Emmys.com Features: In its first season, the Fox series went from cult fave to pop-culture phenom to multifaceted marketing machine. Despite its never-dreamed-of-success, Glee still glistens with the can-do courage of guys and gals who just want to put on a show. Read the Emmy Magazine story here.
Lea Michelle, Chris Colfer
Ever wonder what the Glee kids are like when the cameras aren’t rolling?
The answer can be found one spring evening in Long Beach, California. Here, in a real high school auditorium, with its Sunkist orange–painted walls and fraying fabric-covered seats, is where Glee’s group-number magic happens. On this particular night, the cast is performing U2’s “One,” and the song’s plea for unity is amplified by the actors’ coordinated wardrobe of jeans, button-down shirts and fresh white kicks.
As they stand onstage, waiting for the crew to adjust the lights, Jenna Ushkowitz, who plays the formerly stuttering glee clubber Tina, casually starts singing Madonna’s “Express Yourself.” The cast filmed its insta-classic homage-to-the- Material Girl episode weeks ago, but clearly the tune’s still stuck in the actress’ head. Her female costars look up from their BlackBerrys and iPhones and begin to join in.
Within moments, there are dance moves — an escalating mix of bops, twirls and jazz hands. The guys aren’t immune to the impromptu performance, either, snapping their fingers and tossing in some vocal riffs. But the crescendo comes when Heather Morris, the former Beyoncé backup dancer who plays dim-witted cheerleader Brittany, busts out a flurry of taps that would impress Savion Glover.
A smattering of onlookers cheer at the spontaneous display. It’s infectious, it’s euphoric, it’s like something right out of… Glee.
And evidently it’s not out of the ordinary. “This,” says a grinning Cory Monteith, who plays naíve jock–turned–show choir standout Finn, “is just another day at work.”
You might think the actors would regard performing in their downtime with the same enthusiasm that a contractor regards the prospect of rebuilding his own house. You’d be wrong, at least at this season-one stage. The Glee peeps have even been known to stick around after they’ve wrapped filming for the day to check out numbers they’re not in.
“We have to watch this,” Monteith instructs, nodding to the stage where one costar will soon belt out a highly emotional solo. “Your world is about to be rocked.”
There’s no denying that Glee rocked the world of television in its inaugural season. The story of Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) — an idealistic Spanish teacher determined to restore McKinley High’s struggling show choir to its former glory despite the machinations of cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) — gave both viewers and critics something to sing about, thanks to its irresistible mix of hormonal high-school melodrama and mesmerizing musical comedy.
Along the way, the Fox series evolved from cult favorite to pop-culture phenom, attracting a sizable — and desirably young — audience of Gleeks (as die-hard fans are known), making stars of the cast’s young newcomers and winning a slew of statuettes, from the Golden Globe for best comedy series to the Screen Actors Guild award for comedy ensemble.
What’s more, Glee has transcended the small screen to become a multifaceted marketing machine. At press time, the cast’s catchy covers of songs featured in the episodes had sold to the tune of 5 million downloads. The show’s multiple soundtracks have burned up the charts from here to Australia. And that live spring concert tour? It sold out in little more than the time it takes Sue Sylvester to scoff at Will Schuester’s hair.
What accounts for the Glee fever? Those behind it have some theories. “It’s certainly an upbeat show in challenging times,” says Kevin Reilly, Fox’s entertainment president. “But I don’t think that’s the reason it works. It works because it’s hugely entertaining. It’s a mix of stuff that is at turns very funny, surprising and a little insane, and it’s all wrapped up in an infectious beat.”
Ryan Murphy is certainly no stranger to outrageously addictive TV, having previously dreamed up the twisted FX hit Nip/Tuck. But he believes fans are responding to more than just his over-the-top storylines of fake pregnancies and clique warfare. For underneath its snarky exterior beats a pure heart, an unabashed idealism and a celebration of the underdog in us all.
“The message is about inclusion,” he says. “The show’s about having a voice, and singing loud and proud. It’s about the power of possibility.”
Though not even Murphy expected the series to strike such a chord. “I thought it was too unusual in its tone to become a mainstream success,” he says, before adding with a dry laugh, “I was pleasantly proven wrong.”
