STAGE TO SCREENS: "Glee" on TV: Michele & Morrison

News   STAGE TO SCREENS: "Glee" on TV: Michele & Morrison
 
This month: Experiencing "Glee" with two of its stars, Broadway's Lea Michele and Matthew Morrison.

Lea Michele and Matthew Morrison
Lea Michele and Matthew Morrison Photo by Patrick Ecclesine/

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Expectations are "as high as an elephant's eye" for "Glee," the new one-hour FOX musical series that starts its weekly run Sept. 9 (Wednesdays, 9 PM ET), and features a mix of Broadway, Top 40, R&B and country music.

Ten million viewers watched the May 19 pilot (available on FOX.com and hulu.com), aired directly following the "American Idol" season finale. "Blissfully unoriginal in a witty, imaginative way," observed the New York Times reviewer. The Los Angeles Times critic claimed it was "the first show in a long time that's just plain full-throttle, no-guilty-pleasure-rationalizations-necessary fun." Asked Entertainment Weekly, "Has there ever been a TV show more aptly named?" And the New York Post's Pop Wrap dubbed it "2009's best new series."

It wasn't initially intended for TV. Ian Brennan who, in high school, had belonged to a glee club, wrote a feature-film screenplay that was brought to the attention of Ryan Murphy ("Nip/Tuck," "Popular"). He, in turn, thought that it was better suited to television, and was somewhat inspired by his high-school days, when he played the leads in all the musicals.

Murphy, Brennan, and Brad Falchuk wrote a pilot, which Murphy described to the L.A. Times (April 26) as "the anti-'High School Musical.'" FOX quickly picked it up. Dating back at least as far as "That's Life," the 1968 show that starred Robert Morse in an original musical comedy each week, there have been previous TV-musical series — e.g. "Cop Rock," "Viva Laughlin" — but none of them succeeded. "Glee," Murphy told Variety, "is a different genre, there's nothing like it on the networks and cable." He 's currently directing the feature "Eat, Pray, Love."

The series focuses on idealistic teacher Will Scheuster, "Mr. Scheu" (Matthew Morrison), who teaches Spanish at the Lima, OH, McKinley High School that he formerly attended. He takes charge of the glee club, New Directions — seeking to motivate the students, make them a success, and shepherd them to the Nationals' competition.

 

Lea Michele and Chris Colfer in "Glee"
photo by Carin Baer/FOX

Comprising the glee club are six students: Lea Michele (the bullied Rachel), Cory Monteith (who's 27, playing the decade younger strapping jock, Finn), Kevin McHale (physically challenged geeky guitarist Artie), Amber Riley (Mercedes, up-front about refusing to sing back-up), Chris Colfer (the closeted Kurt) and Jenna Ushkowitz (a shy punk rocker). Important to the plots are Dianna Agron (as Quinn, Finn's cheerleader-girlfriend) and Finn's best friend, fellow football-team member Puck (Mark Salling).

Artie is a wheelchair user, and one of the future numbers has the glee club all in wheelchairs. Colfer experienced difficulties in high school in wanting to sing "Defying Gravity," because it's considered a female's song. That experience inspired a plotline on one of the episodes.

Among the songs in store this season: Kanye West's "Gold Digger," Salt-N-Pepa's "Push It," Dionne Warwick's "I Say a Little Prayer," Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," Rihanna's "Take a Bow," Celine Dion's "Taking Chances," Beyonce's "Single Ladies," Jasmine Sullivan's "Bust Your Windows," Celine Dion's "All by Myself," Avril Lavigne's "Keep Holding On," Jordin Sparks/Chris Brown's "No Air," Queen's "Somebody to Love," Carrie Underwood's "Last Name," Chic's "Le Freak" – and, from the Broadway front: "Tonight" (West Side Story), "Maybe This Time" (Cabaret), numbers from Wicked, and "Don't Rain on My Parade" (Funny Girl).

Jane Lynch practically steals the show as Will's nemesis, Sue Sylvester, coach of "the Cheerios," the school's cheerleaders. Having seen two new "Glee" episodes, I can report that Sue's character is even more over the top than on the pilot. Lynch excels in the role, coming across as a butch Cruella de Vil who stops just short of hissing, spewing venom, and pursuing puppies.

Other adults include Will's wife, Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig, who did 17 "Nip/Tuck" episodes); Will's colleague Emma Pillsbury (Jayma Mays), who has a crush on him; Ken (Patrick Gallagher), the football coach who, in turn, likes Emma; Mr. Figgins (Iqbal Theba), the principal; and Sandy Kenyon (Stephen Tobolowsky), the glee-club leader whom Will replaced.

