You may not know it, but the guy who brought you death by teddy-bear-stuffing on "Nip/Tuck" spent his high school and college years belting show tunes like "Put on a Happy Face" in "Bye Bye Birdie."
So it's no wonder that his latest series, "Glee," merges the two worlds into something he happily describes as "the anti-'High School Musical.' "
In the series, which revolves around a group of social outcasts who come together for high school show choir, there's no bursting out in nutty song to advance the plot, and the playlist is made up of familiar hits spanning Top 40, Broadway, R&B and country.
"It's sort of a post-modern musical," Ryan Murphy said. A way to reinvent -- and keep alive -- the genre that meant so much to him growing up.
In the age of "American Idol," "Glee" is a tribute to pop. And possibly to the iPod shuffle: Famous numbers from "Wicked" or "Les Misérables" sit next to songs by Kanye West, Rihanna and Amy Winehouse.
"I think that's what will surprise people who watch the show," Murphy said. "Like, it's cool stuff. It's not all show tunes. In fact, there are very few show tunes in it."
Not that there's anything wrong with show tunes. One of Murphy's favorite films is "Funny Girl." "There's this whole generation of people like me who were raised on those '60s and '70s musicals that went out of vogue so long ago," he said. "I just felt like: What would be this generation's version of that?"
His answer was a story with a little more attitude and a soundtrack with more radio-friendly relevance.
"Glee" builds on, rather than nixes altogether, classic musical theater tendencies. In one episode, guest star and Broadway veteran Kristin Chenoweth performs the achy eleventh-hour torch song "Maybe This Time" from "Cabaret" but later rips through Carrie Underwood's hot-mess-hangover hit "Last Name."
Murphy himself was once a hopeful thespian. He grew up in Indianapolis, Ind., the son of church-going parents, going to choir practice with them every week and singing every day at Mass during Catholic school.
In high school and college, he threw himself into musical theater, landing the leads in school productions of "Bye Bye Birdie" and "South Pacific."
"You really do think you're hot stuff when you get those star roles. You feel like anything's possible," Murphy said. Realizing that he wasn't cut out to continue performing professionally "was one of the great tragedies" in his life.
When it came time to cast his own musical, Murphy decided he'd need actors who could identify with that rush. (He refers to it as "those Susan Boyle moments. I want both kids and the adults to have them in 'Glee.' ") So he decided, with Fox's blessing, to bypass the traditional network casting calls and head straight for Broadway, where he spent three months combing the field for potential discoveries.
He emerged with Matthew Morrison, who originated roles in "Hairspray" and "The Light in the Piazza"; Lea Michele, who'd acted on New York stages since she was 8 and starred in 2007's Tony Award-winning rock musical "Spring Awakening"; and Jenna Ushkowitz, who was in the recent Broadway revival of "The King and I."
Chris Colfer, who had no professional experience, caught Murphy's eye as well. "Ryan told me I looked like I had played Kurt from 'The Sound of Music' at some point in my life, and he was right. So he wrote me in as Kurt," Colfer said.
Auditioners without theatrical experience had to prove they were triple-threat performers, able to sing, dance and act.
Jayma Mays, who landed the non-singing role of a guidance counselor smitten with Will, was still forced to bring out her prepared number, "Touch-A Touch-A Touch Me" from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." "I'm so going to have to get her to do that on the show," Murphy said.
Then there's Cory Monteith, who landed the part of the golden voiced-but-reluctant jock, who sent in a tape of himself acting only and was ordered to send another with singing. He obliged with "a cheesy, '80s music-video-style version" of REO Speedwagon's 'Can't Fight This Feeling.' "
Murphy even recruited an ex-boy-bander in Kevin McHale, hailing from the group NLT (Not Like Them), to play wheelchair-bound nerd Arty. McHale said the diversity of the actors' backgrounds reflects the range of music styles in the show.
"It's a mix of everything: classic rock, current stuff, R&B," he said. "Even the musical theater stuff is switched up. You won't always recognize it."
Murphy put it another way: "It's a small piece of the show, but it's not what 'Glee' is. 'Glee's' got snark. It's got irony. It's got comedy. It's got Jane Lynch." He paused. "And when the music kicks in, you're exhilarated. Also, there's something about those kids. When they sing it's like crack. You just want more and more."
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 (Cory 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 Beyoncé'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."
Get to know the cast of 'Glee'
Ryan Murphy, the creator of "Nip/Tuck" and "Popular," is back with a comedy series revolving around singing, dancing high school misfits. What's not to like?
