If you’ve never seen Glee here’s what you missed: it’s an American TV series that first aired in 2009 and nobody thought it was going to be a hit because it was a musical comedy how uncool is that? about a school choir doing show tunes in a hicksville high school and all the lead characters are like, losers or misfits, but actually it turned into this like, total phenomenon with an intergenerational fan base and it bagged loads of awards, oh and its songs kept topping the charts and that’s what you missed on Glee!
But if you have seen Glee you’ll know all that (and lots more, because many Glee-watchers turn into Glee-geeks-or ‘Gleeks’, as they’re known) and you’ll also recognise that sporadically punctuated opening paragraph as a homage to/rip-off of the breezy voiceover that begins each episode. But whether you’re so Gleeky you need Gleehab or whether you’re still unconvinced you’ll be asking yourself the same question, which is what is it doing in my magazine? and you know what the answer to that is? Two words: read and on.
So here’s the setup. Well-meaning school teacher Will Schuester holds auditions for a Glee club, the school’s show choir, and ends up with a raggletaggle group of misfit kids – the kind who don’t assimilate into the football team or cheerleading squad. They love Glee club because they get to express themselves; and by selves I mean their confused teen-hormonal-identity stuff; and by stuff I mean pregnancy and coming out and eating disorders and the like. Now that’s refreshing. Problem is, Glee club is constantly threatened with closure, not least because its foremost opponent is cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester, an awesome über-villain who hogs all the best lines.
Now, as far as the performing arts go, Glee is the biggest thing on TV since Fame. Three decades ago, Fame inspired a generation of youngsters to want to dance, sing or act; often all three. Glee has a similar effect today. Countless viewers have started singing in the sitting room or bopping round the bedroom. Vocal groups and show choirs have mushroomed. Glee touches the inner performer in us all, and though its focus leans towards song, it’s also about personality and presentation. Theatricality and choreography come with the package.
But why has Glee caught on in the first place? In part because its format – unknown young hopefuls, backstage stories, ‘showtime’ numbers – plugs directly into today’s talent-show zeitgeist (it’s no coincidence that Fox TV programmed the pilot episode right after the final of American Idol). But mainly because it pulls off a remarkable conjuring trick that lets it have several kinds of cake, and then eat them all. First off, there’s the songs, which cover a whole gamut of styles – pop, jazz standards, R and B, house, ballads, show tunes – thereby hooking in an audience of widely differing ages and musical tastes. Second, there’s the ‘problem’ of integrating story and song. Glee solves this perfunctorily. The songs start in the world of the story (the rehearsal studio, say), then a backing band appears from nowhere, there’s a jump cut to a brighter, more intense world of co-ordinated movement and presto! we’re already in la-la-land.
Then there’s Glee’s intoxicating cocktail of warm-hearted sincerity spiked with icy sarcasm (typically from poker-faced Sue Sylvester). You have to love a show about show choirs that has its lead singer Rachel stomp her foot and assert that ‘there is nothing ironic about show choir!’
The lead characters may be high school’s misfits and no-hopers – but you have never seen a better-looking, more talented, aspirational, articulate and acne-free bunch of losers in your life. This is primetime American TV, after all. It can also be PC and totally un-PC at the same time. It embraces minorities but its cultural diversity angle is this: an effete gay kid, a nice guy in a wheelchair, a fat black diva, two non-assertive Asian-Americans and a voiceless (not too) black guy, who all play second fiddle to glee club’s pretty white romantic leads. You may object to this as gross stereotyping and tokenism, but Sue Sylvester will trump you. ‘Gay kid!’ she yells. ‘Wheels! Aretha! Asian! Other Asian! Shaft!’ Glee wins, again.
On no account should you confuse Glee with the one-dimensional squeaky-dean teen dream that was High School Musical. It hooks culturally savvy grown-ups with its knowing asides and sometimes dirty in-jokes. Children love its infectious song-and-dance numbers and its big-hearted emotions. Teenagers identify with the intensity of feeling, the peer pressure, the raging hormones and the risqué storylines. Dance Gazette readers will note that song-and-dance acts have suddenly become cool: the show has, in the words of Vanity Fair, ‘achieved the wondrous feat of making musical theatre look hip, mainstream and sexily redemptive.’ And me? I find that Glee’s mix of snappy wit, soulful sincerity and sappy psychobabble, its bright comic-strip images, its barefaced cheek and its shameless emotional manipulation all converge in my brain and I find myself thinking: God bless America.
10 gleeful dance moments
Single Ladies (Beyoncé)
“Auditioning” for the football team, wispy gay kid Kurt naturally needs a Beyoncé warm-up if he’s going to high-kick that ball into touch. Soon, the team becomes a formation team. That’s called football-bootylicious.
Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker) (Parliament)
Power to the offbeat. Glee is full of drill-formation rhythms and chest-swelling ballads, but his number gets down and dirty and everyone hangs loose. It even ends in classic 70s ‘Soul Train Line’ formation. Groovy!
Sing, Sing, Sing (with a Swing) (Louis Prima)
Iron-souled Sue Sylvester lindy-hops happily with her arch-nemesis Mr Schue. Because love makes you do the wacky.
Jump (Van Halen)
A rock-heavy number transfigured into a mattress commercial, with the Glee kids trampolining on ginormous beds in supercute baby-blue jim-jams. I’m buying!
Ray of Light (Madonna)
Peppy cheerleaders. On stilts. Show-off fan kicks, chassé–pas de bourrées, flashy lifts, the splits. On stilts! Over in a flash, entirely gratuitous, totally fab.
Safety Dance (Men without Hats)
Disabled Artie leads a dream flashmob in a shopping mall – a deliciously infectious bop that fizzes all the way up the escalators until the bubble bursts and he’s dropped back to the reality of his wheelchair and your heart is skewered.
