Just because Glee has a lot of singing and dancing doesn’t make it a musical; it’s just trying to get in on the market for musicals. The new Fox show, which begins its official season on Global on Sept. 9 (the original pilot will air on Sept. 2), is an irony-filled comedy-drama starring Matthew Morrison as a teacher who sees the school choir as a way for kids and teachers to fulfill their dreams; it’s like Friday Night Lights if singing Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat were more important than football. Dante Di Loreto, one of the executive producers of the show, told Maclean’s that “people who enjoy musicals will enjoy the show, and we also think that people who never thought they would enjoy a musical will enjoy the show.” Glee is coming along at a time when many musical franchises are more lucrative than scripted-series television. Glee doesn’t want to imitate those shows, but if it gets some of their crossover popularity, the producers won’t complain.
Many critics have compared Glee, co-created by Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck), to that other franchise about teenagers who want to sing their hearts out, High School Musical; that may have made networks receptive to upbeat, song-filled high school stories. (Not only networks: a movie remake of Fame comes out in September.) Of course Glee aims to be edgier than High School Musical. It has an athlete (Cory Monteith) who crosses over into singing, but in his case, it’s because the teacher frames him for marijuana possession and blackmails him into joining the choir. Another thing that sets Glee apart from its Disney Channel predecessor is that all the songs are done in the “real” world of onstage performance; Di Loreto says that they’re “never doing what you do in a traditional musical, which is bursting into song at any moment.” That brings it closer to American Idol, a show about young performers trying to prove their singing abilities. Fox even ran a sneak preview of the Glee pilot (in a shortened version) after an episode of Idol.
Glee isn’t only trying to emulate the format of Idol, but its multi-generational appeal: “There are few shows in the history of television that have crossed over to as many different kinds of audiences,” Di Loreto says admiringly. And one of the reasons Idol cuts across demographic and cultural boundaries is the eclectic choice of music. It features songs that different groups can relate to, and doesn’t leave either parents or kids feeling left out. Murphy has tried to do something similar for the many song performances on Glee. Instead of sticking to one particular kind of song, or focusing on recent music the way shows like Grey’s Anatomy do, Murphy has chosen a song list that Di Loreto says “reflects every kind of genre. Ryan’s including country-western, Broadway, rhythm and blues, you name it, we want to perform it.”
Music also helps a show cross over to other media, and Glee is taking advantage of this by selling its song performances in other formats: Di Loreto says they have already “produced 63 tracks in the first 13 episodes of the show,” which they will make available on iTunes and a soundtrack CD. This strategy is essential because shows can’t survive based only on TV viewers. Saving Grace, produced by Glee’s studio but aired on TNT, was cancelled because the studio wasn’t making enough money from DVDs and overseas sales. Glee’s music sales, like High School Musical’s, can help the studio make money and also increase word of mouth for the show. Ratings for the pilot weren’t spectacular, but the show got a boost when its performance of Don’t Stop Believin’ became a top hit on iTunes. “It used to be that once you aired a show, you were done until the next episode,” Di Loreto says. But with Glee, thanks to the music, “interest in the show has built since airing the pilot, rather than diminished.”
We might not get the full effect of that in Canada, which doesn’t offer Hulu and some of the other video-sharing sites it depends on. Di Loreto says the lack of a multimedia presence outside the U.S. is frustrating because “I have family in Australia and England, and I want to share the show with them, and I can’t.” Still, the tie-ins might help Glee everywhere (even here) by giving broader appeal to the show. Murphy’s last high school show, Popular, was similar in tone, but didn’t last long. If Glee does better, it’ll be partly because music made it a show that, Di Loreto says, is “snarky and adult but with a level that an 11-year-old kid can enjoy it.” That could just as easily be a description of American Idol.