'Glee' Stars on Its "Groundbreaking" Legacy: The Show "Will Live On for Generations"

Finn and Rachel

Finn (Cory Monteith) gives Rachel her holiday gift in the "Extraordinary Merry Christmas" episode, which was directed by the show's Matthew Morrison.

On Friday, Fox will close up shop at Glee after a six-season run that saw the musical dramedy become a worldwide sensation — performances for the president, at the World Series — and lose its leading man following the devastating passing of star Cory Monteith.

As bright as the musical burned — 17 Primetime Emmy nominations (and four wins); 10 Golden Globe mentions, including two wins for best comedy; three Grammy nominations as well as recognition from the People's Choice Awards, GLAAD and countless other kudos — it also devoted scores of episodes to important subjects including coming out, bullying, school shootings and, most recently, gender dysphoria

"There will be too many [kinds of legacies] to name — that's what makes Glee so special: it hit the mark in so many different aspects," star Lea Michele (Rachel) tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Read more 'Glee' Series Finale to Honor Its Past

The series, created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, is also credited with not only reviving arts programs in schools around the globe but also proving that a scripted musical can work on television — and paving the way for series including Fox's red-hot hip-hop drama Empire as well as ABC's country music soap Nashville.

"It brought music back to television and opened up people's minds to different types of music, especially musical theater," says original star Amber Riley (Mercedes), who notes she'd love to segue to Empire. "Being from California, I didn't grow up with Broadway down the street. I had to go to thrift stores to find tapes or rent them from Blockbuster to find musicals. Glee made it cool for people. Glee definitely opened up that door."

But more than its place in the TV pantheon, Glee's biggest legacy might be its resounding message to young people: Always be yourself. No character has better embodied that than Michele's Rachel Berry, the aspiring diva and perennial underdog who refused to let anyone stand in the way of her desire to win over Broadway and critics alike.

"It's the whole idea of a place that you can go where everybody has your back and celebrates you and says not only are you fine the way you are but you're gorgeous," star Jane Lynch (Sue) says. "The kids are singing more in choirs and plays and that will call back to Glee and how it was kind of corny but at the same time really groundbreaking and loving and accepting."

Friday's two-hour series finale will flash back to 2009 to reveal the origins of New Directions, how Sue and Will's (Matthew Morrison) rivalry started and, as would be expected, pay tribute to original star and fan favorite Monteith, who died in July 2013 at age 31. Monteith's passing created a massive void on Glee as creators struggled to craft a new ending that would make sense not just for its characters but the show's quintessential goal of celebrating the underdog. (Star Chord Overstreet called the Monteith tribute "pretty specific" and noted the series "definitely takes a moment" to honor its original leading man. "Cory meant everything to me and to the show. He was a special person and you can't not honor him in some way. Glee did a good job of staying on topic with the theme of the episode and putting it in there where it was tastefully done," he said.)

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"I heard a radio news story [recently] about a local high school cheerleader with Down syndrome who was being taunted by the opposing team at a game and the basketball team stopped playing and stood up to the bullies," star Mark Salling (Puck) recalls. "At the end of the story, they said she was inspired to become a cheerleader from watching Glee. That's what Glee is about and the kind of legacy it leaves."

Salling was referencing recurring Glee character Becky (Lauren Potter), a member of McKinley High's Cheerios who was one of four characters on the series with Down syndrome as the Fox musical made it a major point to be inclusive — a theme that will be hammered home in the series finale.

"Glee was a show that really meant something not to just one group of people, or kids — the demographics of our show touched so many people," says Dot Marie Jones, whose football coach Shannon transitioned to become Sheldon this season in a storyline that put the focus on the transgender community and featured a groundbreaking 200-member trans choir with the assistance of watchdog group GLAAD.

Adds Overstreet (Sam): "The show speaks to everybody; the main message is love and we've been able to share that with a lot of people and that's incredible. I hope in 20 years everybody still looks back on it and that Glee holds up and stands the test of time."

While Glee's collection of cover songs from pop music to Broadway tunes will no doubt withstand the test of time — the Glee cast had multiple records chart on Billboard and SoundScan, among others — star Darren Criss (Blaine) believes the show's cultural impact will speak to generations to come.

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"I look forward to the idea that as the show will live on for generations, there will still be younger people who see it and go, 'Oh my God, I've never seen myself represented on TV this way,'" says Criss, who was half of fan-favorite trailblazing couple Kurt and Blaine. "The victory that Glee has is even though we became the butt end of a lot of jokes — what issue will they tackle next! — and whether people agreed with them or not, or whether we executed in a way that people vibed with or not, that's irrelevant. The point was we brought it up. And that is a really cool legacy to be a part of. I look forward to people who have never seen the show seeing it however many years from now and going, 'Holy shit, that's really cool that they talked about that.'"

Glee's series finale airs Friday at 8 p.m. on Fox. Stay tuned to The Live Feed for more Glee finale coverage and sound off in the comments section below with what kind of legacy you think the series will have.

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@THR.com
Twitter: @Snoodit