Countdown to a Finale

 Joe Pugliese

You could say Glee's Season 2 finale, airing May 24, has been two years in the making. After all, it was always co-creator Ryan Murphy's intention to shepherd his freakishly talented group of misfits to meet their destiny: the fictitious national glee club championships in New York. And like the Fox show's characters, who devour Manhattan in a frenetic first-timer's visit, Glee hit NYC over five days in April with the sort of precision you might expect of a commando military mission: 10 moving targets, including Times Square and Central Park, which serve as part of the glee club's life-changing tour of the city. 

Even with the franchise ambitiously expanding into 3D movies, a national tour and an Oxygen reality series (The Glee Project), it was the L.A.-based show's first major location shoot, and pulling it off took the proverbial village. Forty of its 175-person crew were flown east, including executive producers Murphy, Ian Brennan, Brad Falchuk (who directs) and Dante Di Loreto, as well as first assistant director Leo Bauer and most of the cast. Local crew swelled Glee's ranks to over 100. Price tag: $6 million. A hefty budget even for a show that this season averaged an impressive 3.9 rating in the coveted 18 to 49 demo.

The result is, as Murphy describes it, "a place of possibilities -- the New York you dream of." The production also found a way to reference the city's iconic imagery from such classics as On the Town, Hair and Taxi Driver, but with legions of Gleeks at every location, the shoot became more like a post-modern version of the Beatles fandom flick A Hard Day's Night. Grab your earplugs …

APRIL 25

By 11 A.M. on the firt day of Glee's weeklong location shoot in Manhattan, 200 fans are already pressed up against metal barriers at the north end of Times Square on 47th and Broadway, one of the busiest thoroughfares in Manhattan and a stone's throw from the Great White Way. "This is manageable," says Di Loreto as he surveys the swelling crowd. The volume, however, is another matter. As a siren lets out a piercing wail, production assistant DeeDee Katcher is heard muttering: "Whose job was it to shush ambulances? Fail!"

At Times Square's recently revamped TKTS bleachers, where the girls (Dianna Agron, Jenna Ushkowitz, Heather Morris, Lea Michele, Ashley Fink) strut down the steps in the first of multiple segments of a "New York, New York"/"I Love New York" mashup, the cast and crew are equally awestruck by the sheer number of eyeballs upon them. "Seeing that mass of people watching us do what we do every day is a little intimidating," says director of photography Chris Baffa. "Apparently we're somewhat of a popular show."

It's a sentiment echoed by stars Michele, Cory Monteith and Naya Rivera, who describes the scene as "insane. I didn't know we had that many people that cared. We're always in such a bubble that, unless we're on tour or something, we never get to see it."

Chris Colfer is both flattered and at times frightened by the pandemonium. One fan nearly tears off a piece of his costume, forcing the production to amp up security. "It's all from passion," Murphy says. "It's not crazy loon folk; they're just excited to see Kurt and Rachel."

A track prerecorded by Glee's music guru, Adam Anders, blares as choreographer Zach Woodlee demonstrates a hip swivel that leads the girls down the bleachers. If it looks improvised, that's because "there was no rehearsal," Woodlee laughs. "Sometimes you only get five minutes."

Later that day, the cast heads to the Gershwin Theatre, home of Wicked, for a news conference with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting had to approve the myriad permits to facilitate the shoot. "He's on board now," Di Loreto says. "They need to create limitations for us." For instance, amplified sound is verboten. And today, the ranking officer from the New York Police Department's movie/TV unit has repeatedly warned sound mixer Tom Nelson to lower the volume on the music the cast is lip-syncing to. The biggest challenge about shooting in New York, says Di Loreto, is "the amount of people who can say no."

Enter Bloomberg. It's exactly 4 p.m., and the mayor approaches the podium flanked by executives and castmembers including Kevin McHale, Harry Shum Jr., Darren Criss, Morris, Riker Lynch, Mark Salling and Monteith. Fans are corralled on 51st Street, and as Bloomberg surveys the crush of photographers and videographers in front of him, he muses wryly that he can't recall the last time one of his news conferences was so well-attended.

