Glee’s Broadway Roots

by Amy

Last year, Fox network found a runaway hit with Glee. The show, whose genre is musical, takes place in a high school where both student body and faculty are prone to breaking out in both song and dance. But while it may take place in Ohio, its roots can definitely be traced back to New York City. No doubt inspired by the big-number shows found among the bright lights, pieces of Glee are easily found all over the Manhattan theatre district, home to the world-famous Broadway.

Throughout the show, the cast performs countless popular hits, dating back decades and including every genre from standards to hip-hop. Glee also frequently pays homage to the shows that paved the way for a musical-style primetime program, by utilizing both show tunes as well actors who have appeared in some very notable productions. In similar fashion, while a visitor to New York can take in a pop spectacle at Madison Square Garden and rock out at Irving Plaza, they can also get a fix of some of their favorite Glee-performed show tunes and see some of the same theatres they became famous in.

For the most part, Glee mainly sticks with classics when it comes to choosing ballads and showstoppers. The pilot episode is emblematic of this, having featured music from Chicago and Les Miserable. Chicago first premiered in New York in 1975 at the Richard Rodgers theater on 46th street, and since its revival in 1996 has played at the Shubert Theatre on 44th and the Ambassador on 49th. Overachiever Rachel Berry, played by Lea Michele, performed the Les Miserable favorite “On My Own” the first time she sings on the show. Les Mis played at the Broadhurst Theatre on 44th Street, a theatre that is now almost a hundred years old after opening in 1917.

While Broadway features many revivals of classic shows, it’s also home to newer productions that may someday become classics in their own right. This group is likely to include Wicked, a musical with multiple ties to Glee. After it opened at the Gershwin Theatre on 51st Street in 2003, Wicked has been playing to regularly sold-out audiences. Its original Broadway stars, Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenowith, have both brought their acting and singing chops to the small screen with roles on the FOX program. The music of Wicked has also been represented. In one episode, Kurt, played by Chris Colfer, faced off against Rachel in a battle for dominance over “Defying Gravity.”

Aside from Menzel and Chenowith, several Glee regulars have Broadway experience under their belt. Before playing a small-screen couple on the show, Ms. Lea appeared with Jonathan Groff as onstage lovers in Spring Awakening at the Eugene O’Neill theatre on 49th. Matthew Morrison originated the role of Link Larkin in Hairspray at the Neil Simon Theatre on 52nd street prior to playing Glee club director and Spanish teacher Will Schuester. Keeping it in the fictional family, Will’s father was played Victor Garber, a 4-time Tony-nominated Broadway vet.

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The cast of Glee

Glee has turned to Broadway for supplying songs for some of their most memorable scenes. As the romance between guidance counselor Emma and Will blossomed, the show utilized “I Could Have Danced All Night,” featured in My Fair Lady. Before Audrey Hepburn bore the cockney accent, the 1959 production of My Fair Lady featured Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle, and ran at what was once the Mark Hellinger Theater on 51st Street. ( The theater has since been transformed into the Times Square church; for more historical Broadway facts, check out Uncle Sam’s Theatre District Tour!)

Later on in the initial season, Rachel delivers a veritable showstopper in the form of “Don’t Rain on my Parade” from Funny Girl. Funny Girl’s first Broadway run took place at three different theatres, starting with the Wintergarden (on the actual street Broadway is named for), and moving on to the Majestic on 44th before ending back on Broadway at, well, the Broadway Theatre.

The first season of Glee ended in June, 2010. A few months later, the 2010 Emmy nominations were announced, with Glee receiving 19 nods. In seasons to come, the series is sure to feature even more Broadway numbers, bringing the songs to a new generation, former theatre stars to a new audience, and millions of viewers out of their home and straight into the heart of Manhattan.

Uncle Sam’s Tours

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Filed under Amy Eiferman, NYC Culture

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