“Glee” it is not — but tonight, the cast of “Grey’s Anatomy” will be singing.
Co-executive producer Tony Phelan, who directed tonight’s episode, told us just how this curious event came about, who can really sing, and why he thinks the audience will buy it.
BI: The first time I saw the words “Grey’s Anatomy: The Musical Event,” I did a double take. How did this happen?
TP: We were on a writers’ retreat between seasons one and two, at a resort, just sitting around. A lot of us come from a theatre background. We were talking about musicals, we had had a few drinks, and we started singing songs. [“Grey’s” creator] Shonda [Rhimes] loved that. She said, “wouldn’t it be great to do a musical episode?” And we all said, “Mmm… no. I don’t know about that.”
It doesn’t exactly scream “natural fit.”
The last thing you want is doctors dancing down a hallway and all that cheesiness. We all agreed we wouldn’t do it — unless we could find a way to make it “Grey’s.” Music is such an integral part of the show — we’ve broken bands, and we take a lot of pride in that.
So when did this go from tipsy brainstorm to actual plan?
Recently, the idea came up again because of the people we now have on the show. Sara Ramirez has a tremendous talent. Kevin McKidd sang in a rock n’ roll band in Scotland. And Chandra Wilson comes from a musical background. Shonda thought it could help the storytelling with Callie [played by Ramirez] and the things she wants.
The network’s reaction must have been priceless.
They balked at the idea. We couldn’t talk them into it, so we had to show them. We put together a musical presentation. While we were shooting, Shonda and I were calling bands, rehearsing the actors, arranging songs. We set up chairs and had liquor, made it like a little cabaret.
Sara, Kevin and Chandra sang. I knew they had it in them to move [the network execs] emotionally, and they did.
So we know those three can sing — Ramirez won a Tony. But the rest of the cast didn’t sign up for this. What was their reaction?
Well, it’s intimidating, knowing you’re going to be singing next to a Tony winner. Kate Walsh and Ellen Pompeo were both very hesitant. But we won everybody over eventually. We found out Chyler Leigh has a great voice, and thank God Eric Dane and Jessica Capshaw can sing, because they’re so integral to Callie’s story.
The cast started working with a vocal coach in October, and by the end of January we had done the album. Then we started shooting the episode.
Singing in a studio is one thing. Singing while performing TV-surgery is quite another.
It was challenging. The actors had to use earwigs to hear the music they were singing to, because otherwise the mics being used to record the dialogue would pick up the playback. We took about 14 days to shoot the episode, where we usually come in at 8 or 9.
As we speak, the album from the episode, which came out today, is already 15th on the iTunes chart. Fans clearly like the idea of the cast singing. But did you worry it wouldn’t translate onscreen?
The first time someone opened their mouth to sing, it was on the first day of shooting. We did a rehearsal, and as we went into lighting mode I walked off the stage. I thought, “What are we doing? This is just strange.” I thought I had made a tragic mistake.
Then I came back, we started shooting, I heard the music and realised it was going to work. And I think the audience will have that initial, “they’re singing?” But that’s at the top of the rollercoaster. Then you go on the ride, and the music hits you right in the heart.
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