a rare moment of calm, Jason Castro and Overmyer sprawl on couches taking a nap. Kristy Lee Cook speaks with a friend on the phone. Mercado listens to music through earphones. Chikeze Eze and David Hernandez chat with David Cook while he studiously works his way through a song on an acoustic guitar. Ramiele looks up as Brooke White enters the room, seemingly on her way out.
“Will you do me a favor?” Ramiele asks. “If you’re going to the mall, can you go to Abercrombie? Some girl has my pants.”
“I’m not going out,” Brooke replies.
Walking in, voice coach Debra Byrd stops near the door to survey the
fashion bedlam unleashed across the room. “This is my rehearsal room,”
she says. She begins to round everyone up for a vocal session.
Working his way through the racks, Siggins refiles Archuleta’s outfits, marked for tailoring and alteration. “We’re halfway there,” he says. Asked if he purchases backup pairs in case of last-minute damage, he shakes his head. “If it tears, it tears. Anyway, people normally pay extra for rips.”
BURBANK. SUNDAY, NOON.
With the temperature approaching 100 there is probably no sleepier-looking street in the world than this little industrial drive a stone’s throw away from the Bob Hope Airport. But walking down a row of warehouse-like rehearsal spaces, turning a corner, one is suddenly overwhelmed by the sound of singing. A power ballad, seemingly sung by a choir, pours forth from one tucked-away building.
Inside the dramatically air-conditioned building, the 12 "Idol" finalists stand in line in the middle of the room singing the chorus of George Michael’s "Freedom." Behind them, the "Idol" band plays. Seated in front of them along a row of tables, crew members take notes, study laptop screens and huddle in conferences. Standing directly in front of the 12 are executive producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick, stage manager Debbie Williams, music director Minor and vocal coach Dorian Holley.
As the 12 sing, the group in front of them shout directions to individual members. Whizzing as if in orbit of this choir, crew members buzz back and forth between the producers, the band, the sound mixers and the technical crew. The effect is rather like watching a NASCAR pit crew under the hood, changing the tires, checking the structure, of a giant Greyhound bus -- as the bus swooshes down the racetrack at 90 mph.
But somehow, it works, and the sound fills the vast space, growing more and more melodic and intense as the song progresses. When it finishes, the room bursts into applause. Minor, however, calls out: “It’s getting too big, so please help me.”
They shortly transition to singing Michael’s “Father Figure.” Wearing a "Hard Day’s Night" T-shirt, Lythgoe, the flamboyant British import who, along with his fellow former dancer and "Idol" producer Warwick, are the day-to-day guiding hands behind the "Idol" machine’s U.S. francise, becomes inspired by the Michael song’s Arabian musical themes and begins moving in bellydance fashion, tapping his fingers as though equipped with finger cymbals. Inspired, the rest of the group joins in and soon becomes an undulating mass while singing “I will be your father figure / Put your tiny hand in mine.” As they reach the end, Williams, the production’s wisecracking den mother grabs Archuleta and wraps a scarf around his head, turban style.
Mirthful, but with the clock ticking, Lythgoe goes over aspects of the song with the performers and crew. He points to Smithson on the end of the line: “We don’t want to lose you once you’re on stage. Once you’re on, you’re on.”
“We are on stage,” she replies. “We’re just standing at the back.” Lythgoe nods and confers with a crew member about the choreography, as Williams urges that they will need to stand closer together on stage, and Minor asks one of the backup singers to guide the women through one word of the song.
Minutes later, a conference takes place around the two finalists. Cook
sings a song to Archuleta, encouraging him through an arrangement.
Lythgoe explains: “The Davids were going to do 'Homeward Bound' as their
duet. Today was the first time we listened to it with the band, and the
two guys, they didn’t know it and didn’t connect with it. And it wasn’t
doing what we needed it to do -- which is showcase our two best singers.
So then David Cook made the suggestion to do this song “Hero,” from
"Spiderman," and he played it for us, and we thought, that will
definitely work, so we’re doing that.”
“Out of a hundred ideas I’ve had this season,” Cook says, “I finally had one that Nigel likes.”
Laughing, Lythgoe wags his finger, adding: “We’re not there yet!”
After conferring with the crew on a few dozen last-minute preparations (“We’re behind, but we’re always behind”), Lythgoe races off to Paramount Studios, where he will prepare to shoot a video segment featuring the finalists meeting Mike Myers in guise as "The Love Guru," the title character of his new film, dispensing wisdom to the Davids.