What the mayor does remember, however, is some leftover dance moves from the Saturday Night Fever era. With fingers pointed to heaven and hell, the mayor's spontaneous pose elicits chuckles from all assembled. Says Morris following the photo op: "I was dying. He cracked me up."

Inside the theater a half-hour later, Michele and Colfer film a scene that has them sneaking inside to sing "For Good" from Wicked on the famed Gershwin stage. Wicked looms large in Glee lore: Idina Menzel (who plays Rachel's biological mother on Glee) originated the role of Elphaba, and Colfer was, in real life and in a story line, partly denied permission to sing "Defying Gravity" in high school because he was a boy. "We feel like we're Elphaba and Glinda," Michele says. "Chris likes to be called Guylinda, though."

There's also the true story of the time a pre-fame Michele slept in the Spring Awakening theater overnight (a no-no), which helped inspire Murphy to come up with the Gershwin scene. "You have to be careful what you tell Ryan, or you'll end up doing it on the show," she later explains. "Don't tell him you don't like eggs because the next thing you know, you'll be getting hit with one." But for now, the between-takes banter ranges from Menzel's fall through a trapdoor during a 2005 performance to the previous night's high jinks. Michele: "I keep smelling margaritas." Colfer: "Is it coming through my pores?" Michele: "Mine."

APRIL 26

The forecst clls for hot and sunny, the kind of early-spring day that always beckons New Yorkers -- not to mention the city's usual crush of tourists -- to Central Park. But on this particular morning, the Glee shoot is attracting an overflow crowd to the park's Poet's Walk. Fans line the grass on either side of the concrete promenade, and 10 teenage girls wait outside Monteith's trailer. PAs attempt to shoo them away, but they seem to have their hands full keeping the paparazzi from breaching the dolly tracks.

The scene is another segment of the "New York, New York"/"I Love New York" mashup, with the cast running toward the camera lip-syncing while two horse trainers dressed as mounted police officers gallop behind them in a nod to the famous "Age of Aquarius" scene from Hair. This time, several castmembers are holding bouquets of flowers, impromptu props purchased from a park vendor, and Morris clutches a bunch of balloons that, per Murphy, "will pop against the blue of the sky." Murphy wants to let the balloons go on the final take but is warned he could incur a stiff littering fine.

The second leg of today's shoot is at Lincoln Center Plaza. Unlike Central Park, the music hall complex is a privately owned property (operated by Lincoln Center Inc.). But while two of the three theaters that face the plaza -- Avery Fisher Hall and the David H. Koch Theater -- can be filmed without incurring a license fee, the stately Metropolitan Opera House, with its Chagall murals, charges a hefty $100,000 to show its full visage. They opt against it. "It's very restrictive," Murphy says. The fountain, which features choreographed water rising to multiple levels, is switched off. Murphy and Falchuk survey the water ringing the fountain's delicate black-granite rim, where the cast will be skipping and running (McHale, in his wheelchair, will be rolling). "It's very much like a music video," says Monteith, who's schvitzing in a puffy vest and flannel shirt and pondering taking a dive. Murphy frowns, "Who'll clean up all of this water?" Within minutes, two PAs are wiping down the rim with towels. The plaza is completely sealed off from the public and paparazzi via metal barriers, but a crowd of 100 mostly teenage girls is pressed against the barriers along Broadway. Referring to the chaotic shoot earlier that day in Central Park, Sergeant Schneider of the NYPD's film/TV unit says to all within earshot: "See the difference between public property and private property? [Di Loreto] wanted me to close the park. I told him I couldn't close the park. It's the people's park."

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APRIL 27

It's 7:30 a.m. and Michele's inner Rachel Berry is having a moment. She's found herself on the same corner of 57th and Fifth where Audrey Hepburn stood in Breakfast at Tiffany's. For character and actress alike, the homage hits close to home. "This is my favorite scene," says Michele, who shares the screen with Colfer. "It's so beautiful to be here, right by Central Park, as people are just waking up and going to work." Michele sighs at the surprising quiet.

