In my first semester of college, one of the professors announced that a special guest from the sit-down production of Wicked in Los Angeles was going to stop by after class and speak to the musical theatre students. I was not in the musical theatre program, but I somehow finagled my way into a seat in the classroom and it was there that I first encountered the mega talent of Megan Hilty. I remember being immediately transfixed by her presence and she seemed humbled by the attention of this group of pimply freshmen. At one point, the professor said, “Megan may be playing Glinda, but with her voice, she could also play Elphaba.” I thought that was the coolest thing in the world.
I saw her in Wicked shortly after that and returned several times. If you’ve seen Hilty in the part, especially opposite Eden Espinosa, you understand why. The next year, she was in town for the tryout of 9 to 5: The Musical and I went to see it two days in a row. That’s how obsessed I was with Megan Hilty thirteen years ago. She is tied, inextricably, to that time of my life–that time of feeling like I might be sort of becoming an adult, and an adult with taste. For that reason, Megan Hilty’s Diamond Series engagement at Feinstein’s/54 Below feels like a trip down memory lane for me. Hilty’s setlist hews closely to her resume and it was a delight to revisit her career at every stop.
What stood out most in hearing her sing these songs again (in some cases more than a decade since the last time I’d heard them in her voice), was how she shifts her tone to bring out aspects of the character she’s embodying. She sings “Popular” and her voice becomes bright and nasal, highlighting the more obnoxious aspects of Galinda before she mellows out. She modulates into a twang for Dolly Parton’s “Backwoods Barbie” from 9 to 5 and you’d think she’s sung country music her whole life. When she sings “Crazy”, her vibrato falls into Patsy Cline’s wavelength, and when she sings “What a Guy” from The Goodbye Girl, on the high notes in particular, she recalls Bernadette Peters’ unmistakable timbre. Hearing her sing so many different styles of music back to back made me remember what that professor said about Hilty’s voice all those years ago–it’s not just Elphaba she could sing, it’s literally anything.
Hilty has headlined at City Center twice and she brings both of those roles to 54 Below as well. She sings a medley from Annie Get Your Gun, including an unforgettable “Moonshine Lullaby” that rides the dips of that melody like a horse walking off into the sunset. Her “I Got the Sun in the Morning” at the end of the medley is a pure dopamine hit. She brings her other Encores! role to the show in the finale, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” (fitting for the Diamond Series). She warns us of the false endings, saying that after she finishes the third time the song will be over. Although each of these endings has its own climactic finish, Hilty finds a way to keep topping the last one. Each on its own would be remarkable, but when the second and third endings come around, they just keep getting more powerful, more impressive, and more electrifying.
Of course, there are also a handful of numbers from Smash, the cult television series that leveled up Hilty’s fame in 2012. If Smash gave us nothing else, it gave us “They Just Keep Movin’ the Line”, a truly titanic Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman number written specifically for her instrument. It has become her signature song and every single time she sings it, from the first time on Smash to last night at 54 Below, it’s thunderous. Hilty says that her favorite song from Smash is actually “Second Hand White Baby Grand” because of how much it reveals about Marilyn. When she needs to bring the pathos, she absolutely can, and she does it here.
Hilty closes the night with a mashup of “Don’t Forget Me” and “Let Me Be Your Star”, also from Smash. At the three Diamond Series concerts so far, all the performers have acknowledged that the idea of having a fake final song, walking off the stage, and coming back for an encore is silly, so they’re not going to do it. If it’s happened three times in a row, maybe we need to discuss encore culture. Though she sings it brilliantly, the idea that anyone could ever “forget” Megan Hilty is laughable. She is the kind of life-changing talent that latches onto you when you experience it for the first time and never goes away. From that first day back in 2007 up to today, she continually reminds me that she’s one of the best there’s ever been.