Glee Pilot Oral History, Part 4: The Premiere

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.

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Glee Pilot Oral History, Part 3: Let’s Go to School

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.

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Glee Pilot Oral History, Part 2: The Rehearsal

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.

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Flashback: Watch the Original Glee Cast at Their First Auditions

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.


Glee Oral History, Part 1: Casting Call

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.

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