Blood, sweat, finales

Times Staff Writer

Wednesday night's "American Idol" finale, in which David Cook was crowned the winner of Season 7, was a TV entertainment spectacle comparable in scale only to the Oscars. Yet unlike for that event, the "American Idol" crew has just one week to pull it together. Richard Rushfield -- the first journalist ever allowed to observe rehearsals for the show's finale -- recorded a diary of the week leading up to the show. (For a longer version, go to latimes .com/entertainment.)

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IF EVERY "American Idol" show starts with the music, then this unprepossessing white bungalow on a lot off Santa Monica Boulevard is the top of the assembly line -- where the basic pieces are put in place.

Hollywood

Friday, 5 p.m.

Inside, the current tenant, "American Idol" music director Rickey Minor, is conferring with his staff over rights clearances and arrangements, poring over song lists and supervising his three backup vocalists who are in the studio to lay down their tracks for the medleys of George Michael and Donna Summer songs that will be performed on Wednesday night's show. "I've got three things to do now, and 10 minutes have gone out of my life already," Minor says gently but firmly, reprimanding his crew after the conversation takes a detour.

Just 48 hours earlier, David Archuleta and David Cook had become the two finalists. Now the clock is ticking toward the finale, and Minor has to oversee the clearances, arrangements, productions and performances of, he estimates, 35 songs.

"It doesn't make sense to start working on this show early. Everything just ends up getting changed," says Matt Brodie, the show's assistant music director, as the three backup singers cluster around his laptop in the central mixing room, listening to and quietly singing along with their parts in Summer's anthem "She Works Hard for the Money."

As the singers go through the song in a recording booth, stopping to correct themselves, and then do it again, and again, Minor moves into the outer foyer. Asked why he isn't supervising the takes, Minor explains that although he is listening from where he is, "These singers have been with me for 10 years. So for a certain amount of time I push and I push, and then I let them do their thing and have trust that they have the professionalism to do it well."

IDC Dance Studio

Hollywood

Saturday, 10 a.m.

The Season 7 top 12 contestants, summoned back for the finale, are drilling their numbers. Their faces show signs of bleariness, but they dutifully step into place when ordered to go through the routine one more time.

At the moment, as the boys file out so the girls can begin running through their number, the reunited singers are focused largely on cracking up one another. Carly Smithson and Ramiele Malubay stand back to back and mime sultry, burlesque-type moves to the mirror.

"Really girls," cries choreographer Mandy Moore. "I have only an hour and 15 minutes left with you, and you have 75 hours until the show."

Chastened, but still effervescent, the room falls silent. "OK," Moore says, "we're going to go on a field trip." She leads them through the studio's hallway to a cold, dark, fire escape-like stairwell, making them line up on either side and practice walking down while singing the chorus of "She Works Hard for the Money."

"The reality is: Onstage we're a lot wider. We just need to see you walk down the stairs into the screen," Moore tells them, demonstrating how to fan out across the tiny landing when they reach the bottom.

"OK, this is a dancer's secret," she says. "A lot of people when they dance, if you want to move quick you just have to keep your stomach muscles tight."

Contestant Syesha Mercado interjects, "But when we're singing we have to put our stomach muscles out."

"Oh, that's true. So after you're done, pull them in."

An hour and a half-million notes later, they run through the entire routine and pace seamlessly through their steps. Looking fairly stunned but still giggling with excitement, the singers file out and down the stairs to the SUVs waiting to take them to their next appointment.

CBS Studios

Saturday, 1 p.m.

On a smoldering hot afternoon, this one building of soundstages on the Beverly Boulevard CBS lot has been turned into a veritable multiplex of reality TV titans. On the ground floor, Fox's "So You Think You Can Dance" (from the people who brought you "American Idol") has filmed its final preseason show, in which the aspiring dancers were informed whether they had been accepted onto the show or not.

Upstairs, the "American Idol" contestants slump on couches, awaiting their turns with Miles Siggins, the show's men's stylist, for their finale fittings.

Beside a long rack of clothes, David Cook, in his own wardrobe of Royals baseball cap and jeans, tries on Siggins' choices, sorting through some scarves he has brought.

"Logan has a guitar," Siggins tells him, "with brown piping." "If it's a lefty, I'll be amazed," Cook responds, carrying off a stack of clothes.

"Where's David Archuleta?" Siggins calls for his next customer. "Yeah," Cook echoes. "Where's Archie?"

Magically the show's youngest contestant materializes. He pauses to chat with one of the staff, not seeing Cook standing before him, palm outstretched for a five. Cook pauses a moment, before tapping Archuleta on the shoulder, producing his trademark spasm of giggles as he gives Cook a fist tap. "He doesn't just give it to you. You have to ask," Cook jokes.

Siggins gives Archuleta a gray jacket and jeans to try on. Archuleta steps into the changing room to try them on and then comes back to be photographed against a red wall by Siggins. Around the room, embracing a rare moment of calm, Jason Castro and Amanda Overmyer sprawl on couches taking a nap. Kristy Lee Cook speaks with a friend on the phone. Mercado listens to music through earphones. Chikezie and David Hernandez chat with Cook while he studiously works his way through a song on an acoustic guitar. Walking in, voice coach Debra Byrd stops near the door to survey the fashion bedlam unleashed across the room. "This is my rehearsal room," she says. She begins to round up everyone for a vocal session.

