When you’re at “The Voice,” every single note is like an emotional Tilt-A-Whirl. One minute, you’re screaming and hugging because things you’re feeling the music flow through you. The next minute, you’re looking for the nearest shoulder to weep on because you forgot a lyric or were further away from your pitch than the New York Mets. And that’s not even the contestants….that’s what it’s like for Michelle McNulty.
“It happens all the time,” gushes the unabashedly enthusiastic casting director for NBC’s hit music competition series. “I’m a disaster backstage. I’ve gone through the entire process with these people, getting them to that moment when they get in front of the coaches. Sometimes it makes me want to get up and dance. Sometimes my heart breaks. But with every single one, I’m back there screaming and hitting a pretend button for them to get picked.”
The emotion is understandable. As hard as it is for her to watch the singers perform, it was just as difficult for her to get them there in the first place. McNulty oversees a 12-person staff that starts scouring the country for singers three months before “The Voice’s” season begins. The casting is done in two very separate ways. First, like “American Idol,” there are the open auditions. This season, they were held in eight cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Nashville, Atlanta, Houston San Francisco and Orlando.
In a process that can take up to three days per city, each member of McNulty’s staff sits in a room where one by one, singers come in to perform a tune a capella. If they impress the talent scout enough, they’re invited back the next day to perform again, but this time they can bring an instrument. And if they pass that test, they earn an invitation to head to Hollywood. Just like Lindsey Pavao, who came through the San Francisco open call to blow the coaches away in Week One with her unique, sultry style.
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McNulty doesn’t sit in a giant red chair with a button when she first hears the singers, but she does “keep my head down so I don’t see them, kind of my version of the blind audition. If I get goosebumps, my head goes up. I get taken out of the fact that I’m in an audition. The voice just catches me and I’m swept away. Kim Yarbrough’s audition this year was like that.”
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In addition to the open calls, “Voice” talent recruiters use some investigative skills to turn up other singers with potential. McNulty says her staff will seek suggestions from executives at record labels, search for popular YouTube videos, monitor websites devoted to unsigned bands and check clubs around the country “to see who is selling out.” Anyone who gets discovered this way still has to come in to audition for the show’s casting department, and “some do well but some crash and burn” even though they’re already making a living as a singer.
Several performers who have already made it through the first two episodes of Season two made it in this way, including Chris Mann and Tony Lucca. Mann was referred to the show by someone at a record label and he “blew us away in his first audition, not just doing opera stuff but a Josh Groban song as well. Lucca also came to the show via an outsider’s recommendation, which is ironic given that he used to perform with Christina Aguilera on the Mickey Mouse Club.
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“We didn’t know anything about that connection at first,” insists McNulty. “Only after we talked to him did we find out. But what sold us on him was his voice. It was phenomenal, and that’s why he made it on to the show.”
Still others seek out the show with an offer to audition, like Juliet Simms. She’s been in bands for years, performing on bills that included the likes of Katy Perry. Explains McNulty, “She’d been doing this for a long time but had never blown up. Normally someone like her wouldn’t audition for a show like this, but once she knew about “The Voice,” it was something she wanted.”
That’s definitely one change McNulty has noticed between Seasons One and Two. Now that good singers looking for a break have seen what that show is, more started turning out at open calls or networking with their contacts to earn an audition invitation. However they got themselves in front of the coaches, though, everybody who performs has one thing in common: their most passionate fan.
“To know where they got their start, and to see where they are now….that means so much to me,” McNulty says. “I’m helping them achiever their dream, and that’s the greatest thing about my job.”