It’s show day at American Idol. USA TODAY had the rare opportunity last week to follow executive producer Ken Warwick and chart the day for Idol’s singers and all involved in putting together the live performance show (Tuesday, Fox, 8 ET/PT).
10:55 a.m. (all times PT) The band is warming up on a stage lit in fluorescent Idol blue. After spending the previous day here fine-tuning their songs, the seven finalists are back to integrate their moves and music in front of the cameras. The 11 a.m. rehearsal start for the week’s theme, songs from the movies, is a luxury. Show-day rehearsals have started as early as 8:30.
In just over six hours, this same stage will be the scene of a live show watched by more than 20 million people. Action, however, seems more routine than frenetic, perhaps the result of eight seasons of experience. Women sing first, as is usually the case, because of longer post-rehearsal hair and makeup prep.
11:10 a.m. One floor above is Idol’s production office, where Warwick is having a problem with rollover minutes, and not the telephone kind. It’s the huge, eight-minute runover from the previous week that cost viewers who record Idol the chance to see Adam Lambert’s riveting closing performance. It also pushed the next show, Fringe, into the local news time slot, not a pleasing occurrence for Fox affiliates.
He knew by the third singer the previous week that the show was far behind schedule and asked the judges to condense their comments. How did that work? “They don’t respond really to telling them to shut up,” says Warwick, demonstrating that Idol has blunt-talking Englishmen behind the camera, too.
Even though Idol is down to seven, time will be an issue on this night also, because of a pre-taped package on mentor Quentin Tarantino and segments in which he advises the singers. As he leaves his office, an assistant hands him a cup. “This production runs on tea,” Warwick says.
11:25 a.m. Lil Rounds is working out floor movements for her performance of The Rose. After the morning’s run-through, there will be a dress rehearsal before the live show, both conducted before full studio audiences.
Lil starts from stage right, walking around the pianist and the Idol band, which has been moved down to the main stage for the evening’s show. Adam, Matt Giraud and Kris Allen, all finalists, watch from audience seats that just a few hours later will be filled by screaming fans.
Stage manager Debbie Williams watches on a monitor to see how it will appear to viewers. Williams senses something is amiss: “If you’re not comfortable, you tell me,” she tells Lil after.
The singer is concerned that the twisting opening walk complicates the performance. Williams agrees. Idol music director and band leader Rickey Minor joins the conversation. Just like that, the walk is gone.
11:45 a.m. On the third floor of the huge soundstage building, which also houses ABC’s Dancing With the Stars, is Idol’s garment district, a room so crammed with clothing that racks spill into the hallway. Art Conn, a wardrobe staffer, is working at one of them, steam-ironing a white shirt that Matt will wear on the show.
Inside, Danny Gokey is trying on jeans that came in that morning. The manufacturer-donated pants look similar to a faded pair that would have eaten up the singer’s $400 weekly clothing allowance. “One thing we get sent is a lot of denim,” says men’s stylist Miles Siggins, who works closely with designers. “I’m loath to spend money on it.”
What is more intriguing is what Danny won’t be wearing: his signature eyeglasses. “Tonight, I’m going to make a radical move. The contacts are going in. I’m going to let people look into my soul,” he says, laughing.
Noon. Warwick has a solution to the runover problem: If the judges won’t cut their time, he’ll cut the judges. Only two will critique each singer. He’ll tell them when they arrive later. “They should understand,” he says.
The format evolves through the day, first as Simon Cowell and a rotation of other judges, then Kara DioGuardi/Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson/Simon, and finally Randy/Kara and Paula/Simon.
In the meantime, he has another problem. The Tarantino package contains footage that would amount to free advertising that could upset paying sponsors. He heads off to a meeting with network and studio executives. (Warwick gave USA TODAY extensive access, but kept a couple of meetings off-limits. He described them after the fact.)
12:30 p.m. In another office, Warwick assesses a bulletin board with color-coded paper rectangles that lay out the remaining six weeks of episodes. He’s already plotting the finale.
A reporter takes a quick look at some of the items: “Girls and Burger King,” “Boys and Fishing.” “You’ll never know what Girls and Burger King means,” he says. “It’s in code.”
Warwick does reveal one tidbit about the finale. “We’re talking about Sacha Baron Cohen doing something,” although it’s not confirmed, he says. “The trouble is he always goes a little bit off the rails, and we’ve got to be very careful. It’s a family show.”
12:45 p.m. Back at the stage, Danny practices Endless Love. Warwick and Matt talk in the audience section. Matt has decided to play piano on Have You Ever Loved a Woman? “I just want to not be boring,” he says.
Danny has his own accompanist, a harpist. As he works through an emotional moment of song, there’s a glitch; a snippet of Idol theme is played. He doesn’t miss a beat, singing “Good God Almighty” as others laugh.
Crewmembers bring in 2-foot-tall dividers to cover up “all those legs and wires” that come with the band, along with smart-looking glass musical stands to replace “the ugliest stands I’ve ever seen,” Warwick says. “Aesthetics are really important to me.”
His phone rings. Still no decision on the disputed Tarantino package. “Make two versions,” Warwick says.
1:02 p.m. Warwick, watching Danny’s performance on a monitor, notices the camera stays in tight on the singer as the surrounding band begins playing. He walks outside the set and goes into the nearby control booth to talk to director Bruce Gowers. “Bruce, when the band comes in … ,” he says, as the director gives a nod indicating he is addressing the problem.
