Glee: The Billboard Cover Story
It's six hours into the taping of the "Glee" season finale and the audience at the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills, Calif.-made up of Facebook and Twitter fans of the show, some of whom have flown in from across the country just for the taping-is getting restless. Fueled by just Dixie cups of water and fruit, blood sugar is lagging and patience with the overhead balloon lights being tweaked by a millimeter yet again is wearing thin.
Actress Jane Lynch, who plays the obstreperous cheerleader coach/drill sergeant Sue Sylvester, comes to the balcony to answer some questions and keep the crowd engaged -- or at least awake. One fan asks her what has been her favorite bitchtacular "Sue line" from the script.
"Actually, my favorite line hasn't aired yet," Lynch says, "but it's one she says to Kurt, the gay kid. 'Loving musical theater doesn't make you gay -- it makes you awful.' "
Au contraire, Sue.
Starting May 15, the entire cast of "Glee" -- from Broadway vet Lea Michele, who plays lead ingénue Rachel Berry, to dancer Harry Shum Jr., dubbed the "other Asian" in the show's snark-a-minute vernacular -- will embark on a four-city, 13-stop tour. It represents a turning point for the show; in less than a year on the air, it's moved beyond the Twitter-fueled zeitgeist to achieve a rare showbiz trifecta, generating substantial income across three platforms: TV, recording sales and touring.
Still in its first season, the program has sucked in young fans with its inventive mix of musical-theater brio, pop-chart savvy and outsider empathy -- in an episode that Nielsen says was watched by 13.5 million viewers, Michele's lead performance of Madonna's "Like a Prayer" sold 87,000 digital downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan; in addition, the stand-alone "Power of Madonna" soundtrack from the episode debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with 98,000 copies. The show's first soundtrack sold 799,000, the second 594,000 and the best-selling digital track to date, the cast's version of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," a show-stopper from episode one, has sold 730,000 downloads.
"I remember I talked to [executive producer] Dante Di Loreto and [co-creator] Ryan Murphy and said, 'If all works well, we should see records in the top 10 and we should sell albums. And if all that works, we should do a tour,' " says Geoff Bywater, head of the music department at 20th Century Fox Television.
TOUR DE FARCE
The "Glee Live! In Concert!" tour will travel for two weeks and hit Phoenix, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. Ticket prices range from $35 to $94, depending on the market. All five of the New York shows at Radio City Music Hall have sold out, Bywater says, and the fourth and final Los Angeles concert sold out in 30 seconds after sales went live. ("I've never even been to Radio City Music Hall before," says actor Kevin McHale, who plays the parapalegic Artie.)
Beyond the standard admission ticket, Front Line's I Love All Access is offering a VIP package to fans that includes priority seating, a gift bag with exclusive merch and a preshow party for $295. So far, the packages have sold out for nine of the 13 shows. Fox teamed with FEA to sell merch, and the show's albums and DVDs also will be available at the concert venues.
Adam Anders, who produces the songs featured on "Glee" as well as the soundtracks, arranged the tracks that will be performed during the tour. There are 17 songs currently being considered for inclusion in the stage show. The 90-minute concert will mix big cast numbers from the TV show with solos from various cast members -- and Anders says there is the possibility that some of the cast will switch off and sing songs originally performed by a different cast member during the show. The announced set list includes "Don't Stop Believin'," Van Halen's "Jump," "Don't Rain on My Parade" and Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline."
"It's really a concert -- it's not a stage production of the show," Bywater says, although there will be video footage to complement the performances. "We think the audience is coming to hear songs."
There are several stage veterans in the cast; Michele and Jenna Ushkowitz, who plays Tina, grew up playing child roles on Broadway and appeared in the Tony Award-winning musical "Spring Awakening" just prior to "Glee." While the rigors of touring may be new to most of the cast, Anders experienced firsthand what it's like to go from "the vacuum" of recording the music in the studio to seeing the impact the songs have when performed live.
"I was in the crowd at 'Oprah' and I thought I was at a Jonas Brothers concert," Anders says. "There was just so much screaming-and they were all adults. It was pandemonium. I can only imagine what it's going to be like when kids are there."
Plans are already in the works for another, longer "Glee" tour to follow the end of the show's second season in 2011; Bywater says they've been offered dates in arenas. "One of the promoters called me and said, 'Geoff, you have the hottest ticket in the country,' " he says. "It's good to hear that, but we have to make sure we deliver."
FROM SMALL SCREEN TO CENTER STAGE
TV shows have spawned tours before. The "Hannah Montana" tour grossed more than $54 million in 2007, according to Billboard Boxscore, and created a ticket-scrounging frenzy among parents and tweens; American Idols Live!, featuring the show's top 10 finalists, has been an annual summer trek since 2002. The 2009 edition featuring "Idol" winner Kris Allen and runner-up Adam Lambert as headliners grossed $30.1 million from 52 shows that had 485,324 attendees.
