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Don't Stop Believin'
The Unofficial Guide to Glee
By Erin Balser, Suzanne Gardner, Jen Hale, Jen Knoch
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2010 Erin Balser and Suzanne Gardner
All rights reserved.
can't fight this feeling: the origins of glee
With top 40 hits and Broadway show tunes, lightning-fast plotlines and a large cast of characters, dark social commentary and heartwarming moments, Glee itself is a mash-up more complex than the New Directions team could ever dream of. With so much going on, every element needed to be dynamite in order for Glee to work. One miscast character or poorly selected song and the pilot would have been criticized for being overly cheesy. But the final product was pitch perfect. Glee is the brainchild of three different men, Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, who, with the help of a large cast and crew, make the world of Glee come alive every week.
Even the best show choir needs a leader and Glee's is none other than television veteran Ryan Murphy. Ryan was born on November 30, 1965, to an Irish-Catholic family in Indianapolis, Indiana. Considered a high-strung and precocious child, Ryan was always imaginative, immersing himself in movies, television, music and books as a form of escape. He even obsessed about becoming the Pope. "You just wanted a way out. You wanted a way to express yourself and just sort of not stay in Indiana and be an insurance salesman or a farmer," he says. Despite his aspirations to papal glory and his family's devout influence, Ryan never felt a connection with the church or with God. Yet his Catholic education would influence a major part of his future career — his storytelling. Ryan explains, "I'm very, very glad that I had that religious upbringing because, you know, it really taught me about storytelling and it really taught me about theatricality."
Even with his strict Catholic upbringing, Ryan, who is openly gay, never struggled with his sexuality. "My sexuality was always just a given and I always accepted it," he told After Elton. "I never really had a coming out. I was out in utero, I think. I had a very strong sense of self. It was never an issue for me. I never struggled with it." Despite Ryan's keen self-awareness, his parents worried about his well-being and sent him to a psychiatrist at 15. However, the psychiatrist deemed him simply "too precocious for his own good" and sent him home. Ryan's experience growing up gay in the Midwest would inform his future television shows, including Glee, and many of Kurt Hummel's experiences are based on Ryan's high school days.
Growing up, Ryan was always on the lookout for creative outlets to channel his energy. Ryan applied — and was accepted — to film school but couldn't afford to go. Instead he attended Indiana University in Bloomington, where he majored in journalism, worked at the Indiana Daily Student, starred in productions of Bye Bye Birdie and South Pacific and sang in the choir. He flirted with the idea of being a professional actor, but decided to put his journalism degree to use by writing headlines instead of becoming a headliner. After graduating, Ryan moved to star-studded Los Angeles where he penned entertainment stories for the Miami Herald. The writer's boundless energy and passion for showbiz led to freelance opportunities with such entertainment news heavyweights as the Los Angeles Times, the New York Daily News and Entertainment Weekly.
It was only a matter of time before Ryan shifted his focus from chasing stories to making up his own. He started scriptwriting in the late 1990s, after he became bored with writing about Hollywood and celebrities. "I had interviewed Cher for the fifth time and I was like, 'Okay, you got to do something else,'" Ryan says. "Even though I love her, I can't keep writing about her." The journalist began to write a screenplay about a woman who meets a man who loves Audrey Hepburn as much as she does, writing late into the night after work. He eventually sold that script, Why Can't I Be Audrey Hepburn?, to Steven Spielberg. Despite the big-name buy, the project (which had both Téa Leoni and Jennifer Love Hewitt attached to star at different points) was never put into production. Hollywood's many hurdles didn't faze Ryan, and he eagerly launched into his new career as a screenwriter with his next project, the dark teen drama Popular.
Popular, which ran for two seasons from 1999 to 2001 on the WB (now the CW), brought a caustic edge to teen drama, a genre that was experiencing a surge in viewership at the time. The show was originally conceived as a movie, but, after getting some feedback, Ryan teamed up with television producer Gina Matthews and turned the concept into a series. They shopped it around and four networks bid on it, but they signed with teen television powerhouse the WB. "We went with the WB because they seem to give shows more of a chance," Ryan says. At the time, the WB aired Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson's Creek, 7th Heaven, Felicity, Roswell and Charmed and appeared to be the perfect home for Popular.
