Get Your Gleek On

Yes, it’s time to dig out your pom-poms and show tunes – Glee is back. With the exception of those who have spent the last twelve months living a hermit-style existence of total isolation, it has been impossible to escape this US television phenomenon, which returns to the UK’s screens this week with a second season. It has turned its young cast into overnight stars, catapulted long forgotten hits back into the charts and spawned countless imitations. But just what is it about a band of high school misfits belting out power ballads that has had such an extraordinary impact?

The story itself is nothing particularly new. It is Fame meets High School Musical, with a dash of The Breakfast Club on the side. Enthusiastic high school teacher Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) takes over the school show choir – or glee club, hence the title – and recruits a motley crew of jocks, cheerleaders, geeks and wannabes in an attempt to win the national championships. Every stock American high school stereotype makes an appearance and it is classic underdog-wins-the-day drama. So how is this show any different from the scores of other American dramas that appear and rapidly disappear from our screens?

What makes Glee so appealing is that it has no illusions about what it is. It is playful with stereotypes, never taking itself too seriously and subtly sending up the conventions of American high school dramas. Also key to its success is one woman powerhouse Jane Lynch as the deliciously evil Sue Sylvester, whose presence alone makes Glee worth watching. The magic ingredient, however, seems to be the music. The impossibly slick musical numbers (what high school can really stage those theatrical extravaganzas?) are the highlight of each episode and the show has broken The Beatles’ record of number one singles with tracks released from the episodes.

Perhaps we should not be overjoyed that a group of American youngsters singing covers have toppled the Fab Four from their dominance of the charts, but there are still lots of reasons to be gleeful about this series. From the perspective of a musical theatre fan, Glee has done a lot for the genre. Musicals are generally marketed within a sort of bubble, rarely reaching those who were not fans of the genre in the first place, making it difficult to bring in new audiences. This is beginning to change with the rise of television casting shows, but I would venture to claim that Glee has done more for the musical than the efforts of Andrew Lloyd Webber and the BBC.

Although Glee‘s soundtrack is mainly dominated by pop covers, they have managed to smuggle in a sizeable smattering of musical theatre. The first season featured songs from shows such as Les Miserables, Cabaret, Wicked and Funny Girl, while the second season goes one better by centring their entire Halloween episode around The Rocky Horror Picture Show. There is also true musical theatre calibre in the form of cast members Lea Michele (Rachel) and Matthew Morrison, as well as guest appearances from Broadway stars Idina Menzel, Kristin Chenoweth and Jonathan Groff.

It is perhaps too early to gauge any tangible effect on the musical theatre industry, but the show is undoubtedly introducing a new audience to this material and the hope is that it will translate to more bums on seats for theatres. Glee‘s popularity with younger audiences could bring a whole new generation to musical theatre, a consequence of the show’s success that can only be a good thing.

In the Radio Times, Emma Brockes states that ‘musicals aren’t supposed to be cool’ and although admitting that the show has brought the musical back to the fore of entertainment, she questions whether Glee really has made the musical fashionable. There is no barometer to measure how cool or not the musical may be, but Glee has certainly brought it back to the mainstream. Who would have guessed that wacky cult musical Rocky Horror would one day be brought to prime-time American television and legions of teenage viewers?

So give in to the guilty pleasure and join me in embracing gleek-dom. There may be many more bright days ahead for the musical as long as we don’t stop believing …

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