As they go back into “Father Figure,” Minor explains what they hope to accomplish in this session. “I’m not looking for perfect performances. I'm looking to get everyone to know when they are supposed to be singing and not to step on each other. I can only rehearse them as much as they can take.”
Watching the contestants, one has the sense that while the bubbly excitement still animates them, these singers, as they go over one piece of the song for the nth time, have in fact become professionals. As much as they giggle and constantly fool around with each other at every moment of break, when the song starts up again, each dutifully falls into place and sings his or her part, even class clowns Overmyer and Michael Johns, who seemingly can’t resist making faces and lightening the mood at every solemn moment.
Watching them, stage manager Williams, who becomes chief herder once they get to the Nokia stage, explains what she is looking for: “The more you get it in your head and it becomes a part of you, the easier it becomes.” For Williams, this final week of the season becomes, with all the aspects that must be prepared, a constant battle to cheat the clock. “You are always looking for little pockets of time you can use.”
At the finale of three years prior, lacking any rehearsal time for finalists’ Katharine McPhee and Taylor Hicks’ duet, Williams decided they would rehearse it with the band on stage during the final commercial break before the show began. Keeping the house sound off, the pair stepped on stage and managed to run through the song twice in that three-minute window before the curtain went up and there they were before tens of millions.
“I call this fast school,” Williams says of the contestants’ journey. “They learn about the business, and quick. And when you get to the end and the finalists have to sing three songs each, on top of everything else, well that’s when you see what they’re really made of.”
The group runs through "Father Figure" yet again, Minor dividing up the harmonic parts on the word “understanding.” “Amanda can you take the bottom? Who can take the middle. Syesha why don’t you take it in the middle?”
They run through it once more. Healy notes at the end: “Jason, you missed a note on the first part. Kristy Lee, you missed a note on the second.”
Half an hour later, they finish running through the song. The Davids pack up and head over to meet Myers. Most of the singers go to lounge for a few precious minutes in the sun outside. At the mikes, Smithson and Johns prepare to practice their duet of "The Letter." They listen through once and then step forward and sing it. For a few moments, the hive of activity comes to a halt. The sound of the pair singing lifts up and rhapsodizes the room. Massive applause erupts when they are done as people appreciate the almost supernatural effect of talent amidst this vast machinery. And then it is time to run through it again.
NOKIA THEATRE, LOS ANGELES. MONDAY, 5 P.M.
The "American Idol" stage has been reconstructed, its set elements transported, on to the vast plane that fronts this 7,000-seat theater.
On stage, Summer stands amidst the Top 12 women, running through her medley. Williams’ voice echoes through the theater as she calls out commands on her headset mike. Seats are marked for celebrites expected Tuesday night -- Clive Davis, Lori Laughlin, Constantin Maroulis. Last year’s winner, Jordin Sparks, mills around the room greeting old friends from the production.
Between numbers, Lythgoe talks to some visitors about his recent surgery for a slipped disc. "The treatment at Cedars was wonderful. I said, I'm going to come every season after the end of 'American Idol.' I’ve been in Cedars three times, when I had a heart attack, peritonitis and now. All part of the fun of 'American Idol.' "
Williams calls out on her mike: “We need Brooke. Brookie Wookie.” Brooke White takes the stage along with folk star Graham Nash and they run through a duet of “Teach Your Children.” As they practice, in little camps around the vast stage, techies continue their work.
Asked if there have been many last-minute changes, Minor smiles. “It’s all last-minute changes. Every single one. A bar changes here and everything has to adjust: lighting, choreography, cameras, the singers. But that’s our job. To roll with it and to make it happen.”
Williams explains to a crew member: “We’re going to do Jordin next. They wanted to get Archie and Cook out of here so they could get some rest.” In an aisle, Smithson goes over dance steps with a choreographer.
With the final pieces appearing to fall into place, Lythgoe responds to the question of whether he keeps any game-day traditions. “I’m very nervous. That’s the tradition. I try to have a little shot of Jack Daniels before the show, then after the show, I try to have a very, very big one.”
Photos, from the top:
1. David Archuleta, Carly Smithson, David Cook and Michael Johns
3. Syesha Mercado and Donna Summer
4. David Hernadez, Chikezie Eze, Jason Castro and Johns
5. Archuleta and Cook
6. Smithson and Johns
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