America's got talent, but not everyone is lining up to audition for TV's growing number of singing competition shows. That's where Michelle McNulty, the casting director for NBC's new hit series The Voice, comes in. McNulty and her team spent months tracking down performers in clubs, at rehearsal studios, on YouTube and via personal contacts in order to find the right contestants.
TV critics have been impressed with the caliber of talent on The Voice, particularly in the premiere episode — and credit much of the show's early success to those performances. "We were looking for singers that might not audition for American Idol or any of those other competition shows," McNulty says. "We were looking for real artists."
At first, it wasn't always an easy sell to performers burned out by auditioning for other shows or not a fan of series like Idol. But McNulty and her team took the time to explain The Voice's concept: "We showed them how the blind auditions worked and who these mentors might be," she says. "We also told them we were not showing a bunch of silly people who wanted their 15 minutes of fame. This is a show about artists and singers who are on the grind."
McNulty started her career as a dancer, but as that career came to a close, fell into casting. She eventually worked with The Voice executive producer Mark Burnett on his previous singing competition, Rock Star, and has also cast series like America's Next Dance Crew and The Sing Off.
"I've been so fortunate that the talent-based shows have become my niche in a way," she says. "I was a dancer my whole life, so it's awesome now when singers and performers come in and audition for me. When we go through this process I like to make sure it's enjoyable and not too cutthroat."
McNulty developed a massive database of undiscovered talent around the country, which came in handy when Burnett was given the task of quickly mounting The Voice this spring.
"She went out there and really busted her ass to make sure we looked all over for undiscovered talent," Burnett says. The Voice has been open with the fact that it didn't rely solely on open auditions (like the ones seen on Idol), although it did hold casting calls in eight cities. One insider says it's an open secret that every show has casting agents who recruit talent to audition. Some performers even find themselves being pursued by multiple shows, he adds.
"You wouldn't be able to do a show with this quality of contestant if you weren't going out there and seeking them out," Burnett says. "Some people came through via online, whole other people were a result of [McNulty's] excellent team going around the country and meeting with managers and watching performers play in small clubs."
Adds McNulty: "Social media has been amazing [in finding talent]. But it's still nice to go to a club and see them. Are they selling out the clubs? How dedicated are their fans?"
In one unique case, McNulty's team decided to pursue former American Idol contestant Frenchie Davis, who had been dumped by Idol over racy photos in her past. "In her instance, she was never eliminated because of her singing," McNulty says. "We all know she has this big voice and is the perfect talent for this show."
Another contestant (and early favorite), Javier Colon, released two albums for Capitol Records and another after the label dropped him. "Javier had never auditioned for another show," says McNulty, who's particularly proud of recruiting him for The Voice. "There are always kids out there who want to be on TV, and we've definitely seen people who have auditioned for all of the shows. But my team is unbelievable in finding these nuggets and people who have never auditioned for another series."
All told, McNulty and her staff flew 250 performers to Los Angeles to audition for The Voice's producers. From there, 100 people were chosen to sing in front of the show's coaches, Christina Aguilera, Adam Levine, Cee Lo Green and Blake Shelton.
"I made a commitment to the four coaches that there would not be any deliberately bad people that we're expecting you to make comedically harsh comments toward," Burnett says. "They were all either good, very good or great."
Now that viewers and potential contestants are familiar with the show, Burnett expects the talent pool to grow tenfold in Season 2. (Although The Voice hasn't yet been picked up for another cycle, NBC is said to be seriously considering bringing it back this fall.) "The hardest year to cast is always the first year of a show," Burnett says.
But between Idol, The Voice and the upcoming Platinum Hit and The X Factor, isn't the nation tapped out on talent? "There are still so many performers out there grinding on," McNulty says. "It's our job to find them."