Critic’s Notebook: The ‘Glee’ machine

BUSY CAST: The stars of "Glee" began the start of a second live tour in Las Vegas. They had finished shooting the season finale less than two weeks earlier.
BUSY CAST: The stars of “Glee” began the start of a second live tour in Las Vegas. They had finished shooting the season finale less than two weeks earlier.
(Isaac Brekken / Los Angeles Times)

Despite its fresh-faced cast, G-rating and untainted, unapologetic air of jubilance (see, please, the two exclamation points, both of which are quite sincere), “Glee Live! In Concert!” seemed very much at home in Las Vegas, where the stars of Fox’s hit show kicked off their second live tour.

Certainly the sold-out crowd Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center could not have been more welcoming. The 7,500 fans all but drowned out the opening strains of “Don’t Stop Believin’” with shrieks, whistles and general paroxysms of joy, some while wearing red-trimmed jackets in homage to the show’s secondary glee club, the Warblers. Later, as cast members threaded their way through a Beatlemania ecstatic audience, it was difficult not to think that this was the rapture everyone has been tweeting about — this is how the world ends, not with a bang but a Warbler.

Say this for the cast of “Glee,” they are troupers. Less than two weeks after shooting the season finale in New York, everyone was on stage singing and dancing their hearts out (Matthew Morrison and Jane Lynch made appearances via taped video). Though second-season pet Darren Criss (Blaine) brought down the house with “Silly Love Songs” and still-reigning diva Lea Michele (Rachel) pulled out the stops with “Don’t Rain on My Parade, " the show’s best numbers were invariably the big ones. Those were the songs that got everyone in the audience singing and dancing too and allowed some of the show’s best-loved performers — Amber Riley (Mercedes), Heather Morris (Brittany), Naya Rivera (Santana) and Jenna Ushkowitz (Tina) — to radiate real star power.

From the moment the show opened at 9 p.m. until the confetti cannons roared at 10:20, the cast members barely paused for breath, racing through songs from the first two seasons as if the devil himself had asked them to compile their own greatest hits album. Although the audience could not have been happier, there was, lurking beneath the undeniably infectious enthusiasm and joy of the performance, the distinctive beat of a marketer’s pen, lining up the demographics, reconfiguring the media platforms and toting up the merchandising potential.


Despite its Sin City rep, Las Vegas, where a few blocks away one can shell out $30 for an adult ticket to the “CSI: Experience,” seems a natural place to launch the tour. Because “Glee,” for all its identification with misfits, is now as much about the marketing as it is about the music. Two years in, “Glee” is about as geeky as Comic-Con (where the show, stretching genre to the breaking point, has appeared twice). Which is to say geeky like a fox.

It is impossible to begrudge the success of a show that has so fearlessly featured stories dealing with homosexuality, Down syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, teen pregnancy, physical disabilities and the general challenge of self-knowledge. “Glee” brought music back into our lives and redefined family TV in a way that gave a more realistic meaning to the word “family.” Which is why it is equally impossible not to mourn the commercialization, indeed, the Disneyfication of “Glee.”

From the beginning “Glee” seemed antidote for the sugar rush of “High School Musical” and “Hannah Montana,” the ol’ let’s-put-on-a-show conceit seen as through a mirror darkly by “Nip/Tuck’s” Ryan Murphy. Here was a show irreverent and frank, that did not limit themes of alienation to G-rated contrivances, that made room for both “Gypsy” and Beyoncé. Murphy and high school glee club seemed the most tantalizing inter-species marriage since “Twilight’s” Bella and Edward.

Now, after a scant two seasons, it is, like “High School Musical” and Bella and Edward, yet another misfit franchise. Saturday’s opening show was proceeded by a lot of media numbers-spewing — more than 22 million song downloads!, the No. 1 soundtrack of 2010!, more songs on the Billboard Hot 100 than Elvis Presley or the Beatles! (some of which was repeated in the show’s introduction). The big show even embarks on a European tour next month.

The “Glee” machine has generated a Chevy commercial that redefined product placement (the commercial was part of an episode and ran after the Super Bowl), fashion deals with Macy’s and Claire’s, a series of “Glee” books and an upcoming 3-D concert movie. There’s “Glee” bedding and pajama pants, an official “Glee” journal, a “Glee” board game and a “Glee"-tastic microphone. There was even, as apparently required by the Disney handbook of mass-marketing young people, a controversial GQ photo shoot.

As the franchise grew to Vegas-sized proportions, as episodes brought Fleetwood Mac onto the iPods of the young and uninitiated, the show itself has grown ever more “Mamma Mia!"-esque, and not just in its use of exclamation points. Increasingly inconsistent and/or repetitive stories appeared constructed simply to accommodate the music. Criss and Chord Overstreet were brought in not just to fuel rumors about which would be Kurt’s (Chris Colfer) love interest but because the show needed stronger male vocal stars. This just added to an already unwieldy cast stretched further by A-list guest stars including Gwyneth Paltrow, Carol Burnett and Kristin Chenoweth.

It all makes sense, of course. Having succeeded so enormously, “Glee’s” creators, naturally, want to give their audience even more of what they want. But when your creation burns so fast and so bright, guarding the other end of the candle is part of that process too.

As “Don’t Stop Believin’” caused the multi-demographic Vegas crowd to explode into Gleek love on Saturday night, it seemed impossible that just a few short years ago that song belonged to “The Sopranos” in a way that seemed final and historic. But the Sopranos didn’t sing and dance, and they certainly did not come to Vegas to perform their audience’s very favorite scenes.


It would be unfair to say that “Glee” is overexposed when its numbers remain so big, its fans still so devoted. So if Colfer went flat during “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and it was, more than once, difficult to hear the voices much less the words of the songs, it didn’t matter. “Glee Live! In Concert!” is not so much a concert as it is a communion between a show’s fans and its talented, hard-working cast — and when they closed with “Safety Dance” and “New York” it’s clear why that communion exists.

But once you’ve done Vegas, the question remains: Where do you go from there?