EXCLUSIVE: Inside the Hot Business of 'Glee'
The new Hollywood Reporter goes deep inside the war room with cast and execs to look at the forces that have made Fox’s hit show a half-billion-dollar franchise, as they also open up about looming cast salary negotiations, that Kings of Leon snub (everyone's mad!) and an eventual future without creator Ryan Murphy.
Credit for the show’s music choices belongs almost entirely to Glee’s resident music nerd: Murphy himself. He says his only formula for considering the three to five songs that might appear in an episode is that they “offer something for everybody.” Murphy tends to favor show tunes and standards because, he says, “a lot of that stuff isn’t taught or the young audience is not exposed to it.” He first noticed a reaction from the show’s predominantly teen audience when Michele sang the Broadway showstopper “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” “It hit the Top 5 of iTunes, and I could see the Funny Girl original soundtrack rise through the ranks,” Murphy recalls of the December 2009 Season 1 finale. “That was pretty amazing, to reinterpret something that I have great fondness for and give it a whole new audience.”
Artists are seeing a ripple effect, too. While synch rates are down — the price tag for a hit song is in the vicinity of $25,000 (a fee the songwriter splits with his or her music publisher) — exposure through Glee often results in a dramatic jump in catalog sales. After September’s Britney Spears episode, the pop star sold 35,000 incremental units among five songs, one of which, “Stronger,” saw a spike of 1,160 percent, according to David Bakula, senior vp analytics at Nielsen Entertainment, who recently submitted a 70-page report titled “The Power of Glee” to Sony Music for analysis. Spears’ 2004 greatest-hits album also saw increased sales of 413 percent. “The halo effect is pretty significant,” Bakula says. “It isn’t all about tracks. Our research found that it was more about the artist as a whole.”
Still, even with Glee’s undeniable popularity and selling power, certain artists demand a premium for their songs. “We went after Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself,’ and it was jaw-droppingly expensive,” Murphy says. “Around $200,000. We couldn’t do it because the episode would’ve been so over budget.” Then there are artists whose catalogs are off-limits. Glee’s best-known rejection: Kings of Leon, who rarely license their music. Murphy’s message to nonbelievers the Followill brothers? “F--- you, Kings of Leon,” he says, raising the volume of his monotonal interview voice ever so lightly. “They’re self-centered assholes, and they missed the big picture. They missed that a 7-year-old kid can see someone close to their age singing a Kings of Leon song, which will maybe make them want to join a glee club or pick up a musical instrument. It’s like, OK, hate on arts education. You can make fun of Glee all you want, but at its heart, what we really do is turn kids on to music.”
Kings of Leon frontman Caleb Followill tells THR: “This whole Glee thing is a shock to us. It’s gotten out of hand. At the time of the request, we hadn’t even seen the show. It came at the end of that record cycle, and we were over promoting [“Use Somebody”]. This was never meant as a slap in the face to Glee or to music education or to fans of the show. We’re not sure where the anger is coming from.”
Another rock star on Murphy’s black list? Former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash, who recently revealed that he draws the licensing line at Glee. “Glee is worse than Grease, and Grease is bad enough,” he said in an interview. Murphy’s response: “Usually I find that people who make those comments, their careers are over; they’re uneducated and quite stupid.” Worth noting: GNR allowed a hokey Glee-like arrangement of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” to be used in the 2008 Will Ferrell comedy Step Brothers.
Besides, Murphy adds, tons of top-notch talent are clamoring to get on Glee. The latest to approach him for guest spots: Stevie Nicks and Jennifer Lopez, both of whom he’s trying to write in, and Anne Hathaway was recently announced (she plays Kurt’s lesbian aunt). Even former Idol judge Simon Cowell requested a sit-down with Murphy. "I went to his house, and the meeting was simply: How did you come up with this, and why didn’t I think of it?"
In a way, Glee has out-Idol’d Idol. It gets its music to market faster, and those songs are burning up the charts. It’s the sort of forward momentum few Idol alums get, and as Idol struggles to regain its credibility, it could look to its former follower for direction. Murphy insists he never saw it as competition. "We couldn’t touch Idol’s numbers," he says. "People are unnecessarily harsh on that show. I bow down to it."
Perhaps in a nod to Idol’s impact, Murphy is organizing a charity effort called Glee Gives Back. “We just got approved for a million dollars over the next three months to fund arts-education organizations,” he says. “It’ll also include proceeds from DVD sales. It’s very important to me and to Fox that we establish scholarships in schools.”