With Nip/Tuck winding down, the writer-producer-director — who was signed to a development deal with Fox — was in the mood to take on something lighter. He’d read a feature-film script by aspiring writer Ian Brennan about a high school show choir and — while it wasn’t the sunny fare he was looking for, with its depiction of drug addiction and a teacher more akin to Mary Kay Letourneau than Mr. Schue — Murphy saw the potential to combine Brennan’s material with his own desire to do a one-hour comedy musical.
“I thought it had to be more uplifting and optimistic to have a shot,” remembers the producer, who envisioned Glee from the start as a companion to Fox’s family-friendly musical juggernaut, American Idol. So, together with Brennan and Nip/ Tuck executive producer Brad Falchuk, he set about completely revamping the script. The process was both productive and exhilarating — so much so that the three — who share credit as co-creators — remain the show’s only writers. (Murphy and Falchuk are executive producers of Glee with Dante DiLoreto; Brennan is a coexecutive producer.)
“We were three very distinct voices coming together,” Falchuk says. “Ryan’s reference points for underdog stories are My Fair Lady and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Mine are Rudy and The Bad News Bears. I wasn’t in a glee club. I was the guy throwing kids in dumpsters, though I did feel awful about it.”
If Falchuk gives voice to characters like Finn and Puck (Mark Salling), Brennan’s pitch-black indie sensibility most informs the venom-spewing, tracksuit-loving Sue Sylvester. As for Murphy, a onetime member of Indiana University’s Singing Hoosiers, it seems he can sell anything — even a primetime musical series to a roomful of TV execs who were painfully aware that one hadn’t worked since Fame faded more than two decades ago.
Admittedly, the network and studio had fears about greenlighting a show that so blatantly threw a metaphorical slushie in the face of TV conventions. But according to Dana Walden, chairman of Twentieth Century Fox Television, in the end, resistance was futile. “I’ve sat through a thousand pitches in my career,” she says, “and Ryan is, without question, the best communicator of an idea I’ve ever met. When he’s on your couch, talking about something that’s exciting for him, you get excited, too.”
Reilly, who’d previously worked with Murphy on Nip/Tuck while president of entertainment at FX, also had faith in the producer, though he had one major request. The pilot script lacked a nemesis for Schuester’s glee club, and Reilly was adamant that one be added.
“In that moment on speaker-phone, it just popped into my head,” Murphy remembers. “I said, ‘The villain needs to be a cheerleading coach named Sue Sylvester played by Jane Lynch.’ Swear to God. So we wrote it for her, not knowing if she would do it.”
“I don’t know why he’d think I wouldn’t do it!” exclaims Lynch, one of the show’s indisputable breakouts. “I jumped at it. It’s my favorite role of my career.”
The Glee-ful success of the Hollywood veteran lies, in part, in her ability to find the humanity beneath the equal-opportunity offender, a woman whose identity is so wrapped up in the success of the Cheerios (as her cheerleaders are dubbed) that she’ll go to any lengths to make sure the glee club doesn’t steal her thunder.
“There’s a real person beneath the bravado who wants to be accepted and loved,” Lynch says, “although she would never show that. In her narcissistic view of the world, everything’s about one-upping and victory.”
She once knew a woman an awful lot like that: “I had an acting teacher in college we called the Dragon Lady. She taught through shame and humiliation, and when she walked down the hall, people would part like the Red Sea.”
When it came to filling out the rest of the cast, Murphy & Co. took their time — five months, to be exact, an eternity in TV. But the producers were adamant that the protracted process was a necessity, given that each role required a triple-threat who could not only act but sing and dance. There were nationwide cattle calls and thousands of hopefuls, though two — Broadway stars Matthew Morrison (a Tony nominee for The Light in the Piazza) and Lea Michele (Spring Awakening) — popped early on.
“The minute I read Rachel Berry, I felt such a connection to her,” says twenty-three-year-old Michele of the choir’s hyperambitious, golden-throated diva. “Her drive and passion for singing and performing — that’s my therapy in life. It helps me learn who I am. Rachel’s on that same journey.”