We let the players explain why you should tune in to the May 19 premiere of "Glee" on Fox:
Where you may have seen him: ABC Family's "Kyle XY" and MTV's "Kaya"
Cory on Finn: “Finn is the quarterback, and he has a passion for singing but he’s trying to uphold his golden boy jock-y image, you know, as being the cool guy in the school. He’s struggling between doing what he wants and being a cool guy. That’s his conflict. His jock-y friends and cheerleader girlfriend give him a hard time for it. So it’s the struggle to do what he wants versus what other people want him to do.”
On his audition for "Glee": "I ignored the fact that they wanted a tape of me singing and dancing because it's not my strong suit, so I just sent the acting. Of course, I had to send the rest anyways. I sent a tape of myself singing REO Speedwagon's 'Can't Fight This Feeling,' but I did it like an '80s music video where I'm all looking out into the distance. It was really cheesy."
On why he hates the "High School Musical" comparison: "How do I put this? 'Glee' is like 'High School Musical' if 'High School Musical' had its stomach punched and its lunch money stolen."
Where you may have seen her: Broadway's "Spring Awakening" and the Hollywood Bowl's "Les Miserables"
Lea on Rachel: “Rachel is the star of her high school glee club in Ohio. She’s raised by two gay men, one Jewish and one African American. She’s very outgoing, a little bossy at times. She’s convinced this is her claim to fame but she’s got a lot to learn. When Finn comes into the glee club, he’s the jock, you know. Things are different. She’s a sophomore and is learning about her vulnerability and she just loves to sing. And she’s really very good. So we’ll see what happens with her love life and performing life.”
On the difference between theater and the small screen: “I’m used to going to work [on Broadway] every night, knowing where the character is going to begin and knowing where she’s going to end. I tell one whole life in one night. And the next day you do the same thing and every day you perfect the same material. Here, you do something and it’s gone, and you probably won’t do that again, and you don’t know what’s going to happen to your character tomorrow, the next day or in a year. It’s shifting gears in my head. I love doing the work and then forgetting about it.”
Where you may have seen him: His high school's spoof of "Sweeney Todd" (which he wrote, directed and starred in)
Chris on Kurt: “He’s very fashionable. He’s very low patience. He’s very vogue. He’s a lot of things. He’s a mess sometimes. I think they’ve been describing him as the dramatic and fashionable soprano. I think I’m just the soprano part. He’s the dramatic, fashionable and fabulous part. And I’m not so much any of those things.”
On his audition for "Glee": “I didn’t go through a teenage rebellion period because I saw 'Nip/Tuck.' [Created by Ryan Murphy, who is the creator of “Glee.”] That was my teenage rebellion. My mom would say, ‘You’re not allowed to watch that,' blah blah blah. It was very nerve-racking auditioning in front of Ryan Murphy because I’m such a huge fan. It was hard. He’s very nice. He’s a little intimidating at first, but he’s great. I’ve learned lots of things from Ryan. I’ve learned how to deal with crazy people. Not that Ryan is crazy. But he likes crazy people."
Where you may have seen her: Ryan Murphy's pilot for "St. Sass"
Amber on Mercedes: “She’s a diva in training. But as any high school student, she doesn’t have her identity yet. She’s fun and sassy. She likes clothes. She’s a girly-girl but with a little more attitude.”
On getting to perform Jasmine Sullivan's “Bust Your Windows" in Episode 3: “I was nervous when I saw the background dancers for the first time because they’re so tall and they’re kicking their legs up in the middle. I’m like, my head’s gonna be chopped off. I hadn’t danced for a long time but now I’m really comfortable. I was singing for a long time, doing open mikes, everywhere in Santa Monica, L.A., Hollywood. So performing is what I’m used to. I’m a little more comfortable doing this than the acting part.”
Where you may have seen him: HBO's "True Blood," Nickelodeon's "Zoey 101" and the boy band NLT (Not Like Them)
Kevin on Arty: “He’s a nerd but he thinks he’s cool. He didn’t get the memo that he’s not very cool. And he can’t walk. He’s in a wheelchair. But he forgets he’s in a wheelchair because he still does all the dances and everything. They work around the wheelchair. I might bump into people, but it becomes very integrated. It’s just like having legs, I forget about it.”
On his biggest challenge: “The wheelchair, because I dance. It’s hard for me not to move my legs. I’ve always danced. [McHale belonged to the boy band NLT (Not Like Them).] So it’s weird for me not to be dancing. We were doing the pilot and we were doing the big finale scene, 'Don’t Stop Believin’' and they were like, 'Kevin, can you please stop moving your legs to the beat?' Everybody’s singing and dancing and I’m trying not to move and it’s the hardest thing. I have to tense my legs up.”
Where you may have seen him: Broadway's "South Pacific," "The Light in the Piazza" and "Hairspray"
Character: Will Schuester
Matthew on Will: "I'd love to say it was a big acting stretch to do this role, but it's kind of what my life would have been if I hadn't gone to New York and been successful there. [Will is a Spanish teacher and former glee clubber who makes it his mission to revive McKinley High's defunct singing troupe.] I probably would have been a choir teacher or something like that."
