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'American Idol' exclusive behind-the-scenes report from L.A.: Your audition round burning questions answered!

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american-idolImage Credit: Michael Becker/FoxFor last month’s EW cover story on the new team behind the judging table at American Idol, I was invited by Fox to exclusively observe the Los Angeles auditions last November. During the 30-or-so minutes I got to sit amid the small village of cables, cameras, lights, monitors, and crew surrounding the makeshift Idol audition stage, I saw 13 people sing. Five of them, including Tim “I had a crush on J. Lo when I was in the 6th grade” Halperin, were sent to Hollywood, exactly as many as were seen getting golden tickets during last night’s Los Angeles audition episode. So, were the L.A. tryouts really as awful as they seemed on TV? In a word, no. 

In fact, I can report to you that I witnessed two classic over-the-top Idol auditions that were light years more interesting than the tone deaf college dropout and his buddy who so tediously dominated an entire segment of last night’s show. The first was a rail-thin gentleman in a page-boy cap and sunglasses who said to the judges, by way of explaining who he was, “I just love to party.” (I quite never caught his name, so we’ll call him Party Man.) Party Man launched into a wanly sung rendition of “You Sang to Me” by Marc Anthony (i.e. Jennifer Lopez’s husband), which J. Lo kindly judged to be “adorable” – it perhaps helped that, if you squinted a bit, Party Man looked like he could be Anthony’s skinnier nephew. Before Randy Jackson and Steven Tyler really had a chance to weigh in, however, the 28-year-old produced a prop mic and began fitfully gyrating through Usher’s “Confessions,” prompting J. Lo to declare, “You could be a good impersonator!” Sure, it was the sort of audition Simon Cowell would’ve eviscerated, but at least Party Man had a sense of showmanship. Viewers just got a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him glimpse of him as he left the audition room with the bad news.

The other larger-than-life auditioner I saw, meanwhile, did make it to Hollywood, but I never saw a single shot of him during the entire hour. Jacob, 23, was linebacker-large – he looked like he cleared six-feet-six-inches easy – with the combined personality of Glee’s Rachel, Kurt, and Mercedes dialed up all the way to 11. He entered the room with a blast of energy that never abated, even after Lopez asked him to “calm down for a second,” and his rendition of “Papa was a Rollin’ Stone” featured a crazy multi-octave range and one of the most outrageously melismatic high notes I’ve ever heard from an Idol auditioner. The thing is, when he reached the peak of his register, he nailed it. So the judges asked him to sing another song, this time without as many wild runs. He tackled “A Change is Gonna Come,” with maybe 75 percent less melisma, which was still 500 percent more than I heard from the rest of the auditions combined, but that was enough to make clear Jacob possessed a truly beautiful voice. “We’ve been waiting for you,” beamed S. Ty. But apparently not enough to put him on television last night. I can’t imagine we won’t get at least a taste of Jacob during Hollywood week, for the simple reason there’s simply so much of the kid, on every level, that I doubt the cameras could ignore him if they tried.

Here are a four more behind-the-scenes answers to some burning season 10 auditions questions:

Who is Jennifer Lopez always looking at?
That would be exec producer Nigel Lythgoe, who sits just off camera on the far stage-right corner of the audition platform, holding a dossier of all the forthcoming Idol wannabes on a clipboard on his lap. It was a bit startling to see just how close Nigel sits to the auditioning contestants, actually – he’s just about as proximate to them as the judges are, and I remain duly impressed that I’ve never seen the So You Think You Can Dance judge show up on camera, even when the show occasionally breaks the fourth wall and shows you all the equipment. Instead, Nigel jumps in between auditions with either a “preview” of who’s coming up – which, when I was present, amounted to Nigel puffing up the impending arrival of Party Man – or adjustments for the judges. (Nigel fought a clearly losing battle to get the judges to say “You’re through to Hollywood week” instead of “You’re going to Hollywood,” since they sorta already were in Hollywood.)

Where do contestants go when they enter the audition room?
Not straight to the judges. Most Idol fans already know about the silly fiction the show spins about those giant arena auditions occurring on the same day as the auditions before the judges (they’re often months apart). But you can count me as a bit surprised to discover that Idol also appears to compress the time between when the contestants step through the audition door and stand before the judges. I witnessed several contestants chat on camera with Ryan, disappear behind the doors, only to have someone else entirely appear before the judges on the nearby monitors where Ryan watches and listens to the auditions. Instead of going straight on to the judges, the contestants seem to sit on yet another row of stools lined up just off stage, awaiting their turn – which means they can hear whenever the person right before them triumphs, or bombs.

Where were Kris Allen and Fantasia?
You may have noticed the contestants auditioning while surrounded by near-life-size photos of all the American Idol winners – well, all of them save season 8’s Kris Allen and season 3’s Fantasia. Fear not; both of their photos were sitting just off stage (near that amply supplied craft service table). My impression was that, with nine winners, there simply wasn’t enough room for all of them, so they rotate different winners in on different days. Of course, I somehow doubt Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and Lee DeWyze ever lost their spot.

Are contestants and their requisite entourage truly always celebrating right after they win a golden ticket?
Not really. After watching the auditions, I was brought up to the (extremely quiet) holding room a few floors above, where a handful of contestants were nervously awaiting their turn to wait yet again downstairs, and then wait some more inside the audition room. While there, I noticed a young kid I’d just seen win his golden ticket come up with his mother and stand patiently by the elevators while a producer and a camera crew set up. The camera light turned on, the producer pointed at them, and – action! – the pair came screaming around the corner. It wasn’t that they weren’t genuinely happy; the producers just made sure their merriment was captured for posterity.

Another example: When I was done for the day, I had to wait to walk back to my car while Idol cameras shot footage of giant Jacob – see! there he is again! – whooping and hollering up a downtown Los Angeles street on a 90 degree day, until the producer yelled that he could stop and come back. As we passed on the sidewalk, I could hear Jacob muttering, “Oh, Lawd help me. They got me running down the street, Lawd – I’m just too big for this.”

Jacob, you will soon learn, if you haven’t already, that you can never be too big for American Idol.

Originally posted February 4 2011 — 7:00 AM EST

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