'Glee' sparks joy and skepticism among suburban show choir folks

  • "Glee" features (clockwise from left): Chris Colfer, Amber Riley, Lea Michele (center), Jenna Ushkowitz, Cory Monteith and Kevin McHale.

    "Glee" features (clockwise from left): Chris Colfer, Amber Riley, Lea Michele (center), Jenna Ushkowitz, Cory Monteith and Kevin McHale.

  • Steven Logan, Kendra Jensen, Ann Delaney, Tim Hallowell, Jennifer Benson (left to right in the front) perform the song "Sun," as part of the Palatine High School show choir Forte in a recent performance.

    Steven Logan, Kendra Jensen, Ann Delaney, Tim Hallowell, Jennifer Benson (left to right in the front) perform the song "Sun," as part of the Palatine High School show choir Forte in a recent performance. Larry Mohr

  • Buffalo Grove High School's Expressions took the Grand Champion trophy at a performance in March.

      Buffalo Grove High School's Expressions took the Grand Champion trophy at a performance in March. George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Chicago-area native Jane Lynch stars as a scheming cheerleading coach on Fox's new comedy "Glee."

    Chicago-area native Jane Lynch stars as a scheming cheerleading coach on Fox's new comedy "Glee."

  • Wheaton Warrenville South High School's The Classics strike a pose after a performance during a competition in March.

      Wheaton Warrenville South High School's The Classics strike a pose after a performance during a competition in March. George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Palatine High School's Forte performed in Arlington Heights in March.

      Palatine High School's Forte performed in Arlington Heights in March. George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • The Hersey High School show choir OnStage performs at the Wheaton Warrenville South High School Choral Classic in Wheaton.

      The Hersey High School show choir OnStage performs at the Wheaton Warrenville South High School Choral Classic in Wheaton. Marcelle Bright | Staff Photographer

  • The Hersey High School "Ladies First" show choir performs in Mundelein in 2008.

    The Hersey High School "Ladies First" show choir performs in Mundelein in 2008.

  • Steve Sivak is choral director at Palatine High School and oversees the show choir Forte.

    Steve Sivak is choral director at Palatine High School and oversees the show choir Forte. Larry Mohr

  • Bartlett High School student Katie Brazier, seen here performing with Noble Fool Theatricals in St. Charles, loves the TV series "Glee." But she's torn between sticking with Noble Fool's show choir or auditioning for her upcoming high school production of "Hello, Dolly!"

      Bartlett High School student Katie Brazier, seen here performing with Noble Fool Theatricals in St. Charles, loves the TV series "Glee." But she's torn between sticking with Noble Fool's show choir or auditioning for her upcoming high school production of "Hello, Dolly!" George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Wheaton Warrenville South High School's The Classics performed in March in Arlington Heights.

      Wheaton Warrenville South High School's The Classics performed in March in Arlington Heights. George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Libby Mohr, Ann Delaney, Steven Logan and Meghan Clark, from left to right in front, perform "Reach up for the Sunrise" as part of the Palatine High School show choir Forte.

    Libby Mohr, Ann Delaney, Steven Logan and Meghan Clark, from left to right in front, perform "Reach up for the Sunrise" as part of the Palatine High School show choir Forte. Larry Mohr

  • The core show choir cast of the hit FOX-TV series "Glee" features (clockwise from left): Jenna Ushkowitz, Chris Colfer, Cory Monteith, Amber Riley, Kevin McHale and Lea Michele. ©2009 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Matthias Clamer/FOX

    The core show choir cast of the hit FOX-TV series "Glee" features (clockwise from left): Jenna Ushkowitz, Chris Colfer, Cory Monteith, Amber Riley, Kevin McHale and Lea Michele. ©2009 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Matthias Clamer/FOX

  • North Central Express, the show choir of North Central College in Naperville, perform in 2008.

    North Central Express, the show choir of North Central College in Naperville, perform in 2008.

  • Noble Fool Theatricals' Show Choir perform in December 2009.

    Noble Fool Theatricals' Show Choir perform in December 2009. Julie Brazier

  • The Classics of Wheaton Warrenville South rocked and stomped during a performance in March.

      The Classics of Wheaton Warrenville South rocked and stomped during a performance in March. George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Palatine High School's Forte performed in Arlington Heights in March.

      Palatine High School's Forte performed in Arlington Heights in March. George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

  • Jenna Ushkowitz, Cory Monteith, Amber Riley, Lea Michele and Chris Colfer are shown in a scene from "Glee."

    Jenna Ushkowitz, Cory Monteith, Amber Riley, Lea Michele and Chris Colfer are shown in a scene from "Glee." Associated Press

 
 
Published1/17/2010 12:02 AM

The TV series "Glee" is set at the fictional William McKinley High School in Ohio. But die-hard fans, who affectionately call themselves "Gleeks," know that the roots of this smash-hit show are firmly grounded in Chicago's suburbs.

