PASADENA, Calif. -- Singer-actress Megan Hilty narrowly escaped being tone-deaf. At least that's what her mother thought.
"She read an article when she was pregnant with me about how tone-deaf mothers should never sing to their children because then they'd be tone-deaf too, which is not true," says Hilty during an interview at a hotel here.
"But she was terrified. So when I was little I would beg her to sing to me and she wouldn't. And the more she wouldn't, the more obsessed I became. So she would set me down and play me recordings of Music Man or the Manhattan Transfer or Whitney Houston, anything. And I was insatiable. I couldn't get enough. So she's the one that exposed me to all these different types of music and theater."
It paid off because Hilty has been singing ever since. After four years in the popular shows Wicked and 9 to 5: The Musical and countless community theater forays, Hilty is starring in the splashy series Smash, returning Tuesday night to NBC.
She portrays a blond singer-actress so desperate to play Marilyn Monroe in a musical that we last saw her contemplating suicide.
When Megan was 10 her mother took her to a touring company production of Jekyll & Hyde. "I remember being so excited and so caught up in the storytelling at a very young age, I thought to myself, 'I want to do that for people too. I want to make other people feel like this.' I didn't start singing till I was 12. I started taking voice lessons and stuff. But I was singing around the house and was obsessed with music. I always knew that was going to be part of my life forever."
She never veered from that goal. "I graduated from an arts high school early and was going to go directly into a university for the performance arts and my mom encouraged me to take a couple years off to find myself and see if it was really what I wanted to do," she says.
"That made sense to me. I thought if I can go spend a couple of years waiting tables and doing all kinds of odd jobs to support this, then I'll prove to myself that I'm ready to go spend four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans and really commit myself to a program like that. So I spent those two years and I did every terrible job you could imagine while I was doing community theater at night."
Hilty snagged some retail jobs, waitressed and served as a hostess.
"I was a great hostess," she says. "I could seat tables and keep everybody happy, but I was a terrible server. I did house sitting, dog sitting, yard work, anything. I was in southern Oregon so TV or anything like that wasn't an option. I did dinner theater at night and during the day I did these other jobs."
But they weren't a waste of time, she thinks. "They gave me some really great life experience and I think that's the best kind of [training] it taught me independence, it gave me a great work ethic. "
By the time she was ready for college she was thoroughly independent, she says. "I knew how to take care of myself, pay all my bills, do the laundry. I wasn't finding myself when I went off to college. I was ready to study."
A year after she graduated she made her Broadway debut in Wicked. But she longed to move to Los Angeles and try her hand at voiceover roles. "Everybody wants to be a Disney princess," she says.
Though she'd already made an impression in New York, she confides, "I was getting a little tired of doing all these readings and workshops in New York and hearing, 'You're wonderful,' 'You're perfect, nobody could be better. We just need a star in this role.' And I get it. I totally get that's what sells tickets. I'm not sitting around crying or complaining about it but I thought to myself, 'I could sit around and keep spinning my wheels or I could really take that opportunity, take a risk, go out to L.A. and branch out and try something new.'"
So she did, finding a little house in Burbank for $1,800 a month -- half the cost of a New York apartment. "And I had a yard and multiple bedrooms and an orange tree and a garden. It was fantastic ... And I remember being in New York and thinking about how happy I was out here, going to the canyon with my two dogs, going to the beach, having a yard and all those things. I thought, 'You know, if I'm happy in my life everything else is going to fall into place.'"
It did fall into place. Not only did she land Smash, she fell in love with actor Brian Gallagher. "He changed everything," she sighs. "I swore I'd never date another actor. He's on the Jekyll & Hyde tour -- of all shows."