The common thread wasn’t an accident: Murphy had written the role with Michele in mind after briefly meeting her through her BFF (and Spring Awakening costar) Jonathan Groff. (Groff would later guest-star in a handful of episodes, as a member of a rival choir who becomes Rachel’s love interest). But Murphy insists the actress won over network and studio executives all on her own.
“She sang,” Murphy says, “and the executives cried. They offered her the part right then and there.”
Murphy also had a soft spot for recent high school graduate and community-theater actor Chris Colfer, who auditioned for the part of the wheelchair-using Artie. While that role eventually went to Kevin McHale, the producer was so impressed with diamond-in-the-rough Colfer that he created Kurt, the choir’s resident fashionista, especially for him.
“Just over a year ago, I was working at a dry cleaners,” marvels Colfer, sporting an Alexander McQueen scarf from Kurt’s wardrobe. “All these clothes I get to wear now are the ones I used to hang up and look at longingly.”
Monteith can relate to such a Cinderfella story. When the struggling Canadian actor was tapped to play Finn, he was employed as a secret shopper for Vancouver-area convenience stores. “I’d drive around in my Honda Civic visiting 7-Elevens,” he says. “I’d pretend I was looking for a certain product, quiz the clerks and, depending on their performance, reward them with cash prizes. It wasn’t a bad way to earn a paycheck.” He’s not about to trade it for his current gig, but the Glee kids work hard for their money. Between dance rehearsals, recording sessions and fourteen-plus-hour days on set, the actors surely have the most grueling schedules in television.
“I don’t really have time for anything else,” Monteith says. “It’s 100 percent Glee 24/7.” He laughs. “Good thing I don’t like downtime.”
Still, being at the center of a whirlwind can be overwhelming. Morrison reports he can’t even run an errand now without being recognized. “I love my anonymity, and that’s gone,” says the actor, who’s been known to don hats to cover his trademark curls. “I just try not to think about it.”
Granted, there are worse things than being worshipped by a bevy of Gleeks (including such heavy-hitters as Oprah, who devoted an hour of her show to the musical sensation, and First Lady Michelle Obama, who invited the cast to perform at the White House’s annual Easter Egg hunt).
“It means people dig the show and what we’re doing,” says Morrison, “and it’s allowed me to branch out and do other things in my career.” That includes a solo deal with Mercury Records (a CD is expected by the end of the year), which might not have occurred without the vocal showcase he’s been given on Glee.
Murphy picks all of the songs heard on the series, from Burt Bacharach to Beyoncé, and he says it’s his favorite part of the job. After figuring out a theme for each episode with Falchuk and Brennan, he retires alone to scroll through his iPod playlists. “I don’t really know how it happens,” he says. “It’s sort of organic and it’s personal. If I don’t know the song, if I don’t sing it and love it, it’s not getting on the show.”
That passion has helped Murphy score several coups, including full access to Madonna’s catalogue for one of the season’s most acclaimed episodes. “I just wrote her a letter,” explains Murphy, who first met Madge a decade earlier when he did a rewrite on her little-seen romantic comedy, The Next Best Thing. “She never asked to see a script or know what the episode was about. She never said, ‘You cannot use this,’ or, ‘You will use that.’ She just said yes.”
And why wouldn’t she? As the iTunes charts attest, a Glee cover often means renewed sales for the original tracks as well. Little wonder then that Murphy is increasingly inundated with offers from artists to use their music.
“While doing this interview, I got a text from my music supervisor [Adam Anders] saying the B-52s want their music used,” Murphy says. “I get stuff like that all day long now. It’s sweet and very gratifying, but it’s also overwhelming. It’s sort of become a full-time job unto itself.”
One that continues, as producers are already deep into planning season two, which Murphy promises will be “even bigger and better.” To that end, expect an episode full of original music and the addition of at least three new high school characters.
Despite his show’s success, Murphy claims to have no interest in snagging any of the A-list actors clamoring for one of those roles. Hence, the recent online casting search in partnership with MySpace. It seems that this former underdog will not rest until anyone who’s interested has a chance to shine.
“The spirit of the show has always been that you can be a waitress today and a star tomorrow,” he says. “It’s a wonderful thing to tap somebody and say, ‘We believe in you. Now get out there and perform from the heart.’”
Story as published in Emmy Magazine (Issue No. 3, 2010)
All photos: Mathew Imaging