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With the cast in place, Glee did something that became a rarity for them during their six-year run: They conducted extensive rehearsals. For many in the cast, it was their first time working on a TV show, and their first time learning choreography. The young actors gathered together in Los Angeles with the music and dance teams to start prepping for the shoot.
Kevin McHale (Artie Abrams): We were all very green and confused about what was going on. The first day was me, Amber, Chris, and Jenna. We’d meet with Brad Ellis, and we were learning “Don’t Stop Believin’ ”. This is when we actually took the time to learn all these songs. We learned “Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat.” Then Adam Anders came in and watched people do solos. I didn’t do a solo because I was doing “Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat.” Jenna sang, and she was this quiet little girl and she had the most powerful voice. I was thinking, “how did I get this?” Jenna had been on Broadway, Amber could sing the phone book in her sleep, and then Chris sang and he had the most unique voice, and he did it with all the funny bits that are in the pilot. I thought, “I’m in over my head.”
Jenna Ushkowitz (Tina Cohen-Chang): I came out to L.A. and Lea had taken me to dinner the first night. I had rehearsal the next day with Kevin, Amber, and Chris. For some reason Lea wasn’t there, and Cory hadn’t been cast yet. So she goes, “tell me everything about them, and tell me who we like and who we don’t.” [Laughs]
McHale: We had one of our last singing lessons with Brad Ellis at Fox, and that’s where we met Lea. We ran the whole thing with Lea, and by that point the four of us had gotten very close, and the only one who knew Lea was Jenna. We met her and were like, “She’s kind of like Rachel Berry.” Very excited, very professional, knew all her shit.
Robert Ulrich (Casting Director): We had a really hard time finding Mercedes. They were almost ready to go with someone who was so wonderful, but she was a rapper, not a singer. Ryan wanted a singer. I was getting so worried. One of my friends came up to me and said, you know my girlfriend’s roommate is a singer, I think she sings at church. So Amber came in and sat across from me, and she sounded pretty. But I said, “Can you sing something bigger? Can you sing ‘And I Am Telling You’ from Dreamgirls?” And she sang it, and I ran out to the inner office and said, “Oh my god, we’ve found Mercedes.” When we took her to show Ryan, that day was one of the most exciting moments I’ve ever had.
After six seasons, Glee airs its series finale on Friday.
Things have changed a lot for our core cast, with many of them going on to star in films (Lea Michele, Dianna Agron) or even become New York Times bestselling authors (Chris Colfer) while still calling Glee their home.
However, even superstars need their first big break – see below for the very first auditions from your Glee faves.
Lea Michele and Rachel Berry Are One
Michele, 28, was born to play Rachel Berry. Even in her very first audition, the actress just couldn’t keep herself from emulating the bossy diva we know and love. “That was my serious moment,” she admonished the room. “I’m going to do it all again and I want you all to cry!”
Kevin McHale Didn’t Know Any More Words to “Let It Be”
After cutting the first verse of “Let It Be” in half because the song was too long for his audition, the casting manager wanted McHale, 26, to continue singing – but he didn’t know any more words.
Dianna Agron Was “Very Nervous” About Singing “Fly Me to the Moon”
Of all the Glee hopefuls, Agron, 28, seemed the most nervous about her audition. However, her sweet rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” (and her ability to channel a mean girl) earned her the role of Quinn Fabray.
Jenna Ushkowitz Had to Just Keep Swimming
Ushkowitz totally messed up during her audition, and she knew it, too. Calling the experience “really intense,” the actress, 28, did a cut of the song “Waiting for Life” from the play Once on This Island that wasn’t up to snuff: “Afterwards, [the casting agent] was like, ‘Maybe you should think of a better cut next time.’ ” Yikes. Still, though, she won the part and has been playing Tina Cohen-Chang ever since.
Chris Colfer and Amber Riley Thought Their Auditions Were “Atrocious”
Colfer, 24, was so nervous about his audition that he “blacked out” afterward, apologizing to the camera for “whatever [the audition tape] may contain.” Colfer also claimed that his audition gave him a “pre-diarrhea” feeling (and thanks for that visual!).
He performed “Mr. Cellophane” from Chicago, and Riley, 29, performed “And I Am Telling You” from Dreamgirls. Despite their nerves, they both killed it – obviously. Both Colfer and Riley have been on the show for its entire run.
Cory Monteith Was “Reluctant” to Send in a Tape of Himself Singing
Monteith acted in his first audition tape for Glee, and the producers liked him so much that they made him send a tape of himself singing. Though he was “reluctant,” he opted for REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” which ended up making it into the pilot.
Sadly, Monteith died in a Vancouver hotel room at 31 in advance of the show’s fifth season, but he was a beloved mainstay up until that point.
Glee’s series finale airs Friday at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.
With the series finale this week, we look back at the pilot that started it all. In her extensive oral history, Rae Votta interviews the cast and creatives who made Glee a watershed moment in TV history.
Can you imagine Glee’s iconic “Don’t Stop Believin’” performance with Twyla Tharp touches and knee-slides? How about McKinley’s school colors as anything but red, black, and white? A Glee without any gay characters? These were all real possibilities when the pilot episode was under development in 2008. Glee began as a movie script by co-creator Ian Brennan, and it was transformed into a TV series in the hands of producing duo Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. Their vision to celebrate the high school underdog by way of catchy pop covers and soap opera elements rang true for a generation looking for stardom (as Rachel Berry’s voiceover reminds us in the pilot, “Fame is the most important thing in our culture now.”) In a sea of reality shows, fictional Glee felt strangely real — despite the ubiquitous song-and-dance — during its tenure. Along the way it racked up serious accolades, and serious detractors. But where most agree about Glee is the pilot episode. It’s Glee’s purist form, and it’s what captured so many hearts in the pop culture landscape.
When it aired after the American Idol finale in 2009 it became a must-discuss water cooler topic, leaving a whole summer for fandom to flourish with fervent rewatches. The dark, snarky, never-before-seen integration of teenage outsiders and pop music fantasy sparked a phenomenon that dominated pop culture. As the show winds down in its final few episodes, we look back with the cast and crew of its original pilot, who shared an oral history of the making of a definitive TV moment, from neck injuries to green card delays to hoping for just enough screaming fans to outnumber the cast — and getting so much more.