In the two new episodes, the club performs for the first time in front of the student body; Will gets an extra job; Rachel encounters more self-esteem and jealousy problems; and Kurt goes out for football — with some surprising results. The series' best moment, thus far, is a very touching scene — beautifully written and acted — shared by Kurt and his father (Mike O'Malley).

To promote the series, several cast members participated in an August tour — 10 cities, 12 days — garnering enthusiastic reactions and increasing the volume of positive buzz among "Gleeks" (the appellation for fans).

Estimated cost of each episode? $3 million. Shooting time per show? Ten days. Between five and eight musical numbers are featured each week. Among the coming guest stars are Tony winners Kristin Chenoweth, John Lloyd Young, Debra Monk, plus Cheyenne Jackson, Victor Garber, Josh Groban, Eve.

Filmed at Hollywood's Paramount Studios, the first 13 episodes have been shot, and it's believed that the "back nine" will be green-lighted, in short order, to complete a full season.

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Lea Michele in "Glee"
photo by Carin Baer/FOX

After Lea Michele was cast as Rachel Berry, she learned that Murphy had written the character for her. "I wish I'd known; I would have been less nervous at my audition." She laughs. "I didn't think I'd ever be as lucky to find a part that's so right for me."

Michele, according to the New Times reviewer, "stands out as...the talented and monstrously ambitious self-promoting star singer of the glee club." The Los Angeles Times critic observed that Michele "appears positioned for major stardom with this role."

"I'd met Ryan [Murphy]," she recalls, "when I visited Jonathan [Groff, her Spring Awakening co-star] on the set of 'Pretty/Handsome' [an unsold Murphy pilot]." Since her pilot had a different fate, I jokingly ask if Groff still speaks to her?

"Of course. If that were true, he wouldn't be my best friend. Our scenes in Spring Awakening [Michele played Wendla to Groff's Melchior] brought us very close. I stay with him every time I'm in New York. Hopefully, he'll be on 'Glee' on one of the 'back nine' episodes."

For her audition, she sang "On My Own" and a song from Thoroughly Modern Millie. Favorites among the songs she's performed on the show include "Don't Rain on My Parade" ("a great moment; I'm a huge Barbra fan"), "Defying Gravity" ("with Chris Colfer, who plays Kurt"), and a duet from Cabaret "that I do with Kristin Chenoweth. We had a great time with her. She's so funny."

Already a stage veteran at 23, Michele was a replacement Young Cosette and Young Eponine in Les Miserables, the Little Girl in Ragtime, Chava in the Fiddler on the Roof revival, and a Drama Desk nominee for Spring Awakening. "When I was Rachel's age, I knew what it was to want to perform."

If "Glee" succeeds, is Michele committed to the series? With a laugh recalling any actor lucky enough to be working steadily, she replies, "Are you kidding?"

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Matthew Morrison in "Glee"
photo by Carin Baer/FOX

Matthew Morrison, most recently Lt. Cable in the revival of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic South Pacific, has performed in musicals that represent three generations of Richard Rodgers' family. Sir Harry in the TV-movie version of daughter Mary Rodgers' "Once Upon a Mattress," he earned Tony/Drama Desk/Outer Critics Circle nominations, as Fabrizio, in grandson/son Adam Guettel's A Light in the Piazza.

Very comfortable in Mr. Scheus' shoes — "I get to sing and dance" — Morrison had to face the challenge of "memorizing all those lines," instead of learning a part and keeping it fresh, eight times a week. Of course, unlike working onstage, television provides the safety net of retakes.

Since his Broadway characters (including Link Larkin in Hairspray) share a common denominator of youth, he considers Will his "first adult role," which, at 30, suits him fine.

Still smarting from having shot five TV pilots in as many seasons, none of which was picked up, Morrison was initially pessimistic about the future of a musical series. "On the Street Where You Live" was his "Glee"-audition song, and for the callback, he points out, "I bought a ukulele and accompanied myself on 'Over the Rainbow.'"

Morrison's delighted that his character's sparring partner is Jane Lynch, whom he greatly admires. Revealing that the cast was often allowed to improvise, he acknowledges that Lynch frequently broke him up.

When the first-season DVD is released, one of the bonuses, Morrison discloses, will be a number of funny flubbed moments, and he (and others) responding to Lynch's comments.

Kristin Chenoweth plays a former glee-club star who, explains Morrison, "was a senior when I was a freshman." She dropped out of school and has experienced some hard times.

