You have to hand it to Nigel Lythgoe.
After wrapping the season finale of “American Idol,” the producer/TV personality took a whole three days of vacation before coming back to talk about his new E! series, “Opening Act,” premiering Monday, July 9.
The “Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance” co-executive producer once again gives unknowns a chance at the big time, but this time there’s no real audition and no competition. Sifting through the myriad singers and bands who have put themselves on YouTube or elsewhere on the Internet, the show’s producers find the ones they think could have a real shot at stardom and ambush them with a platinum opportunity — to open for an established international act. There’s just one hitch: They have only five days to prepare.
Lythgoe seems enthusiastic about working on a show that distinctly lacks the “crash-and-burn” appeal of the “Idol” auditions or any sort of backbiting and trickery.
“It’s a different style of show,” he tells Zap2it. “We’re not there to sort of crucify anybody. … It’s not complicated in any way. We go onto the Internet, find the talent, we balance it against who’s out there on tour, and we go and knock on their doors and say, ‘You’re really good at performing in front of the camera in your own home. How are you going to be performing in front of a large audience? Because you’re opening for Rod Stewart in Las Vegas.’ [Or] ‘You’re opening for Jason Mraz in Hawaii.’ “
The surprise element is a major part of the fun, but Lythgoe explains it’s the stress and struggle these hopefuls endure that make it worth watching. “We want to entertain the public — we want to keep the public watching,” he says. “The more the public watch, the more they’ll understand what these kids go through in those five days of ‘I am good enough.’ ‘No, I’m not.’ Yes, I am — I’m gonna do it.’ “
The producers don’t just throw their newfound quarry to the wolves of their headliner’s public. In the five-day run-up to performing for a massive live and television audience, “Opening Act” puts them through a sort of boot camp to prepare their image and presentation, meeting with everyone from voice coaches to stylists, and allowing the participants the chance to construct their image with a bigger budget than their everyday lives might allow.
“Wherever we can, we have the thrill of opening Neiman Marcus to allow a young lady to go running around the store and get whatever clothes she wanted for her opening,” Lythgoe says. “We try to keep it as entertaining and as thrilling for the participants as well.”
But one has to wonder: Are all of these unknown discoveries so thrilled about being doorstepped with the chance for fame?
“We have had a parent be mortified and unsupportive,” Lythgoe concedes. “[For one participant], as we speak, religion is getting in the way. And that’ll be part of the show, absolutely. … But no, the actual participants themselves have been thrilled. Nervous, naturally — but thrilled.”
An obvious question is whether any of the “Opening Act” talent might be opening for any of the “Idol” judges who are on tour this summer.
“No!” Lythgoe says, laughing. “I wasn’t sure that Aerosmith was actually going to be doing the tour until recently. And also, what’s lovely is, we’ve sort of got everybody we need right now. But Aerosmith offered. [Jennifer Lopez’s manager] Benny Medina said, ‘Look, Jennifer would love someone to come and open for them, too.’ And we just haven’t got the programs at this moment in time. But what I love about it is people do want to sort of give back and feel as though they’re giving back by giving somebody the opportunity.”
Those giving back for Season 1 include Nicki Minaj, Rod Stewart, Jason Aldean, LMFAO, Brad Paisley and others. But no matter who headlines, it’s still up to the raw nerve and talent of the aspiring performers to make their mark.
“They’ve got to make a lasting impression very quickly,” Lythgoe says. “They’re going to get one or two numbers. We’ve been very lucky — one of the big surprises was the number of artists that said, ‘I really like this person — I’d like to do a duet with them,’ which has happened on a couple of occasions now. And we’re thrilled with that, you know? But once they go out there … yeah, we’ll cut your hair. So what? That doesn’t mean to say your talent’s going to be any better. Yeah, we can make you look a little better, but in five days, we’re not going to be able to do too much.”