American Idol Hollwood Week
Credit: Michael Becker/Fox

Gone are the halcyon days of American Idol auditions, in which the judges would put 50-plus people (of whom we viewers would get to meet at least… 10?) through to the next round. Tonight, the two-week “Hollywood Round” — guys this week, girls next — begins on Fox. “The minute we hit Hollywood, we go, ‘God, we’ve got 300 kids here,” executive producer Ken Warwick told EW in the midst of shooting Hollywood Round footage. “So the whole mental thing changes to ‘Who can we cut, and why?”

Below, Idol honchos Warwick and Nigel Lythgoe on what to expect.

As usual, the Hollywood Round has three parts: A cappella, the treacherous group exercise, and solos. The a cappella section, or “the lines,” are often the most subjective, make-or-break moments for the contestants. “I’ll think someone’s terrible; someone else will think they’re great,” said Warwick. “There are kids who’ve walked out of here devastated who could quite legitimately have been in the Top 10 or even more.”

Producers chose the groups this time. Sick of seeing contestants finding their friends early on and getting in unfair extra practice time, Team Idol “threw a cat among the pigeons, as they say,” according to Warwick. “Voices — we [arranged the groups] with voices. We did it with the keys that they were in,” said Lythgoe. “There’s one couple who share a room, and the big guy snores, and the little guy didn’t get any sleep — so we made sure we put them together.” How lovely!

Each group then chooses its own song from a selection of 20. “A lot of them don’t know the songs, which is really important to us,” said Lythgoe. “Because when you do ‘Music from the Movies,’ normally most of these kids don’t know songs from five years ago. If you’re in a part of the country where the radio stations don’t actually play that kind of music, you’re at a terrible disadvantage. So it’s fascinating.”

And here in the group round is where the cuts can come the quickest. “Some people really, really can’t do it — they can’t pick and learn a song in the period of time we need to do it in the show,” Lythgoe went on. “We need to sort of be up front with whether they’re going to be okay.”

The solo round: You better work! EW was on hand for Warwick and other producers’ “pep talk” to the boys following the group round, headed into the solos, and there was no shortage of tough love. On the short list of things to remember: Show up on time (a vehement complaint towards this group, apparently). Show off your maximum amount of range while singing the most relevant parts of a song. Dress to impress. Bring up your worries with the vocal coaches and accompanists — it’s your one shot! Be the squeaky wheel, basically. Absolutely do not play an instrument unless it’s second nature to you. Random xylophones are not always cute.

And above all — “I said this to you yesterday, and a lot of you didn’t do it today,” Warwick told the guys. “Pick the right bloody key!”

Girl power! According to Lythgoe, the judges had to be reminded during Hollywood Round filming that it’s not necessarily about whether one contestant was better than the person standing next to him or her, but whether that contestant was truly a standout against the entire rest of the pack. “It was tougher with the girls, who are all very strong voices,” he said. “With the boys, there were real standouts.”

And expect to see hidden gems. “There are kids who were not in the audition shows who are turning out to be fabulous,” said Warwick. “We’re going back and telling the producers, ‘Find out where this kid was standing in the line. Find out where they were in the auditorium, in the football stadium. Dig up that footage. Let’s find out what – because we interview every kid that comes in before the judges – find out where there first interview was, what they’re about, what’s their story, is there a story? Is there not a story?”

Of course, much of the Hollywood Round shows will consist of followups with contestants we’ve already met — the coverage of which is Warwick’s job to carefully monitor during filming. “Very often, the judges get the names wrong, and and the cameras don’t know who they’re going to,” he said. “Because I direct the audition shows, I know that if there’s a story that we’re promoting, I can tell the director, ‘make sure you favor him a little on camera’.”

If the judges are split on a contestant, and it’s someone with a “big story,” Lythgoe, the more hands-on “people person” of the producing duo, would be the one to jump in at that point and fight for that person — it occasionally “becomes a casting vote,” said Warwick.

We’ll have more from Lythgoe and Warwick in the days ahead.

Reporting by Adam B. Vary

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