'American Idol' Finale: Nigel Lythgoe Reveals White Guys With Guitars Medley, Bowie Tribute and More

Nigel Lythgoe - Getty - H 2016
Getty Images

Nigel Lythgoe - Getty - H 2016

"I wanted people to realize the impact that 'American Idol' had ... and remember how great these voices were."

Nigel Lythgoe was there for American Idol's first note and he'll be there for the last.

The executive producer, who started at Pop Idol in the U.K. then transferred to the U.S. when the show was sold to Fox in 2002 (he took a few seasons off during the series' 15-year run), is helming the grand finale on Thursday night, which will feature Idol alums of every stripe. Lythgoe took time out from a very busy Wednesday rehearsal schedule to sit down with The Hollywood Reporter and offer a preview of what's to come ...  

When did you get the call to do the finale and what were your initial thoughts?

I got the call at the beginning of the year. My initial thoughts were, why would I want to come back? I had the best days of American Idol and I got fired. That ego part of me took over, so I didn’t let it take over. I said I would think about it. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized it wasn’t just about me, it was about all of the fans that loved American Idol, all the people who supported it for so many years, and there was really nobody else except [senior supervising producer] Patrick Lynn who was there on day one. And it was closure for me. I was there when the baby was born back in the U.K., and I’ll be there to sweep the stage and turn the lights out.

You’ve been present all season, from Hollywood Week through all of the live shows. Why was it important to be around?

I wanted to get back into the psyche of Idol, trying to feel where they are now. I knew where I’d taken them but over the last few years, we’ve lost a lot of humor. We’ve taken the shows a little too seriously. When you’ve got three major stars like the judges now, a lot of the focus goes on the judges and away from the talent, which I’ve never been in favor of. The judges became stars in their own right because of American Idol, [they weren’t] stars before they came on American Idol. I also wanted to understand this year’s top 10 and besides that, the main factor, I love Idol.

How did your game plan for the finale evolve in terms of what you could execute?

You’ve got 15 seasons to play with. You are never going to appeal to everybody. Unfortunately, there is not an infinite amount of money. I have not had any responsibility for the budget at all, but I believe it has been cut down from where it was, which is a shame on the very last show. Money should be put into it, not taken away from it. So I had to look at who made an impact and then try and get them. We couldn’t get everybody. I was thrilled to get the 15 American Idols back for one last shout.

Was Phillip Phillips a last-minute addition? And did that have anything to do with the lawsuit he filed against 19 Entertainment?

It really wasn’t a last-minute addition. I’m no longer working for 19, I’m employed now by Fremantle as an independent. I have always tried to be totally out of the politics of American Idol. That’s for other people to argue about and I can get on with what I’m paid to do, which is produce the show. So I asked where can I get Phillip’s number. "Oh, we’re not at liberty to give you that number," and it was just getting silly. So I just went straight to his attorney and said, you know, I want to get this together. They were very good about it. Phillip is one of the happiest, most beautiful people that has ever won American Idol. He really is the sweetest of guys. And he’s just got a smile on his face most of the time and I love that. I was really happy to see him. He is really happy to be back and they’re loving what they’re doing.

What exactly is he doing?

There was this little thing that went out in the press called “white guys with guitars,” WGWG. So I put them all together, with their guitars, all doing this incredible Bowie tribute medley. It’s Kris Allen, Lee DeWyze, Phillip Phillips, David Cook and Nick Fradiani. And nowhere else can you get five American Idols together in one room. And I promise you, if they went out on tour, and each did 20 minutes in their own right and 20 minutes together, this is a sell-out tour, they’re so good together. The WGWG tour.

What other surprises can you reveal? 

There aren’t that many surprises, to be honest. It’s more the fact that I wanted people to realize the impact that American Idol had. I want people to remember how great these voices were. We’ve got over 50 coming back. And the judges coming back and the judges performing. And it’s not been easy doing a sort of retrospective because this entire season has been a retrospective, so I’ve sort of got to dodge around some of the areas. Fantasia Barrino, whom [former Idol producer] Kenny [Warwick] and I introduced to Gershwin and a little song called “Summertime," I would want her to sing that on the final show. And she’s already done it in the series. People say, "Oh, it doesn’t matter that they’ve seen them here." Well, it does take a little bit of the gloss off. But I think we’ve compromised well, and I’m 90 percent happy with the show as we’ve got it.

How do you decide what to include musically? 

I wanted to mix fan favorites with some modern songs. It’s been 15 years, so going back to the '60s is nearly 60 years ago — we’ve gotta be careful with that. And I’ve had so many people say, "The Voice does a lot of modern songs." They also do a lot of older songs. Great music is great music, and I don’t care what period it comes from. And a great singer singing great music is what you want at the end of the day. 

The opening song we hear is by Barry Manilow ...

There is something very special that precedes the opening number. When I saw it, it was inspiring to me. Back around season two, we did a Barry Manilow song called “One Voice" as a group number, so I thought how wonderful would that be to do a new arrangement where it starts with one person, then the kids who are in the top 2 and the top 3 ... until the stage is full of more than 50 American Idols. And it’s chilling. I think within the first four minutes of the show people are gonna be in tears.

With 140 finalists to choose from, how did you make your choices? Was it tough?

It was exceptionally tough because people are chosen for their personalities as well as their vocal ability and we had such a short time to put it together. I wanted to bring out the stars people remember, which includes someone like Sanjaya. And for the medleys by genres, I wanted the best singers that I could get in those areas. So that is how we did it. Then lots of people had to drop out at the last minute. We lost one of our country kids, Josh Gracin, through a family bereavement, and thank goodness Constantine Maroulis stepped in as a country boy. David Archuleta was unavailable, and then he called up two days ago and said he could come and be in the opening. 

What are your feelings about Idol coming to an end?

I don’t believe that this is the end. I believe there will be another incarnation for American Idol. And I think it’s wonderful that it’s taking a rest in order to sort it out. A lot of things need to be rethought about how you bring the focus back on the contestants. I think it needs humor back into it. And I think you have to find a way to regenerate bringing a collective audience together again. Because that is what drives the show, that is the heart of the show — it’s about the people investing their time, their energy and their vote in the program. That’s what makes it successful. And it’s real family entertainment.

Would you want to be part of a future Idol incarnation?

Absolutely, yeah. I mean it’s … really, egotistically, I’ve always felt as though it was my baby. And I want to continue to watch it grow and redevelop. And if we can have the smallest amount of success with any future project, yes, I would like to be a part of that.