Even though one of the main criticisms of Glee is that its portrayal of high school is unrealistic, in looking back at Murphy’s experience in Indianapolis, where he was "out" during his teens, it plays like a signature script. Take Murphy’s first concert: Hall and Oates in 1981. “I put eyeliner on to go to the show, and my mother hit the roof,” he recalls. “My parents were very Midwestern Catholic, so to be doing a pop star new-romantic look? Altar boys don’t do that. But I said, ‘No, I’m not changing how I look,’ and I got in a lot of trouble.” Once he arrived at the venue, Murphy found a community of like-minded people and "had a ball" in one of the first times it felt normal to be different.
"I don’t think Glee reflects the real world all the time; it reflects the world I wish it would be," he says. "Within that utopia, I want every episode to end with the viewer uplifted." For Murphy, that means rewriting the Beverly Hills, 90210 rulebook. At Ohio’s McKinley High, the kid in the wheelchair (Artie, played by Kevin McHale) can dance, the girl with Down syndrome (Becky, played by Lauren Potter) is a cheerleader, and the outcasts are popular. Even the jocks, led by sweetheart quarterback Finn (Monteith), steer clear of stereotypes, prompting us to wonder, what was Murphy’s relationship like with the football players at his school? "I dated them," he says with a laugh. "I was popular because I was really confident. The jocks were my allies. And I had quiet little relationships with a couple of them."
The football fetish — which started with Episode 4 in which Colfer re-enacts Beyonce’s "Single Ladies" dance with the rest of the football team as a field-goal try — continues with the Super Bowl special. Initially, the idea was for Murphy to do a supersized episode, with Fox and NFL sponsor GM kicking in an additional $2 million. But though the sky was the limit and the network was clearly putting its faith and muscle behind his high school musical, Murphy resisted.
"We’ve taken a lot of criticism for doing tributes to Madonna, Britney Spears and Rocky Horror Picture Show … and everyone thought we were gonna try and out-top ourselves," he says. "But no matter how big you get, you’re not gonna please everybody, so the consensus was, let’s not do a big episode of Glee, let’s do a really good episode of Glee.
"We’re editing now, and it feels similar to the pilot: a lot of heart. It’s important in that it deals with the gay bullying theme, and it’s about music bringing disparate people together. It’s quite a beautiful little fable."
For all its warm and fuzzy intentions, Glee is not without its controversy. Murphy constantly pushes the envelope with racy scenes and she-didn’t-just-say-that zingers like the time cheerleader Santana (Naya Rivera) coos “You can drill me anytime” to a dentist played by John Stamos. “There is a line, and Ryan has upon occasion stepped over it,” Walden admits. “And when he does, he is told so by his viewers. But no risk, no reward. They don’t know where the line is unless they are pushing up against it. My kids are 7 and 10, and they aren’t allowed to watch every episode. This is a show about high school students, and the appropriate audience starts in high school, as far as I am concerned.”
Singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge is a fan of the show and says her 13-year-old daughter “lives and breathes Glee, Lord have mercy!” Yet Etheridge, a major advocate of gay rights, admits to finding some of the subject matter a bit risque: “The teenage sex and the pregnancy, these are at the forefront of a mother’s mind.” Still, Glee advocates like Rock of Ages executive producer Janet Billig, a music industry veteran and a mother of two, say that, at the very least, racy story lines “start a conversation. I let my 8-year-old watch Glee, and we’re able to talk about relationships, being dumped by friends and boys and Kurt being gay.”
It’s a responsibility Colfer, who’s often described as the heart and soul of Glee, appreciates; his Globes acceptance speech pretty much said it all. "I get hundreds of e-mails every day from kids all around the world,”"he says. "One 7-year-old wrote me that watching Kurt makes him feel like he’s not alone; others say: ‘This story line saved my life. … I felt worthless until Kurt stood up for himself.’ It means the world to them, and that makes my job so gratifying. It’s a great gig."
One of the show’s rare missteps was the steamy October cover of GQ featuring Michele and Dianna Agron half-dressed in schoolgirl outfits and suggestive positions. “We really didn’t get a chance to handle it; it was an after-the-fact thing,” Newman says. “If we had our choice, we would have liked to have avoided it; it wasn’t great for the brand.”
For his part, Murphy was blissfully oblivious at first. “I must be so liberal and out of touch because when I first saw that cover, I said to Gwyneth Paltrow, who was with me on set, ‘Oh, Lea looks so pretty,’ ” he recalls. But even Paltrow could see the storm clouds coming. “She said something like, ‘Get ready.’ It didn’t cross my mind there would be this big controversy. … But I never judge the actors because I know they all felt bad about it. And I think all parties involved learned a lesson about how parents look to the show as something inspirational and aspirational. We all realized that we have to be a little more careful when it comes to sexuality.”