The scene was a car wash fundraiser, replete with cheerleaders, jocks and a few nerds, the kind of thing you might see on high school dramas such as “90210" or “Friday Night Lights.”
But then, Mercedes (Amber Riley) threw a rock through a car’s windshield, and the music began. Lithe cheerleaders stopped soaping tires and started dancing. Kurt’s (Chris Colfer) mouth hung open in a freeze-frame as he stared at the hole in the glass while Mercedes belted out a passionate rendition of Jazmine Sullivan’s “Bust Your Windows” in response to him having rejected her.
It was a powerful and funny moment in “Glee,” a new genre-defying Fox series by creator Ryan Murphy(writer) (“Nip/Tuck” and “Popular ") about social misfits who are part of a high school show choir. The one-hour musical comedy is a lighthearted satire but has a deep emotional center that is often reflected in its wide-ranging songbook, qualities that have drawn early praise from critics as well as concern over its ability to overcome the fate of the short-lived TV musical series “Cop Rock” and “Viva Laughlin.”
Another comparison “Glee” will doubtless draw is to Disney’s “High School Musical” movies, despite differences in tone, style, music and the fact that it is episodic and not a distinct film.
But “Glee” sets itself apart from the sunnier, more traditional Disney works. For one thing, Murphy has his characters sing and dance only in the context of rehearsals and performances, even though their songs sometimes reflect their thoughts and feelings. The car wash scene, part of the third episode, turns out to be a figment of Mercedes’ imagination, as she stands alone, rehearsing a number, feeling the impact of unrequited adolescent love.
If “Glee” can succeed on any network, the home of “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance” is probably the best fit. The show won’t be launched until fall, but Fox will preview it on May 19 after the “American Idol” finale, hoping to capture the attention of music lovers on what is expected to be one of the most-watched nights of the television season.
Although Murphy made cable history with his hit “Nip/Tuck,” this is his first attempt to strike gold with a mass appeal show. Fox Entertainment President Kevin Reilly, who developed “Nip/Tuck” when he oversaw programming at FX, said the network bought the show from Murphy’s first pitch because, he said, “Ryan himself was in the glee club -- he saw it as a metaphor for life.”
Fox will sell the episode on iTunes all summer and a different version of the pilot will air as the series premiere in the fall. If it sounds as if the Fox promotional machine is in overdrive, consider that each episode costs at least $3 million to produce. “From Day One, I’ve had so much support from the studio and network,” Murphy said. “I think they are all wanting to break out of the box: What is network television? What can it be? Every once in a while, something comes along that’s just different. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I think we’re all on the same page that it’s great to attempt it. The scripts are written as though the kids are underdogs and I tell the actors all the time, this show feels like an underdog.”
Murphy and the two other writer-producers of the show, Ian Brennan and Brad Falchuk, pick themes, develop story lines and write the scripts. But Murphy, who loves music, selects all of the songs. The pilot, for example, uses portions of 14 songs, including Broadway show tunes “On My Own” and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat"; Top 40 hits “Rehab” and “I Kissed a Girl"; and oldies “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” and “Respect.”
“I spend hours and hours listening to songs and picking songs that I like or that I think will be great,” Murphy said. “I want there to be something for everybody in every episode. That’s a tricky mix, but that’s very important -- the balancing of that.”
The struggle for identity
Reilly said he especially responded to the notion of the glee club as a way to show the struggle for identity. It will be a mixture of the “uplifting and positive” and “the biting and sarcastic,” said Reilly, and will put a “Fox sensibility,” meaning satirical and offbeat, on “familiar archetypes.”
Indeed in Murphy’s McKinley High School, the pretty, popular high school cheerleader, Quinn (Dianna Agron), is also the president of the celibacy club; the cheerleading coach (Jane Lynch) rules by (hilarious) humiliation; the wife (Jessalyn Gilsig) of the glee club director whines about working four hours a day, three days a week; Rachel (Lea Michele), the goody-two-shoes lead singer, is being raised by two dads; and Finn (https://MonteithCory Monteith) is the football jock-singer who claims foolishly that his mother is ill with an enlarged prostate to avoid practice.