When Popular premiered on September 29, 1999, it enhanced the WB's teen line-up with its honest, and often brutal, portrayal of surviving high school. Cynical, funny and over-the-top, the show looked at high school through the eyes of two girls who were the heads of their own cliques: popular cheerleader Brooke McQueen and unpopular journalist Sam McPherson. "It was sort of Heathers-esque," Ryan explains, referring to the 1989 black comedy starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater about a murderous, popular clique of girls, all named Heather. "I always thought that that was a culty, darker thing that had a very cynical tone to it." Ryan claims that Popular and Glee are two very different shows, but it's obvious that many ideas and themes found their way from Popular to Glee. (We'll take a closer look at these comparisons in the section That's Pretty Popular.) Popular was a hit in its first season but failed to hold on to its audience after being moved to Friday nights for the second season. In a dark, real-life plot twist, Popular was abruptly and unexpectedly canceled, leaving the audience with a deadly cliffhanger.
Ryan's next project was the 2002 WB TV pilot St. Sass. Delta Burke was set to star as the new headmistress of an exclusive all-girls prep school, but the show (which had future Glee star Amber Riley in its cast) wasn't picked up. Yet this small step back would lead to a much bigger step forward as the writer refocused his time and energy on a new project that would establish him as a top-notch creative force. That project was the F/X drama Nip/Tuck, a show about two plastic surgeons practicing in Miami and, later, Los Angeles. Ryan was inspired to create Nip/Tuck after visiting a plastic surgeon for research for an article about men's calf implants. He was so appalled and intrigued by the experience that he knew he had to turn it into a television show. "I went into my consultation with this plastic surgeon, and, within five minutes, he told me five things I could do to improve my face and my body, and thus my life," he recalls. The article never got written; instead, Nip/Tuck was born.
Nip/Tuck was a huge departure from Popular but contained the same dark humor, cynical tone and biting commentary on contemporary culture. With Dr. Sean McNamara or Dr. Christian Troy urging patients, "Tell me what you don't like about yourself," Nip/Tuck asserts that we don't grow out of the teenage insecurities that plague the kids in Popular, and that the Glee kids strive so hard to overcome. Premiering on July 22, 2003, Nip/Tuck, a gruesome and graphic show, explores the ugly side of beauty, wealth and plastic surgery. "I think the public thinks that this is delicate surgery, and these surgeons treat the face as if it were porcelain," Ryan explains. "And in fact they treat it like it was sirloin." Ryan was an executive producer on Popular but came into his own with Nip/Tuck. He became more hands-on and began to direct for the first time in his career, a skill he'd take with him to movie sets and to Glee. The series won a Golden Globe for Best Drama in 2005 and received an order of 22 episodes, unprecedented for a cable TV show, for its fifth season.
Once Nip/Tuck became a well-oiled machine, Ryan started working on other projects, including co-writing and directing the 2006 film Running with Scissors and penning the 2008 pilot for Pretty Handsome (a show about a transgendered gynecologist that co-starred Jonathan Groff, Lea Michele's Spring Awakening co-star and Vocal Adrenaline's Jesse St. James). Nip/Tuck ended its remarkable six-season run with its 100th episode on March 3, 2010. The show's success had given Ryan's career a transformative facelift, and, in 2007, Ryan signed an eight-figure multi-year deal with Fox that included developing new series for 20th Century Fox Television and giving the network the first look at any project, including Glee.
It was a tremendous opportunity, but one that came with significant pressure. Luckily, Ryan wasn't working alone. Originally hired as a writer for Nip/Tuck in its first season, Brad Falchuk (currently one of Glee's executive producers, who writes, produces and directs for the show) quickly worked his way up to producer on the F/X drama. In fact, Ryan liked Brad's work so much that the two developed Pretty Handsome together before teaming up again for Glee.
If Ryan was Kurt Hummel in high school, the gay drama and choir geek, Brad was Finn Hudson, the jock trying to figure out where he belonged. Brad played baseball, basketball and lacrosse in high school, and, despite being relatively popular, he always felt the need to stand out and be different. Brad, like Ryan, was driven by a need to move on to bigger and better things. He struggled in school (and later discovered he was dyslexic), and, to distract his classmates from his difficulties and to stand out from the crowd, he wore a tie every day and told everyone at his liberal-leaning school that he was a Republican. "Everyone is searching for something," he says. "And usually what they're searching for is to be heard or to be seen.... I was desperate to be seen."
