"American Idol" has proven a starmaker for its winner and many of its runners-up, but not every former idol can duplicate the mainstream chart career of a Carrie Underwood. That's where Broadway comes in.
In 2008 Clay Aiken made his Broadway debut in "Monty Python's Spamalot." Fantasia Barrino did a stint as Celie in "The Color Purple." Even "AI" castoff Frenchie Davis turned rejection into a stage career in "Rent" and "Dreamgirls." Now Season 5 winner Taylor Hicks is taking his turn as "Grease's" Teen Angel, the role Frankie Avalon made famous in the 1978 movie.
"I'd been offered roles before I took the Teen Angel role, but I really wanted a role where I could get my feet wet in acting and theater instead of diving right in. I wanted a smaller role," says Hicks, 33. Unlike many of his fellow former "Idol" contestants who revel in Show Tune night, Hicks didn't have any musical theater experience. "I was always a musician and playing, but never did theater."
It isn't such a stretch from performing with a band.
"It's very interesting how similar it is. Playing off a musician and acting with someone is the same. You just use personality," he says. "I've had a blast with it."
The latest revival, which mixes music from the stage musical and the Olivia Newton-John/John Travolta film, also stars another reality TV vet. Lauren Ashley Zakrin was a finalist on MTV's "Legally Blonde The Musical: The Search for Elle Woods" and became the lead's understudy on "Legally Blonde's" first national tour. She plays Sandy in "Grease" when it kicks off its Charlotte run Tuesday (the show runs through Dec. 6).
Hicks may be crooning "Beauty School Dropout" until his current run in "Grease" ends in June, but he's not abandoning his career as a singer-songwriter. In March he released his latest album, "The Distance," on his own label, Modern Whomp.
"I'm also doing a song from my record in the encore of 'Grease.' Fans get to experience me as a singer-songwriter," he said.
There may not be a better role for Hicks than that of old school soul crooner. He's been playing one as leader of the Soul Patrol since "Idol." Even on "The Distance" he's quick to point out classic touches like subtle saxophone subtones where you can hear the horn player take breaths between notes.
"I definitely want to try to keep the lost art alive as much as possible. One of the ways I can do that is to implement the idea of a lost technique in my music and then talk about it. People who are of the average ear can experience it," he explains.
That's not to say he doesn't appreciate the convenience and speed of technology. "I enjoy new techniques of recording. You can record anywhere. I think as much art that is lost (with technology), there's just as much art gained. It's just a new form."