On working with Murphy and performing Kanye West’s "Golddigger": “I didn’t know who he was before this. But it’s amazing. He’s such a great leader and I feel like this whole show starts at the top. He’s so confident. He knows exactly what he wants and it just trickles down and he just makes everyone feel so comfortable and safe. I’ve never trusted a director so much. He’d say, 'Do anything,' and I’m totally willing to try because I totally trust what he’s trying to create here. He got me to rap. I had been dying to rap for years.”
Where you may have seen her: Broadway's "The King and I" and "Spring Awakening"
Jenna on Tina: “She’s a gothic stutterer. Her stutter is subtle. And Tina doesn’t know where she fits in, like the rest of the kids in the glee club. We’re kind of like the underdog/outcasts. You know, her closest friend in the glee club would be Arty. That’s pretty much Tina.”
On having to stutter on command: “Originally she had a much more dramatic stutter -- Tourette’s almost. And so I did my research because I didn’t want to ever make it like I was making fun of the stutter. I played her really positive and Ryan laughed and he said he really liked that, that she’s like a happy geek. She wasn’t a gothic at the time.”
Where you may have seen her: ABC's "Ugly Betty" and NBC's "Heroes"
Character: Emma Pillsbury
Jayma on Emma: “Emma Pillsbury is a germiphobic school guidance counselor who longs to be unsanitary with the glee coach, Will Schuester.”
On the most challenging part of the role: “Trying not to bring Emma's mysophobia home with me. Last week I plastic-wrapped all my furniture ... and bleached my cats.”
Where you may have seen her: CBS' "Numb3rs" and NBC's "Heroes"
Dianna on Quinn: “Quinn is dating Finn. Of course, she’s very religious. She’s the captain of the cheerleading squad. She’s the captain of the celibacy club. She’s got all these things that are her. She can be so evil, but you come to realize there’s a lot going on with her."
On why "Glee" is better than your average teen drama: "What I really like about all of these characters is that you’re not the cool kid or the dork or the mean girl. There are so many shades to all of us, and that’s really starting to unfold.”
Where you may have seen her: FX's "Nip/Tuck" and NBC's "Heroes" and "Friday Night Lights"
Character: Terri Shuester
Jessalyn on Terri: "I see Terri Shuester as pro-marriage. There is nothing she won’t (and doesn’t) do to save her marriage. Nothing. Some may be shocked by her choices, but I would ask those people, 'Have you ever walked in the neighborhood of a person you had a crush on even though it’s on the other side of town for you, just in hopes of running into them? Have you ever pretended to have seen a movie they loved? Or laughed at a joke they told that you weren’t sure was funny?' If so, don’t judge Terri. As her sister Kendra explains, deceit may be the basis of a healthy marriage.
On why she wanted to be on "Glee": "To sing. Which I have NOT been asked to do. The script was one of the most original pilots I've ever read, and Terri was an opportunity to play a role that is really different for me, but honestly, if Ryan Murphy was producing a reality show about Canadians who were willing to live without their big toes, I would probably have done that too. 'Nip/Tuck' was one of the best creative experiences of my career, so to work with Ryan Murphy again, along with much of the crew from 'Nip/Tuck' is something I have wished for when blowing out my birthday candles, or throwing a penny in a fountain.
On the most challenging part of the job: "The most challenging part of the role so far has been to restrain myself from singing or dancing when I’m hanging around set in hopes that someone will give me a song to sing. I am surrounded every day by Tony-nominated Broadway stars, so it's important that I sit on my hands and speak when spoken to. That way I hope to do the least amount of damage possible."
Where you may have seen her: Starz' "Party Down," CBS' "Two and a Half Men" and movies including "A Mighty Wind"
Jane on Sue: “I can’t hold my authority the way Sue can. She rules with fear and threats, and for some reason, these kids really respect her and they do whatever she says. She really revels in having that kind of power. What I love about Sue is she doesn’t get her hands dirty. She doesn’t do a bend or a jump herself, but she certainly makes sure that she puts these kids through their paces. You’ll hear me on the sideline yelling and demeaning them into a good formation, but you won’t see her actually take part in it. Not at all.”
On why "Glee" rocks: “I think it’s gonna be huge. It’s pretty amazing — they do three or four musical numbers every week. They’re full-on, produced like musical videos. It sounds like everybody’s getting a number at some point. I might get a number. You know, I play the head of the cheerleaders and I’m the nemesis. I’m trying to destroy the glee club all the time. I’m coming up with machinations and strategies. But I think at some point, I’m gonna get to do a song.”
Behind The Scenes Of Glee-photoshoot: