It was precisely a century ago that the Yale Whiffenpoofs first banded together to sing of poor little lambs who had lost their way. Since that fateful night at Mory’s Temple Bar, choral groups, a cappella or otherwise, have grown to become nationwide high school and college staples, their allure ebbing and flowing, as dictated by the cultural zeitgeist. Popularity reached a peak during the Eisenhower era, when the appeal of the Hi-Lo’s alongside that foursome of Fours-Lads, Preps, Freshmen, Aces-caused clean-cut, brush-cut vocal groups to pop up on campuses coast-to-coast. The phenomenon slumped in the 1960s, when such sweet harmonies fell out of favor, trumped by folk songs, garage rock and flower power. Hit recordings by the Persuasions, the Manhattan Transfer, Bobby McFerrin, and the Nylons brought renewed interest in the 1980s, followed by another slowdown in mainstream recognition as the new millennium dawned.
The latest eruption, as unexpected as it is powerful, began with little fanfare in May 2009, when Fox aired the pilot for a teen-focused series about an assortment of strays and losers at William McKinley High in Lima, Ohio, who find solace in the school’s resurrected vocal choir. Simply entitled Glee, it seemed a sharp left turn for creator Ryan Murphy, best known for his dark plastic-surgery drama Nip/Tuck, but actually drew on Murphy’s own history as a high school glee clubber and a member of the Singing Hoosiers at Indiana University in Bloomington. Buzz for the show built throughout the summer, and within weeks of its official September 2009 launch it was firmly established as the new season’s biggest breakout hit. By December, when the series began a four-month siesta, Glee had progressed from hit to global phenomenon, with millions of self-declared “gleeks” anxiously awaiting the show’s April return.
Like a boulder dropped into a stock-still lake, Glee‘s ripple effect throughout the entertainment industry has been colossal. Four albums featuring tracks from the show have become iTunes chart-toppers. Billboard recently listed 25 singles from Glee that have been downloaded more than five million times. Artists, many of whom have been out of the limelight for years, are seeing massive jumps in popularity. After Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” was featured in one episode, sales of Diamond’s original 1969 recording tripled. When Rihanna offered the show’s producers her “Take a Bow” at a deeply discounted licensing fee, she was rewarded with a nearly 200 percent increase in sales of the song. The Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, Amy Winehouse, Olivia Newton-John and at least a dozen others have experienced similar sales surges. The biggest winner has been Journey, whose “Don’t Stop Believin'” has eclipsed its original popularity since its adoption as Glee‘s unofficial theme song. Artists and songwriters are now clamoring to get their tunes featured on the show.
Most famously, the band Coldplay, which had turned Murphy down cold when the show’s momentum was still building, has called to offer him their entire catalog. Sheet music, for decades a fairly dormant industry, is experiencing a similar swell. At Hal Leonard, the Milwaukee-based publisher, sales of Glee-related sheet music is soaring, with the show’s arrangement of “Don’t Stop Believin'” topping the list. Concerts featuring Glee cast members were this past summer’s hottest tickets. A sign of Glee‘s prominence as well as the influence of Disney’s ubiquitous High School Musical movie series, Broadway and West End musicals are enjoying a remarkable uptick in attendance, particularly among younger theatergoers. The year-over-year increase for London productions of Wicked, Legally Blonde, Oliver! and other splashy productions is hovering near 90 percent. Broadway alum Matthew Morrison, who heads the Glee cast as earnest choir director Will Schuester, recently landed a record deal with Mercury and will drop his debut album this fall. The show won a 2010 Golden Globe Award for Best TV Series (Comedy or Musical) and in July garnered more Emmy nominations, 19, than any other non-cable series. In an unprecedented move, Fox renewed Glee for a third season before the sophomore season had even commenced.
But what is Glee‘s effect at the grassroots level, among high school and college students and within campus music programs? Again, the statistics are impressive. The National Association for Music Education polled choral directors about the show’s impact. Forty-three percent noted a sharp rise in student interest and enrollment, plus a huge number of requests from choir members that songs from the show be added to their repertoire. At the University of North Texas in Denton, Joe Coira announced the creation of a new vocal group the day after Glee‘s first season finale, and was shocked when more than 100 students showed up to audition. In the U.K., the Choir of the Year competition has seen a 30-percent rise in entrants.
Tim Davis, Glee‘s real-life Will Schuester, who handles vocal arranging for the show and works with the singers in studio and on set, is only partially surprised by the series’ enormous popularity and extended influence. “I wasn’t sure about this kind of show being taken seriously and being compared to High School Musical, which was the last thing [the creators] wanted,” says Davis. “But I wasn’t totally surprised [by its huge success] because of the caliber of the team. When you do something of excellence musically, and you hire skilled people to do what they do best, I don’t think you can go wrong. We’ve had the privilege of using some of the most talented people, and under the leadership of [Executive Music Producer] Adam Anders, there is a shared vision of excellence in every facet of the music. Then, getting into the production side and seeing Ryan Murphy and [Executive Producer] Dante Di Loreto being so perfectionistic and so passionate about their craft, I knew it was going to be a winning combination and was pretty sure the general public would get it and that it would speak to almost every age range.”