“This show has Ryan’s paw prints all over it,” Lynch said. “It’s so his offbeat sense of humor and his style, which I just love.”
Murphy, who is also wrapping up production on “Nip/Tuck,” the twisted series about plastic surgery that made his career, wanted his next TV project to be comedic when actor Mike Novick coincidentally approached him at the gym about working on a feature film about a glee club with him and Brennan. “I’m just coming off a show that we jokingly say is set over the big mouth of the gates of hell,” Murphy said. “It’s so dark. And I wanted to do something more hopeful because everybody thinks I’m such a dark person and I really feel that I’m not, so maybe I should do something that’s not so heinous. If you look at the landscape of television, and I certainly have contributed to it with ‘Nip/Tuck,’ there’s so much darkness and blood and gore, and I think that now people maybe want something that makes them smile and feel good.”
Brennan wrote a script for a movie, but Murphy, who grew up performing in musicals through college, thought it would work better as a TV series, as challenging as that would be.
Once a script is written and the music rights are cleared, the song has to be arranged. Then the cast pre-records the track in the studio, the choreographer constructs the dance, teaches it to the cast, the number is staged, and then they film it. Depending on the complexity of the production, some numbers are prepared in a week; others have taken several weeks to nail down.
“From getting to know him and being a fan of his work on ‘Nip/Tuck’ and ‘Popular’ and ‘Running With Scissors,’ I knew that there’s a comedic tone and sensibility that’s very unique in Ryan,” said Novick, an executive producer on the show. “A lot of writers, directors and producers out here come up through the high school musical bubble world and I just felt it was a world that Ryan could get. Creatively, it all starts with him.”
Murphy focused the show around one theme: the idea that anyone can be a star, even underdogs, and hired a cast of unknown actors, mostly from musical theater, that would be credible in those roles. Matthew Morrison (“Hairspray”) heads the cast as Will Schuester, the Spanish teacher who was part of the glee club when he was a teenager and volunteers to try to restore it to its former glory.
“Everybody has their moment in the spotlight when you grow up in that world, and I know that feeling,” Murphy said. “It’s so different for kids now because there’s so much more access to that world. The show is tapping into the cultural phenomenon that anybody can be a star overnight on MySpace or YouTube. There are all these different ways that you can be celebrated quickly and instantly now for your talent or lack thereof, and the show also deals with that.”
Is it broadcast material?
Those familiar with Murphy’s eclectic and racy work wonder whether he’s capable of creating content that is suitable to air on a broadcast network, but Reilly says he’d rather have to rein Murphy in than have to push him to come out of his shell. In future episodes, the glee club kids perform their own versions of raunchy songs such as “Push It” and “I Wanna Sex You Up.”
“The subject matter gets a lot of edgier,” warned Monteith, 26, who portrays the jock-singer. “It gets pretty nasty. But it’s all PG-13.”
Dana Walden, chairman of 20th Century Fox Television, which produces the show, says Murphy, so far, has policed himself.
“Ryan certainly pushes the envelope,” she said. “The situations are heightened. But when a situation is supposed to be funny, it’s laugh-out-loud funny, and when he’s interested in going to an emotional place with these characters, you really feel for them. He really has the skill of taking situations to the exact right extreme. He’ll go for it, but he has an incredible barometer of knowing when to stop.”
In a future episode, Kurt, the dramatic and fashionable soprano who has a crush on football star Finn, gets caught by his NASCAR dad learning the steps to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” video and lies about it, claiming the routine is part of his football team tryout. To keep the lie going, he enlists Finn to coax the entire team into learning the number.
“This is unlike anything ever on TV,” said Colfer, 18, who portrays Kurt. “I’m so happy to be a part of something that is so new and different and so needed at this time. It’s good to have something positive, especially for kids in small towns, like myself, who need a little pick-me-up. It’s true: You can be famous -- even if there’s no money left in the world.”
Need more ‘Glee’?
Head to the Show Tracker blog for exclusive video and photos, and hear why the cast thinks the show is no “High School Musical.”