For the lighting team, however, the early-morning shoot is among the most stressful of their professional lives. As Baffa later explains: "It was overwhelming. We were joking that in L.A., when you shoot in front of a store, you own that section of the block. In New York, you don't ever really own anything. … You have pedestrians moving back and forth and NYPD blue complaining about the lights, saying, 'Move those 18Ks back; leave a lane!' " 

Six hours later, the cast and crew are back at their hotel, the InterContinental Times Square, where Glee has negotiated a barter deal in addition to the group rate, promising a mention of the hotel's name when Will Schuester (Morrison) checks in. The lobby scene includes a walk-and-talk with Rachel and Finn that takes them to the bar at Todd English's Ça Va Brasserie, where underaged Puck (Mark Salling), with Zizes (Ashley Fink) in tow, is attempting to order a Manhattan from an incredulous bartender.

Hotel manager Simon Antoine is doing his best to facilitate a smooth operation, but a production delay following the Tiffany & Co. shoot means the InterContinental scenes will have to be done in less than three hours -- or a nanosecond in TV production time. To make matters worse, Antoine is opening his restaurant at 5:30 p.m. sharp for the pre-theater dinner crowd. If the crew blows that deadline, it will mean a hefty fee.

It's 4:15 p.m., but first AD Leo Bauer does not seem particularly nervous. "If we're here past 5, we have to pay a lot of money," he says. "We'll make it. Yeah, this is crazy. But we do it all the time."

APRIL 28

Patti lupone strides into sardi's at 9:40 a.m. wearing shiny black rain boots and a black cocktail dress (Valentino Red), her hair sprayed into thick clumps of sausage curls. She cuts a razor line through a crush of grips, riggers and random production assistants. One was carrying an aluminum stepladder. She's here to film a cameo -- as her formidable Broadway self -- with Rachel and Finn, who have a "work date" at the famed Theater District eatery.

It took persistence on Murphy's part to secure LuPone for the small role. "I wouldn't take no for an answer," he says. "Obviously, we talk about her very reverentially, and she agreed to do it because she loves the arts and the show. Patti LuPone is New York to me." And to Michele's Rachel, who, in the show's first season, harbored the irrational hope that LuPone was her biological mother. "She's right up there with Barbra for me," says Michele, speaking for herself and Rachel. "That woman goes from show to show, playing lead roles and knocking it out of the park every single time." 

Michele and Monteith are seated at their table on the left side of the restaurant. LuPone is positioned at a banquette against the wall. When LuPone gets up to leave, Rachel nervously blocks her path: "Um, excuse me, Miss LuPone? … You're my idol." LuPone is gracious and instructs the starstruck teenager to "never give up." After a handful of run-throughs, LuPone seems to improvise a salutation: Looking at Finn, she whispers to Rachel, "He's cute." And then heads for the door. Michele approves: "I like that! Ryan, I like that," she says to Murphy. The line stays.

Between takes, Michele gazes at the campy theater-star caricatures that are a Sardi's trademark. "Mine would have a huge mouth," she deadpans. Then, eyeing one of them, she says, "Clay Aiken has a picture here?"

LuPone has a hard out at 11 a.m. in order to make rehearsal for the New York City Ballet's Seven Deadly Sins, opening May 11. The crew gives her a round of applause, and she's off. By 12:15 p.m., secondary shots are complete. Michele pulls a black puffy jacket on over her seafoam chiffon dress and steps into the street. A waitress rushes up. "Is she gone?" she asks, peering down 44th Street. "She wanted her portrait done. I was going to ask my manager."

APRIL 29

About 200 fans ring the north end of Washington Square Park on the final day of Glee's New York foray. Long a mecca for nonconformists, this is one of the busiest parks in the city. And that made it difficult to get permission to film here. As the cast marches down Fifth Avenue -- surrounded by security -- a wave of cheers erupts. Today, they shoot the final montage in the mashup. "They didn't really want us here," location manager Shane Haden says. "There were a lot of concerns about security and safety."

In fact, this location was only secured after the crew had arrived in New York. Says Haden: "We started off huge in Times Square. We had no idea what we were going to be up against, and it ended up going really well. The whole week has gone pretty well. So they were willing to give us a little more freedom toward the end of the week."

Several NYPD officers patrol inside the metal barriers while PAs are left to tame nearly a dozen paparazzi, who seem to be particularly rapacious today. One of them even turned up despite being in a foot cast. Some of the actors, especially Monteith, have taken to whipping out their phones and shooting their own pictures of their shutterbug stalkers. While the cast have been gracious toward their fans, waving and in Times Square running a gantlet to slap hands with them, the paparazzi have been a most persistent irritant.