Davis also believes that the show’s strength lies in giving the choral tradition a contemporary edge. “Show choir has had a bad rap because it has been so smarmy and marshmallow-y sweet,” he says. “What we’ve been trying to do is create a vocal group that is as current as can be, with aggressive vocals and difficult counterpoint vocal lines, and things that are interesting and challenging to do. I think it gives more credibility to vocal groups. We try to keep it as modern as possible. … There are some songs, like Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Smile,’ that are sweeter, but are still done in ways that aren’t corny or dumb. I’m certain it gives the music credibility, [and] it is being emulated everywhere.”
Among music educators, the general consensus is that Glee is having a positive effect in a variety of ways. Tim Brent, an award-winning educator, pianist and arranger from Cleveland, has impressive credentials. He received his bachelor’s degree in choral music education from Western Michigan University, was a member of WMU’s celebrated Gold Company jazz vocal ensemble and served as director of the vocal jazz program at Northern Illinois University before obtaining his master’s degree in jazz pedagogy and his doctorate from the University of Miami. Brent recently completed a one-year term as director of vocal jazz studies at the University of North Texas. “From what I’m hearing from high school teachers,” he says, “because of Glee enrollment in show choir is definitely up. My honest reaction is that I’m glad they’re doing something musical on mainstream television. As much as it is a Hollywood-ized version, at least there are people out there who are willing to create a show about show choir, a thing you’d never think a mainstream audience would appreciate. Somebody took a chance on it, and it blew up into this enormous success. And I can’t thank whomever green-lighted the show enough, because the arts are the first thing that get cut from school programs, and now with the economy the way it is, arts teachers are losing their jobs all over the place. I’m not saying the show is going to have the power to do much about that, but if you’ve got students coming out of the woodwork who are now interested in singing and there is enough of a demand, then school superintendents and principals are going to have to react.”
Stephen Zegree, director of Gold Company (which Janis Siegel aptly describes as “the absolute best sounding, hippest college vocal jazz ensemble”), and a professor at WMU’s School of Music in Kalamazoo, says he and his colleagues are “very aware of the show. We do a big show on our own campus each February. This past February we intentionally made at least a couple of references to Glee during our show, knowing that there are high school students in the audience and that they’re all watching Glee. We wanted to let the audience know that we’re aware of it and we embrace it, that we’re hip and we’re cool too.” Zegree agrees with his former student Brent regarding the precarious state of arts education funding. “We have to figure out ways to make the arts that much more crucial to every student’s experience,” says Zegree, “and stress to administrators how important that is to round out students’ education, that it is as valid as any other school activity, including athletics. So I think Glee is wonderful, because anything that generates excitement for group vocals or jazz chorals or music in general is a great thing.”
Though jazz vocalist Laurie Antonioli says she’s seen no manifestation of the Glee effect at Berkeley’s Jazzschool, where she oversees the vocal jazz studies program, she still believes that the show is a positive force. “Maybe it’s unrealistic on various levels,” she explains, “but if it gets students excited about music and makes people want to participate in singing with others, that’s a very positive thing. Talent [among students] is often hidden, and you don’t uncover it until you get them into drama or choir.”
Adds fellow jazz singer Joanna Pascale, who is a jazz vocal instructor at Philadelphia’s Temple University, “The voice is the first instrument, and it is the best resource we have for self-expression. I think it is important for everyone to get in touch with their own voice. If Glee helps people do that, more power to it. It’s a shame that more kids aren’t exposed to musicals. It seems privileged kids get that exposure, and if [other kids] are now getting it from Glee, then that sends them down the rabbit hole. I remember as a kid watching a TV show about four starving artists moving to New York. I clearly recall one episode where there was a girl sitting at the piano and singing ‘Good Morning Heartache.’ It stopped me in my tracks. My mom could see how moved I was, and she explained that it was a Billie Holiday song. I went out that weekend and bought a cassette of Lady in Satin and completely wore it out. Hopefully, with Glee, there will be other little sparks like that that really catch fire.”
