How The Glee Project Helped Launch These Performers to Stardom

Interview   How The Glee Project Helped Launch These Performers to Stardom
 
Before Ali Stroker won her Tony Award and Alex Newell hit Broadway, they got their start on the reality competition series.
Glee Project logo

In February, Lindsay Pearce fulfilled a life-long dream when she made her Broadway debut as Elphaba in Wicked. “I had never auditioned for Broadway before and was doing a lot of television, film and local theatre auditions, so to get the breakdown the first time, the 28-year-old me was so excited,” Pearce says. “On January 2, I got the call I would be headed to Broadway. I couldn’t believe it was happening.”

It was a moment that noted Hollywood casting director Robert Ulrich never doubted would come. He “discovered” Pearce back in 2011 when she was 19 and cast her for the inaugural season of The Glee Project, a reality show where the winner would land a gig on the Fox juggernaut Glee. Over the course of two seasons, Ulrich cast 26 contestants, four of whom went on to star in high-profile Broadway and Off-Broadway shows—with one making Tony Awards history.

That former Glee Project competitor? Ali Stroker. The Season 2 contestant was the first actor in a wheelchair to bow on a Broadway stage in the 2015 revival of Spring Awakening. She became the first performer in a wheelchair to win a Tony Award when she won for playing Ado Annie in Oklahoma! in 2019.

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Ali Stroker CBS

“I tried to get her for Season 1, but she was unavailable and I knew she needed to be part of Season 2,” Ulrich says. “She is truly one of the most remarkable women I have ever met. Aside from her talent, she is so full of positivity and love and is so funny and sweet. I was in tears when I saw her in Oklahoma! and when she won the Tony, I was dying because I was bursting with pride.”

Then there’s Alex Newell, star of Broadway’s Once On This Island revival and current star of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist on NBC, who, like Pearce, was a runner-up in Season 1. He earned himself a two-episode arc on Glee, which catapulted him to a regular gig on the series. And, lest we forget Blake Jenner, the winner of Season 2 of The Glee Project, who starred opposite Game of Thrones star Peter Dinklage and Hamilton’s Jasmine Cephas Jones in the New Group’s Cyrano as Christian, and will be seen in Rich Linklater's upcoming Merrily We Roll Along movie with Ben Platt and Beanie Feldstein, filmed over 20 years.

Ulrich remembers hearing each of these four for the first time.

“I’m from Modesto, California, and they have a competition called ‘Valley’s Got Talent’ that my wife and I judged every year, and Lindsay won the first year,” Ulrich says. “I thought, and I still think, that she has one of the best musical theatre voices that I’ve ever heard. She has such a clear, beautiful tone and is also such a powerhouse singer. I was immediately blown away.”

When Pearce messaged him a few months after the competition seeking advice about BFA programs, Ulrich told her he would love for her to audition for this new show. (Which she did singing “Gimme Gimme” from Thoroughly Modern Millie.) “I was in junior college and had to let my theatre director know that I couldn’t be in the show anymore—we were doing Pirates of Penzance—but I couldn’t tell anyone why, though everyone thought it was American Idol,” she says. “I went away for 10 weeks and it was just a whirlwind.”

Lindsay Pearce
Lindsay Pearce

She equates that time to her Wicked experience so far, where her whole life became the role and the show. Pearce played Elphaba for a few weeks before the pandemic closed Broadway, and will return to the role once it reopens. For now, she holds her short time on Broadway close to the heart.

“They all told me it would feel like I was shot out of a cannon, and after doing that first show, that’s how I felt,” Pearce says. “I never heard anything in the world like the sound of the audience when the clock opens and Glinda and Elphaba run out and take a bow together. I just burst into tears. All those hours my mom would spend driving me to auditions, all those hours my friends would be on the phone with me telling me it would happen, and all those hours spent on The Glee Project, it was all a symmetry type of moment.”

Stroker too considers The Glee Project her “big break.” Though she was doing some theatre at the time, the reality show afforded her the opportunity to gain exposure and tell her story.

“I met so many incredible people and got to work with the whole Glee team, and even though I ended up not winning, Ryan [Murphy] ended up putting me on the show anyway playing Artie’s girlfriend,” she says. “For years and years, people would come up to me and say they saw me on the show. It changed my life. I was so excited to be seen in a way that was so positive.”

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Alex Newell, Hailey Kilgore, and the cast Joan Marcus

Taking the Broadway stage was something Stroker dreamed of since she was seven years old. The actor feels that part of her current success emanates from the fact that audiences trust her and feels as if they know her because of her time on The Glee Project.

In casting the show, Ulrich scoured for distinct voices and big talent, as well as singular personalities. Newell was another who boasted all three. His audition for The Glee Project caught Ulrich’s attention—through the then 17-year-old MySpace video submission. “He has truly one of the most incredible voices I’ve ever heard in my life. There’s not many people who sing like him in the world,” says Ulrich, who also cast Newel in Zoey’s. “He was fantastic in Once On This Island; his ‘Mama Will Provide’ was so memorable.”

Jenner also stuck in Ulrich’s mind. The 18-year-old auditioned to Glee and when he wasn’t cast, he tried his luck by auditioning for The Project.

“On The Glee Project, Blake was the most consistently good person we ever had. He won by determination, which is so much of his personality,” Ulrich says. “Blake was so good in Cyrano. What I loved about this show, which I saw three times—is that people got to see his comedic side. I am very proud of him.”

Peter Dinklage and Blake Jenner in <i>Cyrano</i>
Peter Dinklage and Blake Jenner in Cyrano Monique Carboni

“[It] was like a big boot camp,” says Jenner. Winning the season changed Jenner’s life, and he has booked television and film since Glee ended. Broadway hadn’t been a dream of his, but since Off-Broadway’s Cyrano, he’s caught the theatre bug.

While he cast them for television, clearly Ulrich has an eye for the next generation of stage stars. Even amidst the current shutdown, these performers remain active, whether airing on current series (as Newell is), appearing on new streaming intiatives (as Stroker is), or using their platforms to advocate for theatre companies, arts organizations, and funds for artist relief.

“The joy of being a casting director is when you cast someone starting out, and they are successful,” he says. By introducing them to audiences, Ulrich has not only helped audiences appreciate new talent, he’s welcomed a new type of celebrity into the fold. Stars like Stroker and Newell, in particular, not only wow audiences with their talent, but with their stories; actors who break down barriers in terms of representation and visibility and who support the theatre commuinty at large. That’s a project worth taking on.

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