April 15, 2014 9:00am PT by Lesley Goldberg
'Glee's' Ryan Murphy on New Endgame: Final Season is Not 'New York-Centric'
Glee's sixth and final season is starting to take shape.
Following the July death of star Cory Monteith -- whose Finn Hudson was the cornerstone of the show's Ohio-set high school storyline -- showrunner Ryan Murphy shifted the Fox musical to New York full-time. The move, he says, has rejuvenated the series that he admits stumbled a bit at the start of its current fifth season when it attempted to hold on to its McKinley High School setting.
"The big plan of what the series was going to be and how it was going to end was radically changed when Cory passed away. His character, Finn, was going to take over the glee club and Rachel was going to go off on her New York adventures," Murphy told a small group of reporters Monday during a semi-exclusive conference call that included The Hollywood Reporter. "Once Cory passed away, that part of the story as we had imagined it just didn't make any sense anymore -- and it felt bad, to be quite honest. [The writers] made a decision that the freshest thing to do would be a complete clean start, so we really accelerated all those New York stories."
The move, he stressed, has helped Glee return to its roots. The show now focuses on a smaller group of original core characters, including Rachel (Lea Michele), Kurt (Chris Colfer), Santana (Naya Rivera), Sam (Chord Overstreet), Artie (Kevin McHale), Blaine (Darren Criss) and, most recently, Mercedes (Amber Riley), rather than the sprawling cast with a long roster of fresh faces brought in to repopulate New Directions. In New York, the writers have found a greater emphasis on "firsts" -- one of the show's original themes -- as it tells new young adult stories about post-high school life.
"Glee has always been a show about firsts -- first times -- and now I think going to New York and having a new set of first times has been…rejuvenating to the show," he said.
Largely gone are the new McKinley students -- including series regulars Melissa Benoist (Marley), Becca Tobin (Kitty), Jacob Artist (Jake), Alex Newell (Unique) and Blake Jenner (Ryder) -- though they likely will eventually return after New Directions was formally dismantled. "At some point before we're done with next year's run, we will see many of them again and find out where they are and check in with them and find out how being part of that glee club legacy affected their lives -- as we do with our original characters," Murphy says.
Also missing from the back half of season five? A foil for the New York newbies. The decision, Murphy reveals, has as much to do with his post-high school experience as it does with what the cast and writers have been through this season. "I thought that these characters all wanted to be huddled up in the warmth of their friendship in a really sometimes cold and difficult year. That first or second year out of high school, I remember feeling that way. I think maybe [the lack of a foil] was a reaction to what we've all gone through as a group.… I’m really proud of these episodes and the feeling in them -- the heart, humor and warmth -- feels like the Glee I remember loving in seasons one and two particularly."
Murphy notes that the remainder of season five will focus on Rachel's Funny Girl debut ("Opening Night" airs April 22) and explore how the Broadway show is received as well as how she responds. "Is it going to be a huge success? Is it going to be a flop? And where will that turn her? Will she want to stay and do more New York shows? Will she want to do something else?" Murphy says. "That's the main thrust of this New York run."
Rachel's story will converge with couples Kurt and Blaine as well as Sam and Mercedes in episode 20 -- the season-five finale -- when "something big happens" that sets up the final season, which will explore the aftermath of that.
"The final season is really its own story and its own location and while the New York stuff will be alive, the final season is not New York-centric at all," Murphy says, noting there will be a time jump for the final 24 episodes. "It really [will be] a lovely, fitting season that…dwells on the original people that were on the show and what happens to them and how they give back. That really is the last season.… We'll revisit some of the new kids that came and went. There's a return of the Jane-Matt characters in a big way. It's really interesting, very sweet, satisfying ending to the story."
While Glee's original ending featured Rachel and Finn -- both successful in their careers -- reuniting in Ohio, Murphy said the final scene the writers have in mind includes Rachel's and Matthew Morrison's former glee club leader, Will Schuester.
"We do have a final idea that we're working on that I think is very powerful and moving," he said of the final scene idea. "It's about Rachel and Mr. Schue and it returns them to their origins and their roots, about how they felt about each other when they were younger and everything was idyllic. That ending has to be a reflection and celebration of how far all those characters have evolved.… The main thrust of [the episodes] will be a final farewell to all of our characters that we've known since season one."
While he declined to provide specifics about precisely which actors would be back as series regulars, Murphy said the offer has been extended to everyone who was a part of the early seasons, including glee club members and teachers. The final season, he noted, also would have to reflect the new world the characters are living in -- one that includes all the social changes regarding gay marriage, DOMA and more.
Also on the table for Glee's sixth and final season is whether or not Broadway diva-in-training Rachel Berry will start dating again after Finn's passing. "We'll probably follow Lea's lead as we have so many times this year," he said. "She's always been so great and sensitive and been so wise about how to handle that stuff. We have to make that decision in the next couple of weeks -- if not months: Is Rachel going to have another romance? Or does Rachel's second half romantically happen when Glee is over? That's something we're debating. It's hard."
The prolific producer behind Glee, American Horror Story and HBO's upcoming The Normal Heart adaptation said writers agreed to take that question off the table for season five. "This year, what we decided to do was to remove the equation of anybody coming in and taking Finn's place. I don't really think that's possible," Murphy said, noting he's pleased with the decision to focus on a career-oriented Rachel. "That's a really hard, very painful, very difficult thing for the show. I've said it before and it was even in Cory's eulogy, that that was always the ending of the show for me: these two star-crossed lovers getting together and having a happy ending and them both getting their dreams. The fact that that can't be is a big pain in all of our hearts."
In the meantime, the remaining episodes of season five will again feature the return of original stars, including Harry Shum Jr. (Mike) and Mark Salling (Puck). Santana also will "make her triumphant return" for Rachel's Funny Girl opening, which will see Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) head to New York along with Sue (Jane Lynch) and Will.
"At one point, I felt like [Glee] was a cast of thousands. The Lima stories were always supposed to be all through the prism of Cory's character, Finn, and that didn't work out. We had to punt for a little bit but once we got our bearings back, the idea of, 'Let's really concentrate on six people we know and love and really work hard on their evolution' has really served the show well," Murphy says. "In this next year, that's the formula we will be using. People really want to follow these people in their journey -- these people that they started with."
As for what happens to McKinley, Murphy wouldn't rule out revisiting the high school where Glee has its roots. "You might see it again in some very nostalgic way," he teased.