Some of those privileged students Pascale refers to surely attend Niles North High School in Skokie, Ill., which boasts one of the most enviable music programs in the country, including five concert choirs, three vocal jazz ensembles, four bands, two steel bands, a jazz band, two percussion ensembles, a flute choir, a brass choir and three orchestras. At the center of this wellspring of musical education is Choral Director Daniel Gregerman. “A large percentage of my kids are into Glee,” says Gregerman. “Do they want to perform everything they see on the show? Oh, yeah. We’ve talked about doing an entire Glee show, with just music from the series. I have a couple of close friends who are studio musicians on Glee. They travel around the country and say it is really interesting to see how much increased participation there is all over. The pulse I have from people I talk to is that [the show] is causing much more interest in singing in general. People are getting involved because they want to be in a Glee-type group.
“Some of Glee is overplayed, but it is genuinely addressing the issues that kids in choir face every day. When we are facing economic turmoil, with budget cuts and teacher slashing, we have to look for every straw we can grab to support our programs. What they portray on Glee is true. On Glee the message is, ‘If you don’t win the championship, we’ll have to cut your program,’ or, ‘Yes, you can go to sectionals, but we can’t afford the right bus for [the student in] the wheelchair.’ I watch the show religiously every week. I download it and watch it the next day, keeping it running while I’m working to see what kinds of arrangements they’re doing and what artists they’re representing. And then my students come in and say, ‘I heard this great song,’ or, “I heard this great arrangement,’ on Glee. So I think they’re doing a great service in showing a variety of musical styles, eras and genres, and demonstrating how pieces can be crossed from one style to another.”
Key to Glee’s evolving storyline is the initially reluctant participation of football team captain Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith), his escalating embracement of the choir and his recruitment of two other teammates. Finn’s girlfriend, head cheerleader Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron) and several of her pompom-shaking pals also join. Their intent is to spy for the choir’s arch-nemesis, Machiavellian cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch), but they too find themselves caught up in the choir’s warmly supportive camaraderie. “I like the fact that they draw in students from outside the choir,” says Brent. “You see students participating who normally wouldn’t, like the episode where the football team joins the glee club to learn to dance so they can increase their flexibility on the field. When I was in high school, the captain of the football team was a member of our jazz vocal group, so it was totally cool to be in choir and in the jazz group because he was onboard. The football team attended all our concerts. They were a little rowdy and boisterous, but the enthusiasm and support was there. Generally, I think those students who are passionate about the arts and music are going to do it regardless of what the stigma might be. If the choir director is strong and knows how to get results, you destroy that stigma.”
Gregerman says he has always had varsity athletes in his music programs, but points to “a kid right now, who played varsity soccer during his freshman, sophomore and junior years [and] has decided to drop soccer to concentrate on singing.” And Davis tells of a family friend whose son is “a senior in high school and a football player. He’s a closet singer. He’d sing along with his guitar in his bedroom. And because of the show he joined the glee club at his high school and is in love with it. I’m often seeing that, especially with guys. Suddenly it’s OK to be involved in that sort of thing. There’s no negative slant. It’s not corny. You can sing and still be cool.”
Educators also applaud Glee‘s efforts to, as Brent says, “be careful about painting an accurate picture of the diversity you’re going to find in a real high school. That’s a really strong message to send to the audience. I remember the episode where the gay kid comes out to his father. That’s a hard issue to tackle, especially in a show representing high-school-age students. I’m not sure how much middle America is ready for that, but they pushed the envelope and said, ‘This is real life. There are gay people in high schools.’ And the father’s reaction was great, saying that he doesn’t necessarily love it, but it doesn’t change the way he feels about his son. That’s a very genuine reaction. I think they’re doing a really good job of sending home some very positive messages.”
As for making the leap from Glee-style vocal choirs to jazz, Antonioli says, “From where I stand, that’s a world unto itself and doesn’t really bump up against serious jazz programs.” Brent agrees that the connection may be tenuous, but adds that, “With the assistance of a good choral director who wants to expose his students to a wide range of music, he might tip them to Billie and Sarah and Ella. That’s how it was for me. I had a director who said, ‘You really need to listen to Nat King Cole and other vocalists,’ and I was blown away. I caught the bug right there and have never dropped it in 20 years. So I really think it’s the responsibility of the educator, not the student.”
Zegree is just such an educator. As he explains, “A student might say, ‘I’m really into group vocals,’ and I’ll say, ‘Well, then check out Take 6,’ and then move them in a direction where they build a deeper appreciation for jazz. Or look at Sting, who writes pop tunes in seven. That’s pretty hip. So you take students to the next level by telling them, ‘Check out some of these fusion bands, check out Yellowjackets.’ I have a new book out called The Wow Factor, written for teachers and students. There’s that old saying, ‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink,’ but my spin is to bring the horse to water and then figure out how to make him drink. In all of my student encounters, which is a lot of students over a lot of years, I’ve never had one come from a show choir background who, once they understand and develop an appreciation for jazz and specifically vocal jazz, has ever said, ‘You know, I don’t really care for this,’ and want to go back to simpler music. That has never, ever happened.”