Burbank

Sunday, noon

With the temperature approaching 100, there may be no sleepier-looking street in the world than this little industrial drive a stone's throw from Burbank airport. But walking down a row of warehouse-like rehearsal spaces, turning a corner, one is suddenly overwhelmed by the sound of singing. A power ballad, seemingly by a choir, pours forth from one tucked-away building. Inside the air-conditioned space, the 12 finalists form a line in the middle of the room singing the chorus of George Michael's "Freedom." Behind them, the "Idol" band plays. Seated along a row of tables, crew members take notes, study laptop screens and huddle in conferences. Standing directly in front of the 12 are executive producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick, stage manager Debbie Williams, music director Minor and vocal coach Dorian Healy.

The sound fills the vast space, growing more and more melodic and intense as the song progresses. When it finishes, the room bursts into applause. Minor, however, calls out, "It's getting too big, so please help me."

They shortly transition to singing Michael's "Father Figure." Wearing a "Hard Day's Night" T-shirt, Lythgoe, the flamboyant Brit who, along with his fellow ex-dancer and "Idol" producer Warwick, is the guiding hand behind the "Idol" machine's U.S. franchise, becomes inspired by the song's Arabian musical themes and begins dancing in belly dance fashion, tapping his fingers as though equipped with finger cymbals. Inspired, the rest of the group joins in and soon becomes an undulating mass, singing, "I will be your father figure / Put your tiny hand in mine." As they reach the end, Williams, the production's wisecracking den mother, grabs Archuleta and wraps a scarf around his head, turban style.

Minutes later, a conference takes place around the two finalists. Cook sings a song to Archuleta, encouraging him through an arrangement. Lythgoe explains, "The Davids were going to do 'Homeward Bound' as their duet. Today was the first time we listened to it with the band and the two guys, they didn't know it and didn't connect with it. And it wasn't doing what we needed it to do -- which is showcase our two best singers. So then David Cook made the suggestion to do this song 'Hero,' from 'Spider-Man,' and he played it for us, and we thought that will definitely work, so we're doing that."

"Out of a hundred ideas I've had this season," Cook says, "I finally had one that Nigel likes."

Laughing Lythgoe wags his finger, "We're not there yet!"

Watching the contestants, one has the sense that although the excitement still animates them, the singers, as they go over one piece of the song for the nth time, have in fact become professionals. As much as they giggle and fool around at every moment of break, when the song starts up again, each dutifully falls into place and sings his or her part.

"I call this fast school," stage manager Williams says. "They learn about the business, and quick. And when you get to the end and the finalists have to sing three songs each, on top of everything else, well, that's when you see what they're really made of."

The group runs through "Father Figure" yet again, Minor dividing up the harmonic parts on the word "understanding." "Amanda can you take the bottom? Who can take the middle. Syesha why don't you take it in the middle?"

They run through it once more. Healy notes at the end, "Jason, you missed a note on the first part. Kristy Lee, you missed a note on the second."

Half an hour later, they finish running through the song. The Davids pack up and head over to meet Mike Myers. Most of the contestants go lounge for a few precious minutes in the sun. At the mikes, Carly Smithson and Michael Johns prepare to practice their duet of "The Letter." They listen through once and then step forward and sing it. For a few moments, the hive of activity comes to a halt. The pair's singing lifts up and rhapsodizes the room. Massive applause erupts when they are done as people appreciate the almost supernatural effect of talent amid this vast machinery. And then it is time to run through it again.

Nokia Theatre

Monday, 5 p.m.

The "American Idol" stage has been reconstructed, its set elements transported to the vast plane that fronts this 7,000-seat theater.

Onstage, Summer stands among female finalists, running through her medley. Debbie Williams' voice echoes through the theater as she calls out commands on her headset mike. Seats are marked for celebrities expected Tuesday night -- Clive Davis, Lori Laughlin, Constantine Maroulis. Last year's winner, Jordin Sparks, mills around the room greeting old friends from the production.

Between numbers, Lythgoe talks to some visitors about his recent surgery for a slipped disk.

"The treatment at Cedars was wonderful. I said, 'I'm going to come every season after the end of "American Idol." ' I've been in Cedars three times, when I had a heart attack . . . and now. All part of the fun of 'American Idol.' "

Williams calls out on her mike: "We need Brooke. Brookie Wookie." Brooke White takes the stage with folk rocker Graham Nash, and they run through a duet of "Teach Your Children." As they practice, in little camps around the vast stage, techies continue their work.

Asked if there have been many last-minute changes, Minor smiles. "It's all last-minute changes. Every single one. A bar changes here and everything has to adjust: lighting, choreography, cameras, the singers. But that's our job. To roll with it and to make it happen."

With the final pieces appearing to fall into place, Lythgoe responds to the question of whether he keeps any game day traditions. "I'm very nervous. That's the tradition. I try to have a little shot of Jack Daniels before the show, then after the show I try to have a very, very big one."

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richard.rushfield@latimes.com

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