Murphy doesn't mind. "I love that the paparazzi are here," he says. "They're being respectful." Adds castmember Amber Riley, "Going out on the street and being chased, you feel like a rock star a little bit."

MAY 4

Back in L.A. now, the cast gets a reprieve from filming the penultimate finale episode for an evening with Emmy voters (and their Gleek children) at the Paramount lot. After members of the crew field questions about costumes and dance scenes, 18 castmates and producers take the stage before an audience of 500. Between spoilers and explanation, the cast gets a dose of the show's impact as camera phones flash and rabid pigtailed fans fawn. Absent are Jayma Mays and Rivera, who are prepping for a hallway scene from the show's finale. With 20 minutes left in the panel, Morris and Morrison slip out to join them, followed minutes later by Falchuk, now with his director hat on. They miss a middle-aged man raising his hand to tell the room how thrilled he has been to see his 10-year-old daughter's nontraditional upbringing, being raised by two dads, reflected on screen.

At 10 minutes to 8, the moderator gets the "wrap it up" sign from the show's publicist and thanks the audience for coming. As if on cue, fans of all ages flood the stage, crowding around Michele, Criss, Agron, Overstreet, Colfer and the school's new football coach, Dot Marie Jones."I'm literally shaking," says one grinning teen, clutching autographed pictures of Agron and Michele on her way out the door. Ten minutes later, Michele is still posing for pictures and signing autographs, while a security guard attempts to tell an unresponsive gaggle around her that the actress has to get back to work. She is supposed to be on set with her cast, but insists that the little girl with two fathers wait for her outside the auditorium. Once there, Michele wraps her delicate arms around the girl and asks her about the experience. "How do you feel in school? What did you tell them?" she asks, visibly touched by her character's impact. "You're cool now; you're like Rachel Berry," she says to the nodding fan, adding, "I'm so proud of you."

MAY 6

It's a two-unit day back in Los Angeles: while the girls shoot a hotel-room scene at Paramount, Morrison is the solo star of a reflective moment. His character Will, standing alone on a Broadway stage (re-created at downtown L.A.'s Million Dollar Theater), ponders the age-old question, "What if?" with a song -- his own. It's the first time Glee has incorporated original music by one of its stars, but "Still Got Tonight," off of Morrison's debut album (out May 10), presented the perfect sentiment. "It's about aspiration," Murphy says. "We've seen Will be this dreamer."

As for Morrison, spotlighting his single brings both extra pressure and satisfaction. "I want my songs to hold up as part of the great work we do on Glee," he says. "This song is very theatrical; you could see it being part of a big moment." Murphy, who directs the scene, upped its presence.

"It's that moment when he has to think, 'Which am I going to pick -- going out for my dream and possibly failing or being a teacher?' " Murphy explains. "It's sort of how I see the difficulty in being a teacher in the arts."

The scene oozes sentiment as light streams in from the top of the aisles and Morrison, ever so wistfully, looks back on how far he's come. It's an appropriate closer for Murphy, too, who cheerfully guides the crew of 60, most of whom have worked on Glee from the very start. "They love the message, they love to sing and dance, and more than any other crew out there, they talk to people about what the show means to them and their kids," he says between takes. "Nobody ever thought a television musical could work, let alone be sustained. They do the impossible every week."     

GLEE-NYC: By the Numbers

  • 40: Production members flown in from L.A.
  • 60: Local crew hired
  • 9: NYPD officers on duty in Times Square at $61.77 per hour per officer
  • 2: NYPD film/TV unit officers supplied free of charge
  • 50: Hotel rooms booked for Glee crew and cast
  • 2: Horses employed for Central Park scenes
  • 10: Paparazzi on average, per day
  • 48: Hours for finished script to arrive after shooting began
  • 300: Fans who watched Times Square shoot
  • 1: Days costumer had to find 26 outfits
  • 12: Shooting hours on longest day
  • 10: Total NYC locations

-- Additional reporting by Lacey Rose and Lesley Goldberg

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