'Glee' team rewrites the school musical
The Fox series aims to work with, and against, expectations. Creator Ryan Murphy lived this life; he watches the details.
'Glee' creator and executive producer/director Ryan Murphy (center) has his photograph taken with dancers on the set of the new Fox musical TV comedy. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
So it's no wonder that his latest series, "Glee," merges the two worlds into something he happily describes as "the anti-'High School Musical.' "
In the series, which revolves around a group of social outcasts who come together for high school show choir, there's no bursting out in nutty song to advance the plot, and the playlist is made up of familiar hits spanning Top 40, Broadway, R&B and country.
"It's sort of a post-modern musical," Ryan Murphy said. A way to reinvent -- and keep alive -- the genre that meant so much to him growing up.
In the age of "American Idol," "Glee" is a tribute to pop. And possibly to the iPod shuffle: Famous numbers from "Wicked" or "Les Misérables" sit next to songs by Kanye West, Rihanna and Amy Winehouse.
"I think that's what will surprise people who watch the show," Murphy said. "Like, it's cool stuff. It's not all show tunes. In fact, there are very few show tunes in it."
Not that there's anything wrong with show tunes. One of Murphy's favorite films is "Funny Girl." "There's this whole generation of people like me who were raised on those '60s and '70s musicals that went out of vogue so long ago," he said. "I just felt like: What would be this generation's version of that?"
His answer was a story with a little more attitude and a soundtrack with more radio-friendly relevance.
"Glee" builds on, rather than nixes altogether, classic musical theater tendencies. In one episode, guest star and Broadway veteran Kristin Chenoweth performs the achy eleventh-hour torch song "Maybe This Time" from "Cabaret" but later rips through Carrie Underwood's hot-mess-hangover hit "Last Name."
Murphy himself was once a hopeful thespian. He grew up in Indianapolis, Ind., the son of church-going parents, going to choir practice with them every week and singing every day at Mass during Catholic school.
In high school and college, he threw himself into musical theater, landing the leads in school productions of "Bye Bye Birdie" and "South Pacific."
"You really do think you're hot stuff when you get those star roles. You feel like anything's possible," Murphy said. Realizing that he wasn't cut out to continue performing professionally "was one of the great tragedies" in his life.
When it came time to cast his own musical, Murphy decided he'd need actors who could identify with that rush. (He refers to it as "those Susan Boyle moments. I want both kids and the adults to have them in 'Glee.' ") So he decided, with Fox's blessing, to bypass the traditional network casting calls and head straight for Broadway, where he spent three months combing the field for potential discoveries.
He emerged with Matthew Morrison, who originated roles in "Hairspray" and "The Light in the Piazza"; Lea Michele, who'd acted on New York stages since she was 8 and starred in 2007's Tony Award-winning rock musical "Spring Awakening"; and Jenna Ushkowitz, who was in the recent Broadway revival of "The King and I."
Chris Colfer, who had no professional experience, caught Murphy's eye as well. "Ryan told me I looked like I had played Kurt from 'The Sound of Music' at some point in my life, and he was right. So he wrote me in as Kurt," Colfer said.
Auditioners without theatrical experience had to prove they were triple-threat performers, able to sing, dance and act.
Jayma Mays, who landed the non-singing role of a guidance counselor smitten with Will, was still forced to bring out her prepared number, "Touch-A Touch-A Touch Me" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." "I'm so going to have to get her to do that on the show," Murphy said.
Then there's Cory Monteith, who landed the part of the golden voiced-but-reluctant jock, who sent in a tape of himself acting only and was ordered to send another with singing. He obliged with "a cheesy, '80s music-video-style version" of REO Speedwagon's 'Can't Fight This Feeling.' "
Murphy even recruited an ex-boy-bander in Kevin McHale, hailing from the group NLT (Not Like Them), to play wheelchair-bound nerd Arty. McHale said the diversity of the actors' backgrounds reflects the range of music styles in the show.
"It's a mix of everything: classic rock, current stuff, R&B," he said. "Even the musical theater stuff is switched up. You won't always recognize it."
Murphy put it another way: "It's a small piece of the show, but it's not what 'Glee' is. 'Glee's' got snark. It's got irony. It's got comedy. It's got Jane Lynch." He paused. "And when the music kicks in, you're exhilarated. Also, there's something about those kids. When they sing it's like crack. You just want more and more."