Fox debated slotting the show as a midseason replacement in the spring, but instead took a gamble: The network would air the show once, following the 2009 American Idol finale in May, and then properly launch the show in September after a summer of hype that included having the pilot up on every digital platform available. It was a gamble that paid off. In no time at all, Glee went from a novel new TV idea to a global phenomenon, and changed the life of its cast and crew.
Zach Woodlee (Choreographer): The first time we showed a test group, I remember that was so scary. It was in North Hollywood, and you’re behind a two-way mirror. They have three televisions set up high. Ryan, myself, and a couple other people are back there. Everyone has this dial, and there’s two colored lines for male and female. They turn it up when they like it, and down when they don’t. To have your work judged immediately in front of you, and they don’t know you’re there, is so scary. That was the most fearful time during that pilot process. Being a fly on the wall and watching people judge your work.
Lea Michele: I watched the pilot with Ryan for the first time in the editors suite a few weeks after we finished filming. Just me and Ryan. It was amazing.
Chris Colfer: After we wrapped the pilot, I went to visit Lea and Jenna in New York (it was my first trip there). Lea had a “secret” copy and we must’ve watched it a hundred times. There is nothing worse than seeing yourself on camera for the first time. It took a few viewings for me to focus on anything else. We got chills every time we heard the opening notes of “Don’t Stop Believin’ ”. Still do actually.
As ready as they were going to be after weeks of rehearsal, Glee began filming in late in 2008, using two actual schools for production: one was Long Beach’s Cabrillo High, the other was Burbank’s John Burroughs High School. Glee’s production team later faithfully recreated those locations on the stages of Paramount Studios, but with just a pilot on order borrowed sets were more cost effective. For many actors, it was their first time on a proper set of any kind, while others had extensive experience, but felt like Glee was something special and different right from the start.
Stephen Tobolowsky (Sandy Ryerson): This was not like any television experience I’d ever had in my life. But, it was very much like many theater experiences I had in my life. It was very much like doing summer stock, it was very much like doing reparatory theory around the country. There was a camaraderie with everyone. No one was on iPhone or iPads, people were getting in corners practicing a song or a dance. It was an exciting environment to be a part of I have rarely been in shows where that existed and the shows are not successful. When there’s that kind of work ethic on the set, it is almost always a sign that the show will be successful.
Lea Michele (Rachel Berry): I remember being very nervous. My first scene I shot was just a scene by myself. But Ryan told me after that I did a great job and I felt so much better.
Jenna Ushkowitz (Tina Cohen-Chang): “For Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat,” we had polished it, I felt. And when we got to the shoot Ryan said, “Now be as bad as you possibly can.” That was the first day on set. We just couldn’t stop laughing at ourselves.
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.