Glee and the Search for Postmodern Innocence

Deal W. Hudson
May 31, 2010

The musical comedy-drama Glee debuted on Fox just over a year ago. The story of a high school Spanish teacher’s attempts to resurrect the Lima, Ohio, high school glee club surprised critics by ending its first season ranked at 33 in the Nielsen ratings. Now in its second season, the show’s ratings have only gone up, as it climbed to the #15 spot last week.

On May 23, the plans for the third season of Glee were announced. While there’s no reason its popularity won’t continue to climb, the challenge of producing a primetime musical series to appeal to a generation not brought up on the traditional musicals like CamelotWest Side Story, and The Sound of Music is obvious: How do you combine a contemporary story and characters with music and dance in a way that does not send viewers, especially younger ones, groaning in the direction of their PS3s and iPhones?

The producers of Glee found their solution in the example of Chicago, the Broadway show where the musical numbers were always performed in the context of a cabaret. The characters of Glee don’t burst into song in the manner of, say, Rodgers and Hammerstein; rather, the strongly choreographed musical numbers – five to eight each episode – are usually staged as the glee club’s performances or rehearsals. Thus, Glee retains enough of a realistic feel to appeal to a younger audience.

The music, a combination of pop and Broadway standards newly arranged by Adam Anders, appeals to all ages and has been a phenomenal success on CD and downloads, with over $2 million in digital sales. The cast of Glee had 25 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2009, more than any artist since the Beatles in 1964. Their performance of “Don’t Stop Believin'” went gold last November, with over half a million dollars in sales.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Glee‘s achievement its ability to keep three generations of viewers – children, parents, and grandparents – in front of the TV together. The choreography of Zachary Woodlee, sexy without being sleazy, evokes Broadway’s Jerome Robbins rather than Bob Fosse, much less the crotch-grabbing antics of tuneless rappers. Viewers with memories of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, or even the June Taylor Dancers on The Jackie Gleason Show, find themselves smiling once again.

The producers and cast members also maintain tasteful control over material chosen – from older classics like “Over the Rainbow,” “One Less Bell to Answer,” “Smile,” and “I Could Have Danced All Night,” with newer ones such as “Proud Mary,” “Piano Man,” “Jump,” “Bootylicious,” and Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up.”

When a Rolling Stone critic snidely chides Glee‘s leading actor, Matthew Morrison, saying he “couldn’t rap his way out of 98� rehearsal,” he seems oblivious to the fact that more than an occasional nod to rap would immediately begin thinning its audience (starting with me).

The choice to offset the Disney-like innocence of Will Schuester, played by Morrison, with the cynical cheerleading coach, Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), works perfectly. The conflict between Schuester and Sylvester becomes nothing less than the perennial clash of ars gratia artis (arts for art’s sake) with the cultural philistines. The writing for Sylvester’s character is so good it has spawned its own wiki thread. Take, for example, her attitude toward intimacy in marriage: “I, for one, think intimacy has no place in a marriage. Walked in on my parents once, and it was like seeing two walruses wrestling.”

But beyond the Schuester and Sylvester rivalry, Glee fails to achieve the generational integration of taste in its characters and storyline that it has attained with its music and dancing. Will’s wife, Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig), seems like a refugee from John Sayles’ Serial Mom, where the entirety of middle-class family life is cynically, and hilariously, parodied. The viewer is left constantly questioning how Will, whose fundamental decency and kindness are repeatedly evoked, could have married such a demented twit as Terri.

Such jarring contrasts of character abound in Glee. Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith), the lead singer of the glee club and quarterback of the football team, doesn’t seem to know a hot tub cannot serve as a medium for impregnating his cheerleader girlfriend, Quinn Fabray; meanwhile, his best friend, Puck Puckerman (Mark Salling), who did get Quinn pregnant, is rampaging through the neighborhood sleeping with the “cougar” mothers of his classmates.

There are also politically correct touches. Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer), the member of the glee club who likes to dress in black lace, not only “comes out” in the course of the first season but also leads the winless football team to their first victory by teaching them all how to dance. Yet Kurt’s character is not made into a complete caricature: While his achievement on the gridiron is simply silly, the scene where he admits to his blue-collar father his same-sex attraction is quite affecting – and, I might add, realistic.

Not to be outdone, Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), who has the best voice in the cast, is also the most neurotic, having been raised by two homosexual fathers. Rachel eventually discovers that her birth mother is the coach of the rival glee club.

Such is the search for postmodern innocence in Glee – there is too much water under the cultural bridge to directly revive the musical idiom and heritage of the 1940s and 1950s that became second nature to so many baby-boomers. Before Glee, of course, there was Stephen Sondheim, who throughout his career as a composer and lyricist struggled with the same question of how to extend the musical to an audience that no longer believed in the univocal meaning of “I love you.”

We can be grateful to the creators of Glee for making an effort to bring us a popular entertainment with such a high level of singing and dancing. The temptation will be to lose sight of the initial choices that have led to its success and, particularly, the generational breadth of its audience. Just as American Idol has found out the hard way from its plunging ratings, once you start trying to please only the teenagers, the whole enterprise will quickly collapse.

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