After completing a 14 year, 15 season run of being the pianist, arranger, vocal coach and associate musical director of “American Idol,” Michael Orland is back in the hot seat for the ABC reboot — and feels reborn.
“Are you loving this new season as much as I am?” Orland asks Variety.
The truth is, Orland relishes his role assisting the kids through auditions, Hollywood Week, and now the live episodes, which will air every Sunday night through next month’s May 20 and 21 season finale and the crowning of the new Idol.
“I literally love these kids. I really am having so much fun with this Top 10 right now,” he says. “Was I disappointed in the results? Yes, I thought there were a couple of people missing, even from Top 24, that I was sad to see go. But, that’s how attached we become as the vocal coaches. We become so attached to the contestants, before we know their story, before we know any back story on them, that all the producers know, ’cause they’ve done all the auditions and stuff.”
Orland has been there for the crowning of winners and now stars Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Fantasia, David Cook and Phillip Phillips, as well as talent that didn’t win but have made a huge impact in the entertainment world — from Adam Lambert to Chris Daughtry, Katharine McPhee and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson. How are this season’s contestants stacking up to the Idols of the past?
“I think, overall, this group of kids are so talented and so different. Vocally, I think it’s the best, best, best season just overall,” he says. “These contestants are like my children. I think that they’re very, varied, and all different styles, and they look great. I think a couple of them could use a fun makeover. I hope that they’re open to it. I just think vocally, they’re there.”
He has also been there for every incarnation of judge panels — including the infamous Season 12 with Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj. How is the new panel — Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan — holding up?
“The thing I love about these judges is that their chemistry between the three of them is very real, and very natural. You can that they like each other. That’s something you can’t fake, which we all saw during the Mariah season,” he says. “This was the real deal. You couldn’t get better chemistry than Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul, but this is pretty close to it. They’re all really into each other, and supportive, and it’s fun. It’s a fun chemistry. The first time I saw it in action, I was like, ‘Oh this is nice.'”
The other big difference is with this group of millennials and their social media savvy, he says.
“They’re doing Instagram Live stories all the time. They post a lot on Instagram. That’s their biggest thing. And they all do that Facebook Live thing,” he says.
This was most evident to Orland when the kids visited Disneyland with this week’s guest mentor, “Frozen” and Broadway star Idina Menzel. Pennsylvania contestant Catie Turner noticed that everyone in the park recognized the top 10 on sight.
“It was fun walking through the park with the kids, and people were freaking out. I walked with a bunch of people, and it was so fun to see,” he says. “I was standing up at the Metro show with Idina, and the 10 kids, and they did a thing where they leaned over the balcony we were on, looking over the park, and the park went crazy. Everybody starting taking pictures and yelling out, ‘Idina’ and the kids’ names. Literally, 10 or 20 seconds later, Catie got excited, and shouted, ‘Look. Our picture’s already on someone’s Instagram.'”
“These kids have these opportunities with social media today, that never existed, ever. Even in the past it didn’t exist like it did. Even like on Season 15 it wasn’t like it is now,” he says. “These kids, in the beginning, like Effie Passero, and a couple of those people that didn’t make it through, they have such opportunities to do big things, because of their social media presence.”
America is going to see the top 10 show their stuff tonight, as Menzel mentors each vocalist through Disney night.
“I’m excited for America to see Idina. She was so great. You know I worked with her a few times before, and when I found out that she was going to be the mentor, I texted her and I was so excited. She was really excited,” he says.
Asked what Menzel did with the kids, Orland teased there were a few technical pointers that will definitely make a difference in tonight’s (April 29) episode.
“She helped with a lot of vocal things. She has some of the hardest songs ever written in show business, ‘Defying Gravity,’ and ‘Let it Go.’ They’re the rangiest, hardest songs to sing. And she’s like, ‘You know, you have to have a Plan B, when your voice isn’t 100%, you have a Plan B,’” he says. “But if you’re still singing to somebody, you still have the same intention, and we try to drill that with the kids every day. That it doesn’t matter if you hit the high note, you can still make somebody feel something without belting a high E-flat. You know what I mean?”
As a vocal coach, Orland offers a few tidbits.
“The biggest thing we offer these kids is some confidence. It’s so amazing to watch some of them just take off with it, and run,” he says. “We definitely try to steer them in a certain direction, but we’re technically not allowed to say, ‘No, don’t do that song, do this one.’ It’s the only thing I love that ‘American Idol’ has never done.”
With only a month left to the finale, America has their work cut out for them, as each week will have multiple eliminations as opposed to previous seasons. Adding to the excitement, voting will be live in every time zone and all 50 states for the first time ever.
“These kids are going home so fast,” he says. “We need nine weeks to do this show, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t want to ever lose more than one. Losing more than one is devastating to me.”
And with the ratings starting to uptick every week, does Orland see a renewal for a second season in the future?
“Oh, there’s no question it’s going to get renewed,” he says.