Exclusive: Ryan Murphy calls tonight’s episode of ‘Glee’ a ‘game changer’
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If you are one of those TV viewers who think “Glee” is just about funny lines and amazing music — and there’s nothing wrong with that — you’re in for a surprising ride tonight when the hit Fox show returns after its three-week hiatus.
In previous episodes, “Glee” has hinted at its big heart: Remember Kurt (Chris Colfer) coming out to his father and Finn (Cory Monteith) learning that his girlfriend is pregnant and crying on his teacher’s shoulders? Weepy stuff. But tonight’s episode is a game-changer for the off-beat series about an underdog glee club, guaranteed to make you laugh, cry and probably dance a little, all the while answering burning questions about Artie (Kevin McHale) Sue (Jane Lynch) and Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) and showing off the vocal talents of Rachel (Lea Michele) and Kurt in a Diva-Off.
Overcoming emotional and physical disabilities is the central theme of tonight’s episode, titled “Wheels,” which showcases McHale, who plays the wheelchair-bound Artie, and reveals in a fresh way the daunting challenges some people face in their everyday lives. Filmed last spring and directed by Emmy winner Paris Barclay, the emotional episode kept the actors and crew in tears throughout its entire production and, according to creator Ryan Murphy, had long-term effects on its three writers.
“This episode is the turning point for the show,” he said during a recent telephone interview. “Certainly, after this, it remains a comedy, and it’s fun. But writing this made me feel the responsibility of showing the truth of the pain that outcasts go through. It’s not all razzle-dazzle show business. It’s tough, and it’s painful, and it was for me growing up, and it is for most people. So I think this made me realize that amid the fun and the glamour, it’s really great now and again to show the underbelly of what people who are different feel.”
Things kick off with Artie’s first solo, a confident, wheelchair-bound bop to the Nouvelle Vague version of Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself.” The number is a response to a prior scene in which his fellow glee clubbers dismiss the idea of paying extra for a special wheel-chair accessible bus so that Artie can ride with them to sectionals. They assume he won’t mind riding with his dad – only he does.
“ ’Dancing With Myself’ is where Artie gets to break away from being misunderstood by everyone,” McHale said. “It’s where he gets to express himself. He’s actually a very secure guy – you know, he does rap! – and he doesn’t usually care what anyone else thinks. But here’s an instance where his friends have taken for granted the fact that he’s in a wheelchair. So this performance is all about him saying, ‘Look, this is who I am, and this is who I want to be.’ ”
McHale, formerly of the boy band Not Like Them, said it didn’t take him long to adjust acting (and singing and dancing) in a wheelchair – “I do have to concentrate on keeping my legs still and laid to one side,” he said -- but that the role has made him more aware of the challenges other people face.
“It’s a completely different side of life,” he said.
“More than ever, I realize how grateful I am to be able to get up between each take and walk around. I’m glad that I can represent that kind of life on television so millions of people see it every week. And the whole point of it is to show that Artie can still do everything everyone else can that matters.”
McHale’s co-stars also got a taste of not being able to use their legs. To make them appreciate what Artie goes through daily, Mr. Schuester (Matthew Morrison) subjects all the glee clubbers to wheelchairs for a week. Murphy ordered a range of different-style wheelchairs – from the hospital kind to racing varieties – to give them the full effect. And the episode ends in a romping rendition of Tina Turner’s version of “Proud Mary,” set on a stage with skateboard-style ramps that took some getting used to for everyone except McHale.
Murphy told choreographer Zach Woodlee that he didn’t want to make it easy for the cast members by letting them stand up and leave their wheelchairs during the number.
“Artie doesn’t get to get up ever, so I didn’t want anyone to get up,” said Murphy, who wanted viewers to see the effort that comes with performing in a wheelchair.
“If it looked too fun and easy, it wouldn’t read right,” Woodlee said. “Ryan really wanted people to understand what Artie deals with.”
That means those sweaty faces are the real deal.
“Yeah, that wasn’t acting,” McHale said with a laugh. “Lea had the wheelchair from hell. I don’t know if she was missing safety locks or what, but every time she leaned back, she would fall. She fell more than the rest of us.”
Not that they didn’t have fun making up moves for their new wheels. At one point in the number, the kids nearly bring the house down when they start rocking their chairs from side to side, hard.
“We did it as a joke at first, and we were all laughing hysterically because it was as close to the real Tina Turner moves as we could get,” McHale said. “But then we all thought it looked awesome and everyone loved it, so it stayed in.”
Speaking of rocking out, “Wheels” also features the show choir’s first diva off, a battle royale between Rachel and Kurt. The idea was born when Colfer shared with Murphy how he had begged his high school drama department to let him perform his favorite song, “Defying Gravity,” and he was denied every year because he’s male.
“I told him, ‘Well, you came to the right show runner, mister,’ ” Murphy said. “And I found a way to write it into the show because that’s in a nutshell what this show is about: someone being told that they can’t do something because of what the perception of them is as opposed to what their real ability is.”
Because the episode was so time-consuming and emotional for the actors, the producers held a special screening for them. Having the chance to finally sing the showstopper from “Wicked” “really meant the world to me,” Colfer wrote in an e-mail to The Times this month.
“It’s absolutely terrifying to watch yourself do something you’ve dreamed about for such a long time,” he wrote. “I know I’m definitely not the best singer, but I think the message, the story behind the song about defying limits and borders placed by others, hopefully all that gets across with the performance. Although I do some very ‘Kurtsy’ things in the song, it’s probably one of the most honest and close-to-heart scenes I’ve ever filmed or performed for that matter.”
“Wheels” launched a discussion among the show’s cast that Murphy hopes will continue with the audience.
“If anything else, I hope kids who are that age can see that episode and maybe realize how hard it is for some people that they make fun of or tease,” Murphy said. “As we go forward, this episode has reverberations for the whole season.”
That doesn’t mean the series will lose its edge and grow into an after-school special. In the coming weeks, Jonathan Groff (“Spring Awakening”) will join the cast as the lead singer of rival glee club Vocal Adrenaline, and “Dollhouse” creator Joss Whedon will direct one episode. Because of the way fans have responded to the show’s music — 2.6 million downloads on iTunes since the series premiered — Murphy said future episodes will contain even more song and dance numbers.
The laughs will still prevail, even if in three weeks viewers find themselves moved by a deaf choir’s rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and the two actresses with Down’s Syndrome introduced tonight stay for recurring roles.
“This is a comedy first and foremost,” Murphy said. “But we see the obligation to go deeper. This isn’t just a genre show to me. It’s about the desperate need for a place in the world and how we all fit in and how hard it is for some people to get by.”
-- Maria Elena Fernandez and Denise Martin