"Glee" co-creator and script writer Ian Brennan is an alumni of Prospect High School in Mount Prospect, and he drew from his own experiences in the late 1990s as a performer in the school's show choir to inspire the TV series. "Glee" also has another local tie-in with Chicago native and Second City alumna Jane Lynch, who plays the conniving cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester.

 

More than halfway through its first season, the Fox TV show has proved to be enormously popular with an estimated 6 million to 8 million viewers tuning in each week.

The songs featured in the series also are generating a lot of buzz. Two "Glee" CDs debuted in the top five of the Billboard sales charts, while the "Glee" rendition of Journey's 1981 hit "Don't Stop Believin'" has been digitally downloaded more than half a million times.

No doubt many "Gleeks" will be cheering on the show at the Golden Globe Awards, broadcast at 7 tonight on WMAQ Channel 5. "Glee" is nominated for three acting awards for its stars Matthew Morrison, Lea Michele and Lynch. The show also is up for "Best Television Series-Comedy or Musical."

But what do Chicago suburban choir directors and their students think about the series? Are they glad that "Glee" exposes the rigors and joys of performing in a show choir to a wider audience? Or does it sing the wrong notes?

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It turns out that there is a mixture of joy and skepticism regarding "Glee", which shows a young Spanish-language teacher named Will Scheuster (Matthew Morrison) and his band of outcast students who try to restore the struggling high school show choir, called New Directions!, to its former award-winning glory.

"Most of my kids that I talk to really like it," said Steve Sivak, choral director at Palatine High School. "They like the fact that it's bringing notoriety to choral programs in schools and they like the music a lot."

"I love 'Glee,'" said Katie Brazier, a freshman at Bartlett High School who recently sang in a holiday concert with Noble Fool Theatricals Youth Ensemble's new show choir, which was launched in part due to the interest surrounding "Glee" after its pilot-episode debut following "American Idol" last May.

Brazier enjoys the show's mix of teenage drama, satirical school politics and stunningly performed songs. As a fan of musicals, Brazier also loves that "Glee" features Broadway actress Lea Michele of "Spring Awakening" and "Ragtime" as the super-talented - and very pushy - student Rachel Berry. She's Brazier's favorite character.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"(Rachel) is really diva-ish and I think it's easy not to like her," Brazier said. "But there's something about her - just her drive to get out there. It just makes me smile because it reminds me of myself wanting to be a star."

And in a reflection of one of Rachel's plot lines in "Glee", Brazier is currently torn whether to stick with show choir or to audition for Bartlett High's upcoming musical production of "Hello, Dolly!".

"The show has picked up on all the issues you face as a show choir director and as a student who is involved in it," said Nicholas Janssen, director of vocal music at Granger Middle School in Aurora and director of the North Central Express show choir at North Central College. "Of course it's all over-dramatized for TV's sake."

Janssen says he particularly likes the way "Glee" is performed and edited since "it does the best job of capturing the essence and the excitement that is associated with show choirs" instead of other shows that often make fun of them.

But to Tom King Clear, music director for Noble Fool's unnamed tuition-based show choir, one aspect of "Glee" isn't always so over-the-top.

"The people who take show choir really, really seriously - they can be really more extreme than depicted on the show," Clear said, though he emphasized his opinions were drawn from his past experiences directing show choirs in St. Louis and Portland, Ore. "Some of those national competitions are just crazy because the directors are so competitive."

Hersey High School choral Director Sara Michael and her students like to discuss "Glee"'s variety of music, choreography and the amazing vocal arrangements. But they often find the plot lines to be "really ridiculous and far-fetched."

Michael also says many of her students take umbrage at how easy "Glee" makes everything look.

"The students on 'Glee' get handed a copy of music, they browse over it once and then they sing it in perfect harmony on the first try," Michael said. "Some of my students get frustrated because it doesn't show all the hard work needed to be successful in show choir."

On the positive side, all of the teachers interviewed for this article liked how the show choir in "Glee" is so open and accepting of all kinds of students. They're also hoping that the popularity of "Glee" will rub off on more students considering music for school electives and extracurricular activities.

"I think that ('Glee') brings a lot more to the surface for students questioning what they can be involved with in school - that music is a viable program that they can become a part of," said Palatine's Sivak. "I'm really happy about that."

But what keeps Sivak tuning in to "Glee" each week?

"The thing that keeps me coming back to it is" Jane Lynch as the scheming cheerleading coach, Sivak said. "She's just so outrageously wacko. I just find it very entertaining."

Prospect High School choral director Jennifer L. Troiano says that many of her students, and particularly their parents, are fans of "Glee" and proud that Prospect alumni Brennan has found so much success with the show.

"I think it's great that (Brennan is bringing show choirs) to the forefront, and the kids appreciate that TV is in effect saying, 'Hey, this stuff is pretty cool,'" Troiano said. "And we're like, 'Yeah, we know! We've been saying that for the past 10 years!'"

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