 

Matthew Morrison with Victor Garber on "Glee"
photo by Carin Baer/FOX

Victor Garber and Debra Monk guest star as Will's parents. His father encourages Will "to have the balls" to follow through with his plans, something at which the elder Scheuster failed. Will's mother is alcoholic.

"Josh Groban's in that episode," notes Morrison, "and tries to hit on Debra Monk." But that's as much as he'll divulge about the storyline. "You have to see it."

Fans of musical theatre, he believes, will respond favorably to the show tunes that are interspersed throughout the episodes. "But doing a rap number ["Gold Digger"] was the most fun I had." Though not all musical-theatre fans enjoy rap, Morrison insists, "They'll like this. You'll see!" *

A repeat of the pilot, in a Murphy director's cut, aired Sept. 2, and the Sept. 4 airing of the pilot allowed fans to tweet questions and receive answers on Twitter.

Gleeks unite, Broadway fans tune in, Trekkies convert! The offbeat Club "Glee" is steamrolling your way and prospects seem good that the series — again, to quote Mr. Hammerstein — "looks like it's climbin' clear up to the sky."

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Various and Sundry

Upcoming "Glee" guest star (Sept. 16) Tony winner (The Jersey Boys) John Lloyd Young stars in "Oy Vey! My Son Is Gay!" — with Lainie Kazan, Carmen Electra, Jai Rodriguez, Bruce Vilanch.

"Glee" regular Jane Lynch stands out as Julia Child's 6-foot-4-inch sister, Dorothy, in the delightful "Julie and Julia", which includes a very funny Dan Aykroyd spoof of the chef.

As Child, Meryl Streep, rates a 16th Oscar nomination for a superb performance. On a recent interview with "Charlie Rose", she said that part of her research involved watching segments of Child's TV cooking show. "The very earliest ones" were helpful, claiming that later tapes, "became performances." Why has Streep made seven movies in two-and-a-half-years? "They asked me."

Seven-time Tony nominee/two-time winner (The Good Doctor, The Heiress) Frances Sternhagen is in the cast of "Julie and Julia," as are Tony nominees Stanley Tucci, Brooks Ashmanskas, Stephen Bogardus, Helen Carey, Linda Emond, Erin Dilly.

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The entertaining Robert Wagner memoir, "Pieces of My Heart," has some very funny anecdotes, and a fascinating casting idea. Studio head Jack Warner bought the rights to Gypsy for Natalie Wood (twice Mrs. Wagner). Warner asked Wagner who should play Rose, and went ballistic when Wagner said, "Judy Garland."

According to Warner, who produced "A Star Is Born," he attended a party at the star's home, only to discover that "Judy and Sid Luft had taken the [film's] furniture...and had moved it into their house." But just imagine Judy as Rose!

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Angela Lansbury, who is expected to go from playing Madame Arcati (her fifth Tony-winning role) in Blithe Spirit) to Madame Armfeldt (in the revival of A Little Night Music), takes time Sept. 19, at 1 PM, at the Majestic, to host Celebrating Bea Arthur, a memorial for her "Bosom Buddies," Mame Tony-winning other half, Vera Charles ("The Man in the Moon Is a Lady"). Arthur (1922-2009) also played Vera in the misconceived "Mame" movie, starring Lucille Ball.

Among those honoring the 11-time Emmy nominee, who won as "Maude" and as Dorothy Zbornick ("Golden Girls"), will be Adrienne Barbeau (her daughter on "Maude"), Chita Rivera, Zoe Caldwell, "Golden Girls" co-star Rue McClanahan, Billy Goldenberg (Arthur's accompanist), Sheldon Harnick, Norman Lear, Anne Meara, Jerry Stiller, Rosie O'Donnell. Free to the public, it's first-come, first-served.

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Tony winner (Nine, Titanic) Maury Yeston has written three new songs for the Rob Marshall-directed movie version of "Nine" (a November release). They're sung by three of the stars: Marion Cotillard, who plays the wife of Daniel Day-Lewis (Guido), Sophia Loren (Guido's mother), and Kate Hudson (a Vogue editor). You Tube has the "Nine" trailer, which rates a 10, and is adding hits by the score.

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Campbell Scott, who appears on "Royal Pains," joins the cast of "Damages", starring Glenn Close, when the series returns in January.

(Stage to Screens is Playbill.com's monthly column that connects the dots between theatre, film and television projects and people. Contact Michael Buckley at stagetoscreens@aol.com.)

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