TV REVIEW Glee & Musicals in the Context of Popular Culture
A Motley Cast of Misfits, Raw Talent, and a Lot of Heart
Created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan
My first introduction to musicals in the popular media was through Zac Efron. The teen idol’s glaringly bright white smile set against the flawless tan skin gleamed at me from every cover of People magazine. This was known as the High School Musical craze. I was utterly flabbergasted as to how a made-for-T.V. movie could seize storms of teenage girls in a frenzy (not dissimilar to the Twilight fans). Of course, the High School Musical wave was more geared towards those in their late pre-teen years, still easily swayed by the smooth facial hair-less boys. When my friends started urging me to watch Glee, all I knew was that it was also a teen musical and shook my head adamantly.
I finally gave in to peer pressure and the surprising realization that the cast of Glee was not artificially all good-looking. There was none of that fresh-scrubbed Disney Channel squeaky cleanness to the cast that High School Musical possessed. In fact, as I squinted at the Google images, they were quite the motley crew.
There is almost a Breakfast Club element to the glee club (called New Direction) members. Every convention is embraced and then later thrown back to the audience with a twist. There’s the openly flamboyant Kurt who is always decked out in designer threads; the quiet Goth Asian Tina; a heavyset but strong-willed diva Mercedes who insists she “is Beyonce … ain’t no Kelly Rowland,” rounded off by a bespectacled Artie in a wheelchair. However, it is probably the obnoxiously overambitious but undeniably talented Rachel who steals the show. A musical prodigy who has an ego the size of her nose, Rachel is both the glue that pulls the club together and also the catalyst for many other events. The other half of the glee group is loosely comprised of jocks and cheerleaders recruited after a turn of events. Glee has its roots in Freaks and Geeks and other such cult media that highlight the misfits. The refreshing aspect of Glee is that the stereotypical high school set is embraced shamelessly but the plot carried out with such character and charm that the clichés are overshadowed.
At first glance, the series does seem rather unoriginal. I was unimpressed by the pilot episode in which the attractive McKinley High Spanish teacher, Will Schuester, hopes to restore the glee club, New Directions, to its former glory and begins recruiting members through some rather unscrupulous methods. There is a distinct social hierarchy carved out in McKinely High. It embraces all the teen clichés. McKinley’s jocks rule the school with an iron fist, their power only offset by the cheerleader squad, the principal’s pride and joy. As Sue Sylvester, the cheerleading coach puts it, “It [the glee club] is below the below”. Since joining the glee club marks one as a social pariah (and often merits one a routine Slushy in the face), the gang of willing candidates is quite the hodgepodge group. To “draw from the popular rank,” Schuester blackmails the star quarterback, Finn Hudson (Cory Montieth) into joining. The rest of the series follows the glee club’s trials and tribulations. Along their path to Regionals, they face squabbling amongst each other and constant attempts by Sue Sylvester to end the glee club’s existence.
Along with the ragtag but lovable cast, the talent of Glee’s cast is undeniable. Lea Michelle, who plays Rachel, actually starred in the controversial Broadway musical Spring Awakening. Many others in the cast also have Broadway experience. While the High School Musical cast have well-trained voices, there is a homogeneity in the style. The Glee actors bring a rawness and unbridled talent to the silver screen. Many of the New Direction numbers are remixes and mashups of pop songs. Watching the glee kids do a rendition of “Crazy/Hair” in wild wigs to integrate “hairography” is both hilarious and endearing.
Glee’s significance in the context of pop media is its ability to transcend age and gender. Let’s face it — most fans of High School Musical are pre-teens with schoolgirl crushes on Zac Efron. Glee succeeds through its variety-pack of characters and biting humor. It has set modern musicals on the popular culture map. I, amongst many others, always used to relate musicals to the likes of Les Miserables and other classics. Titles like Wicked and Spring Awakening are still not as associated to musicals. Glee makes musicals hip again. At the same time, the audience can relate to the base sentiments and struggles of the characters. Who hasn’t faced self doubts or anxieties?
Glee may not have the most original plotline, but its witty screenplay and undeniable talent justify its popularity. In the grand scheme of things, Glee overturns many societal standards and forces us to scrutinize for both flaws and admirable traits in humans. It also excels in a satiric rendition of a high school comedy. Glee brings a grounded realness to a potentially fluffy story. For those who want a dash of music, a smidgen of romance, and a lot of heart, Glee is a must-watch.