Katherine McPhee on her career and new marriage
In a “here today, gone tomorrow” entertainment industry laden with relationship scandals, substance abuse, and celebrity feuds; Katharine McPhee has managed to successfully keep herself above the fray and evolve as a singer, songwriter, and actress since she made her splash on the fifth season of American Idol 14 years ago where she was the runner up. At age 35, McPhee has gone on to release five albums and play lead roles in NBC’s Smash (Karen Cartwright) and CBS’ Scorpion (Paige Dineen).
McPhee established herself as a serious musician and actress before playing the lead in Waitress on Broadway and West End from 2018 through 2020.
This summer, McPhee will celebrate her two-year anniversary to iconic music industry mogul and husband David Foster. The two are embarking on a joint tour which includes a number of tri-state area shows. Recently, before an appearance at Mayo PAC in Morristown, McPhee spoke with me in her dressing room in an unfiltered conversation.
American Idol truly set the bar for a singing competition television series. Is there a certain key to success when it comes to establishing your own brand after appearing on a show of that caliber?
Katharine McPhee: When I was on the show it was so much earlier in the show’s development. I was on during the fifth season and now the show is currently on its 18th season. Right after I appeared on the show, I realized there is a lot of brand association that goes along with being on a talent competition. You have to think in terms of how a record company will perceive you as well as what type of record they will want to release based upon the song choices that you make. Hence, if I were to go back in time, I would be a bit more strategic about it in terms of song selections within the genre they gave us, and moreover, what songs within that genre are consistent with the record I want to make as an artist. In hindsight, I believe it is crucial in a talent competition to show who you are as a particular artist or brand. I do not think I necessarily did that. That is the way I look at it now, not how I looked at it back then.
Ultimately, it definitely worked out.
KM: It did work out (laughs), however it took a lot of ups and downs for me to figure it out. When I came off American Idol, I spent years auditioning for independent films, television shows, and movies. For example, I had tested for a medical drama pilot that had already been picked up by NBC, but they wanted me to test for a role. Ultimately, I did receive the offer, but I wisely passed on it. While it was going to series with the potential for me to have a recurring role, I did not love the show, nor did I believe the pilot was that good. Nevertheless, it was worth it because come the next year during pilot season, I was now on NBC’s radar. Although going on American Idol gave me a leg up, I still had to sort of start from scratch in the acting arena, go on auditions and become acquainted with casting directors and networks alike in the same manner as any other actor.
You’re a very versatile actress, having held major roles in NBC’s Smash and CBS’ Scorpion, which fans continue to request be renewed for another season. What are the odds?
KM: I am a Marilyn in the making (laughs) I receive messages all day long on Instagram ala “Bring back Smash! Bring back Scorpion! I am so mad at the writers who ended it.” I appreciate the people’s passion. However, I do not have the rights to make the aforesaid happen. I have reached out to executives to try to get the green light on certain projects which can be done once you’ve developed those connections. Nonetheless, it is very difficult.
What attracts you to a particular role or genre? Furthermore, where do you hope to take your film career?
KM: I am open to projects which invigorate me with excitement. There is this feeling you get when you read for a character in a script that, while you are reading it, you become invested, interested in the outcome, and yearn for the chance to audition and in turn receive the offer. That is the best way I can describe the feeling. If I do not feel that when I read a script, but rather disinterest and lack of intrigue, I typically pass on the material and move on to the next thing. I do not have an interest in pursuing horror films, however I did receive one of my first roles in Shark Night 3D which I do not regret because, being a young actress with minimal experience, it was a great opportunity to learn. There has to be a stepping point for everyone. Now that I have garnered a lot of experience, I am looking for roles which appeal to who I really am.
You’ve received rave reviews for your performance in Waitress having opened the show on Broadway in New York and West End in London alike starring as lead Jenna Hunterson. Things came full circle when you reprised your role and closed out Waitress on Broadway last month. You played this role for nearly the past two years, what was the experience like?
KM: I was experiencing major FOMO in the fall because my winter tour dates with the great Andrea Bocelli sort of overlapped some of the Waitress dates, and I feared it would not work out. Fortunately, with help from the musical director, we made it work. Words can’t describe what it is like to be able to open and close out a show such as this. I love being on Broadway and West End. I get so fulfilled by working hard and being super focused. However, the difficult thing about doing Broadway is that you give up all of your holidays and sacrifice so much family time. I have developed a new respect for people who work in theatre. Right now, I am looking for the next new show that is original and something that has never been done before which is worth me giving up family time with my new husband, my sister, her nephew, etc.
Although your current marriage to David Foster has faced criticism for superficial reasons, i.e. age, you both appear to have a lot in common, from being musicians to having been previously married. Now that you are newlyweds, will you two collaborate on a full-length album or musical?
KM: Contrary to the trolls online who claim I married David Foster so I can get a step up in my career, I am not as motivated as a recording artist as I was in my early twenties. However, I do feel there is a special record that we can make together. I tend to be somewhat of a realist, which some misconstrue as being negative or a “Debbie Downer” when it comes to my own music career. I had said to David once, “No one is sitting around waiting for the next Katharine McPhee record to be released.” My husband’s reply was, “To be honest, nobody was sitting around waiting for the next Natalie Cole record to come out. We just made a record and ended up winning the Grammy for Album of the Year in conjunction with five subsequent Grammy awards as well that year (1992).”
When David said that, I realized I had to change my attitude, because you never know. Also, if I love singing which I do, I should not care about what people are thinking about me regardless. With that said, David and I are embarking on The Hitman Tour from January through May with more potential dates to be added.
You two are giving the fans what they want. What can attendees expect on this 2020 tour?
KM: David’s team actually approached me to do it. It is a great way for us to be together, because we spent almost six months apart when I was in Waitress in London and he was judging on Asia’s Got Talent. It is nice to find projects to keep us together so we can have a personal and professional life concomitantly. If you are anywhere from 25 to 75, it is not until you attend a David Foster production that you realize all of the jams you loved were either written and/or produced by David. You will recognize all of his music. David has an amazing team of musicians on this tour and tells tales about the legends he has discovered (Celine Dion: Michael Buble). This is truly a personal, entertaining and unpredictable show. Now, with me in the mix, there is a romance element that has been added.
In closing, over the years you have garnered a particularly large LGBTQ following. How have you embraced that, and moreover, do you have a message for our readers?
KM: My LGBTQ fan base are some of my most loyal fans, having followed me from American Idol to Smash through Broadway. I have always felt a close connection to my LGBTQ fans specifically because they’ve accepted me through all of the different avenues I have gone on in my career. In June 2018, during Pride Month, I wrote a love letter to the LGBTQ community which was published in Billboard. Last year, in 2019 I headlined the Vacaya inaugural Pride cruises. David even joined me. It is refreshing to be around people who just want to love who they want to love. My LGBTQ fan base has been the most supportive and non-critical of my marriage. Thank you, this community always has my most thorough support.