1:47 p.m. After the run-through and lunch, the finalists get a few minutes of down time in a large third-floor room that serves as a haven from the Idol tempest. It’s brightly colored and decorated with balloons, flowers, stacks of letters and even photo albums, all sent by fans. One photo album is dedicated to Anoop Desai’s beloved University of North Carolina Tar Heels.
Anoop relaxes on a couch in one corner, doing a crossword puzzle. Allison Iraheta, Adam and Danny are in makeup chairs in the opposite corner. Stylists are doing Allison’s hair, while a makeup artist gives touch-ups to Adam and Danny. “You want to start working on his eyes?” jokes Adam, no stranger to eyeliner.
Minor stops by to offer the singers some pre-show support. “It’s so stressful. The last thing I remind them is to breathe. That’s one thing they forget to do.”
2:05 p.m. Warwick is in an editing room back in the production office watching the packages of Tarantino with each singer. There’s still no final decision on the other Tarantino package that had caused a stir with Fox (a shorter version eventually runs). Now, there’s another issue, but it’s easily resolved: When Idol mentions Tarantino’s upcoming war film, it won’t specify the title: Inglourious Basterds. “Family show,” Warwick says.
2:17 p.m. The finalists gather in the tiny greenroom behind the stage, their last stop before dress rehearsal in front of an audience of 600. A technician attaches Kris’ microphone. It’s a loose bunch, as Adam, Matt and Danny joke about a YouTube video of a reported leprechaun sighting in Alabama. “That video just makes me happy,” Matt says.
It’s a tight bunch, too. As they pose for a group photo, Anoop jokes, “Can I sit on Adam’s lap?”
2:22 p.m. Twenty people crowd the small, dark control booth, with director Gowers and two others at the front, just a few feet from a wall of TV screens. Warwick sits in the back, a final check on the show. On stage, the singers are walking toward the camera, lit in silhouette as they work out the details of the next night’s “cold open,” the first scene before the Idol theme and credits.
After they get the walk down, each Idol is filmed in close-up, trying — mostly unsuccessfully — to keep a serious look. Allison giggles. Kris is next. “He’ll start laughing,” someone in the booth says. Kris does. “I told you.”
Then Danny. “He’s lost his glasses,” Warwick notes.
Finally, Adam. The always-camera-ready showman has the look nailed. “He doesn’t know how to pose, does he?” another control room voice says.
2:53 p.m. Williams is filling in for host Ryan Seacrest, who has just returned from France, as the dress rehearsal starts 20 minutes late. No panic, however.
“Ryan looks funny,” jokes Mike Darnell, the Fox network executive with responsibility for Idol. Warwick taps on the control room desk as the theme begins.
As Allison performs, Gowers literally moves to the music, rolling back and forth in his chair, tapping his foot and waving his hand as he calls out camera shots.
Warwick can’t hear her singing. “Guys, the band is completely overwhelming Allison.”
After she finishes, today’s experiment — the two-judge commentary — starts, although the real judges, who will appear later, are not doing it. It’s the stand-ins, four extras who try to imitate the catchphrases and attitudes of Randy, Kara, Paula and Simon.
As the dress rehearsal proceeds through the performers, a man approaches Warwick, advising him about “a meltdown.” Warwick leaves the room, excusing himself from the reporter.
3:25 p.m. Most of the Idols are gathered in a corner behind the stage. Adam, Allison and Anoop are watching Danny on a TV, while Lil and Matt are talking at a makeup table where Kris is getting some last-minute attention.
A crewmember then leads Kris to where he will be positioned before the next commercial break. “You’re going to go to the spiral stairs to the second step. I’ll show you.”
3:35 p.m. It was substantially less than “a meltdown,” says Warwick, back in the control booth. “All the judges weren’t madly happy” and the real Paula was thinking that would be the judging format going forward.
“I went and explained it,” Warwick says. “She’s OK now.”
3:43 p.m. Dress rehearsal ends. One audience is led out. Soon, another will be brought in.
3:50 p.m. “And the top seven finalists were interested in working with one of the top names in movies.” It’s Seacrest, in. That familiar voice is back, as he records voice-overs for the Tarantino package in the production office.
4:06 p.m. In a nearby room, Warwick watches the taped snippets of the singers that will run at the end of the show with the telephone numbers for voters to call. Due to time constraints, Idol records the dress rehearsal performances for that final segment.
4:25 p.m. Celebrities arrive. This evening’s audience, which has mostly filed in, includes CBS News anchor Katie Couric, Samantha Who?’s Christina Applegate and actor/musician Steven Van Zandt.
4:45 p.m. Cory Almeida, the energetic warm-up guy, revs the crowd with clapping and Idol chants and invites audience members on stage to dance. He assesses fans’ posters from the stage: “We Love Allison,” “Adam’s Awesome,” “We Agree With Simon.” “I’m going to ignore that sign,” he says.
4:56 p.m. “Four minutes, we’re live,” Williams announces.
4:57 p.m. As the finalists arrive onstage, Cory introduces the judges. “Let’s hear it for Randy Jackson!” They talk to people as they move through the crowd. Kara hugs Simon, then Paula.
4:59 p.m. “40 seconds …”
5 p.m. It’s 8 p.m. on the East Coast. Showtime.
By Bill Keveney, USA TODAY