Say a Little Prayer (Burt Bacharach)
Only a brief trio, but it is physically impossible to be more girly than this.
This is a Man’s World (James Brown)
Not great choreography but there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment when the backing group of pregnant teenagers with bouncy baby bumps (‘The Unwed Mothership Connection’) do the cygnet dance from Swan Lake. To a James Brown song. Some moments are special.
I Bust the Window Out Your Car (Jazmine Sullivan)
It slaps the beat, it’s got sass and it’s got ‘hairography’, but this is choreography that also knows its place: to become the ground over which the voice of Mercedes Jones can soar.
Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen)
Crosscuts between a competitive power-ballet and scenes of cheerleader Quinn in the throes of childbirth, in a brilliant and wholly unexpected melding of word, action and image (ring of hands as dilation, anyone?). This is where the body takes control of the voice, and it roars.
‘I had to form a Glee club’
When Spencer James sat down to watch Glee on a freezing January evening in southeast London, he had no idea that his life was about to change. The 30-year-old actor had just finished a season in a stage musical and was once again facing that all- too-common fact of acting life: no work. It was a little depressing. Then Glee aired. Spencer was gripped. When they sang ‘Don’t Stop Believing’, Spencer felt ‘as if the mother-ship was calling.’ He wanted to be singing that song. ‘I had to form a glee club; he says, ‘and fast.’ How fast? At the end of the first episode, his club had its first three members.
Next on board, as musical director, was his long-standing colleague Katherine Woolley. They hunted for practice space, phoned friends in similar circumstances, and within two weeks held their first session. Sixteen people came. They rehearsed ‘Don’t Stop Believing’, (Glee’s first hit single and the show’s mantra) and Tenacious Glee was born. ‘It was meant to be just for fun,’ says Spencer. ‘But at the same time we were also doing exactly what every out-of-work actor should be doing: keeping our creative juices flowing, keeping in training. We had to sing in our jobs, so why should we stop singing when we were out of work?’
Initially, that was all Tenacious Glee was for: fun and practice. In March, Spencer and Katherine, who both had a lot of experience working with kids, decided to form a youth group. They posted notices in local supermarkets to announce a new glee club for kids aged 12–18. At the first meeting, 16 teenagers showed up. ‘We knew we were onto something then,’ says Spencer. ‘Teenagers do not sign up for out-of-school clubs unless they really, really want to. Glee club was cool. Within a month we were up to 36 students.’ Harmony High was born.
The next level came right after. Channel 5 television announced its summer talent show, called – wouldn’t you know – Don’t Stop Believing. Spencer had the raw material all ready, so he decided to hire a theatre for a night and, in time-honoured fashion, to put on a show. Gleekshow! was a medley of song-and-dance numbers that mixed and matched Tenacious Glee and Harmony High. Rehearsing for a public performance raised the stakes: the energy went up, the focus narrowed. In the event, the performers had a great time, friends and colleagues in the audience were whooping, and parents left with swelling hearts and welling eyes.
Gleekshow! turned out to be one more step forward. For Harmony High, Spencer and Katherine organised a summer school in preparation for another Gleekshow! And for Tenacious Glee? Of the 3000 groups who’d applied for Channel 5’s show, they were one of the I000 who were asked to audition. By the time of Gleekshow! they knew they were one of the 30 groups who’d made it onto the show, and would appear live on national television, under their new name ToneAcity. Having begun the year with bleak prospects, by midsummer Spencer found himself with not one but two glee clubs, as busy and buzzing as a hive of bees. Which is the kind of thing that can only happen if you don’t stop believing …
Pick yourself up
It’s a Thursday evening in southeast London, and a church hail is filling up with girls and boys aged 12–18. It’s rehearsal time for Harmony High glee club, and Spencer has invited Kyley Cooper from his adult group to help out. The assignment for this week is to produce a quick mash-up of two songs in just 45 minutes. While they rush off into corners and race against the clock, Kyley tells me how she came to be here. A high-flier at stage school, her confidence had crashed when that didn’t translate into acting work, and for six years she’d distanced herself from the theatre world. Joining Spencer’s glee club – she was one of the first three – was like waking up again. ‘I was really at rock bottom for a couple of years,’ she says. ‘But this made me remember what I love doing. It’s given me back my drive. I can’t tell you how different I am now.’ In Gleekshow! she had a solo number, ‘That’s Life’. ‘When it came to those words – each time I find myself flat on my face, I pick myself up and get back in the race – well, I was singing them and living them at the same time. It felt like a light was shining on me.’
Kyley is as bubbling with enthusiasm as the kids, who’ve just returned to present their assignments. Some have mashed up not just two but three different songs. Everyone gets a solo, everyone gets some harmony, and everyone has some choreography. The boys may be outnumbered, but they’re not outclassed. Most impressively, no one has been thinking small, and it’s hard to believe from their delivery that only three months ago many of them had no performance experience at all. Ask them what difference the club makes and one answer keeps coming back: confidence. ‘I would never have done this before, but now I’m happy to stand at the front.’. ‘I used to feel awkward about dancing, but now I don’t feel embarrassed. Actually, it’s difficult to keep still!’
These kids adore their club. ‘It is absolutely the highlight of everyone’s week,’ says one girl, to murmurs of agreement. ‘And it is nothing like school!’ Spencer glows, and they beam right back. OMG, is Spencer basically Mr Schue? ‘Yes! Yes!’ they chorus. ‘But better!’ This is one happy Glee club, and right now there’s only one thing lacking: they do not spontaneously break into a refrain of ‘To Sir, With Love’.