After graduating from high school, Brad attended the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. He struggled as a film scriptwriter and worked as a personal trainer for four years before his wife prompted him to give writing for television a try. After short stints as a writer on Mutant X, Earth: Final Conflict and Veritas: The Quest, Brad asked his agent to set up a meeting with Ryan Murphy. Ryan liked his work and hired him for Nip/Tuck. "Ryan took me under his wing and said, 'Let's see what happens. Let's do this ride together and I'm going to open these things up to you and all I expect of you is that you work your ass off and you bring your voice," Brad recalls. The duo achieved a beautiful harmony and have been working together ever since.
Brad may relate the most to Finn, but Artie Abrams is the character most inspired by his life. Artie is named after one of Brad's childhood best friends and a spinal scare Brad had was the catalyst for the story in "Wheels." In 2008, Brad was diagnosed with a malformed blood vessel on his spinal cord, otherwise known as hemangioma, and it required emergency surgery. He spent months in recovery, and the former personal trainer was wheelchair bound. Brad is now back on his feet, but the ordeal inspired him to use Glee as an accessible approach to disability issues.
Fox was so impressed with Brad's work on Glee that they signed him to his own seven-figure development deal. He'll work on multiple projects for the network as a writer, director and producer. "Brad is an extremely versatile and talented team player," praised 20th Century Fox Television chairman Dana Walden. "The tone of Glee is so specific, it takes delicate balance. If you can direct Glee successfully, you can probably direct anything."
But as Ryan Murphy had already discovered, talent and a multimillion-dollar development deal don't guarantee all your work will be produced, and after the Pretty Handsome pilot failed to get picked up by F/X, Ryan and Brad wanted to do something completely different and the notion of doing a television musical kept popping up. However, they needed to figure out how to make the format work. No musical television show had succeeded since Fame in the 1980s. Cop Rock lasted for one widely panned season in 1990, and Viva Laughlin, the 2007 television musical starring Hugh Jackman, was canceled after two episodes. Even the sometimes-musical Eli Stone and Pushing Daisies didn't get very far. But with shows like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance soaring in the ratings and High School Musical and Hannah Montana becoming pop culture phenoms, audiences seemed primed and ready for this genre — if it was the right show.
While Ryan searched for this elusive project, television producer Mike Novick, a member of Ryan's gym and a casual acquaintance, coincidentally approached Ryan with a movie script about a high school glee club, written by Mike's friend Ian Brennan in 2005. After the script was turned down by several Hollywood producers, Mike realized there was only one person who could do justice to such a creative and original project: Ryan Murphy. "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," Mike explained to the Los Angeles Times. "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." Ryan read the script and loved it, and the partnership between him, Brad and Ian began.
Growing up in Mount Prospect, Illinois, Ian Brennan was a wannabe actor who dabbled in show choir. He admittedly hated everything about the choir but joined because its director doubled as the drama club director and Ian thought that by signing up he'd have a better shot at scoring great acting roles. It worked, and Ian starred in several high school productions, all while donning sequined tuxedos for his glee club performances. Ian's drama teacher, John Marquette, influenced more than his participation in glee club: the character of Will Schuester is based on this encouraging teacher.
Ian's interest in acting stemmed from the same place Ryan's and Brad's did — a desire to escape his small town and search for something better. Growing up, Ian couldn't wait to get out of Mount Prospect and achieve fame and fortune. "I find it interesting that there is something in everybody, a longing for something transcendent, particularly in a place like Mount Prospect, a place that's very suburban and normal and plain," he says. "Even in places like that, there's this desire to shine."
Ian's love for acting stayed with him, and, after high school, he headed to Loyola University in Chicago to study theater. Once he graduated, Ian struggled to make ends meet as an actor in Chicago and New York before he tried his hand at screenwriting. The actor couldn't ignore his idea for a film about show choirs inspired by his high school days and the horrors of his own glee club experience. "It's such a strange phenomenon," he says. "It doesn't really exist except in high schools and maybe cruise ships. I figured there was the potential for some really good stories there." A lot of what you see on Glee — Sandy's firing, the bullying, the eggings — is taken directly from Ian's own life. "When I'm writing scenes, I invariably picture Prospect High School," he explains. "Like one of my classmates got rolled down a hill in a Porta-Potty, which is terrible."
Excerpted from Don't Stop Believin' by Erin Balser, Suzanne Gardner, Jen Hale, Jen Knoch. Copyright © 2010 Erin Balser and Suzanne Gardner. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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