But the success of "Glee" stands apart because it was adapted to the stage so quickly and its TV rollout was so unconventional. The show's first season was split into three parts: a sneak peek after the finale of "American Idol," which aired in May 2009, followed by the first 12 episodes from September until December 2009. The show then went on a four-month hiatus, picking back up with the final nine episodes April 13. Thanks in part to another "American Idol" lead-in, the show earned its highest ratings ever with an average viewership of 13.6 million during the hour.
The stutter-start programming strategy was an audacious one that could have backfired, but it was supported by an omnipresent marketing campaign that kept "Glee" in the spotlight even when the show wasn't on the air. In addition to announcing a MySpace-based open casting call in February for three new characters, the cast sang at the White House Easter Egg Roll and appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" before the April debut.
The ratings peak for the show's spring return proved that Fox's marketing machine is indisputably impressive. It also proved that "Glee" fans-who dub themselves "Gleeks" and maybe should step back from the submit button on YouTube every now and then-were eager to see the show's cast in person.
"We even saw it in the in-stores we did in the beginning of the project," Bywater says. "We did a Hot Topic tour right after the pilot, and there were 3-, 4-, 500 people. Within the passing of just a couple of months, we were talking 1,500 people outside the Borders in New York. It happened really, really fast."
The TV show's marketing strategy, put simply, is to be omnipresent: The tour will run concurrently with the final episodes of the first season and lead into the release of the third soundtrack from the show-all while the "Power of Madonna" episode will continue to be rerun on Fox and on Hulu.
The Madonna episode was the first time the music on the show was turned over in its entirety to one performer -- and in the beginning, getting the artist onboard was a bit of a challenge.
"Her camp did say 'no' originally, but we had gone in cold with little explanation as to what 'Glee' and [Murphy's] master episode plan was," the show's music supervisor PJ Bloom says. "Once we laid the groundwork, Ryan closed the deal with an amazing appeal in letter form to Madonna, not just as the creator and driving force behind the show but as a lifelong fan."
Sony Music Label Group chairman Rob Stringer says "The Power of Madonna" was something of a risky album release, since it was based on the songs contained in just a single episode. "It's kind of weird," he says. "It's a different marketing angle, but the episode is so bloody good." Stringer says he wants to see the longer-term response to "The Power of Madonna" before any decisions are made about doing another artist-themed release from the show.
Stringer says the third volume of the "Glee" soundtrack will probably be released in late May, and another compilation from the show is expected later this year. (So far, Matthew Morrison is the sole cast member with an individual record deal; his debut will be released on Mercury this fall.)
To date, the weekly rollout of digital singles the day before the show airs hasn't cannibalized the appeal of buying the physical soundtracks. "A lot of people are buying the physical and the digital, which is the classic kind of fan fervor," Stringer says.
On the publishing side, the placement deals for songs in the show are negotiated separately from those for the soundtrack, Bloom says, but it's inevitable that the two are related.
"Soundtrack appearances are certainly part of the conversation during the show clearance process considering how extraordinary our sales are and how lucrative that stream is, but those negotiations are not tied to synch deals," Bloom says.
At this point, a live cast CD or DVD of the tour isn't planned, although Anders anticipates that footage from the trek will likely be an extra on the next compilation DVD of "Glee" episodes.
And despite its take on the quintessential American process of high school, "Glee" is starting to take off with viewers and music buyers overseas. Internationally, "Glee" airs in a number of English-speaking countries, including the United Kingdom-where it returned in April with its highest ratings so far of 1.6 million and has scored seven top 40 hits on the Official Charts Co.'s singles chart since January-Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Stringer says the show is in the early process of being dubbed for continental Europe.
"About a decade ago, our company shifted from being a network production company to what we consider a global content company," 20th Century Fox Television co-chairman Dana Walden says. "The whole thrust of that was for the studio to become brand managers. 'Glee' is the natural extension of brand development. It's been a phenomenal experience."
Digitally, according to year-end data released by Hulu, "Glee" was the eighth most popular show to be streamed on the service in 2009, and the fourth most popular search term. In April, iPhone app developer Smule-the company behind the "I Am T-Pain" app-released a "Glee" app in conjunction with Fox Digital Entertainment that uses pitch-correction technology to allow even the most tone-deaf to warble along with songs from the show.
LEGENDS OF THE FALL
"Glee" was picked up for a second season in January -- months before the traditional fall lineup reveal in May -- and begins airing in September.
As it did during the hiatus between the first and second halves of the first season, "Glee" will remain in the spotlight. The auditions for the new second-season characters taking place on News Corp. sibling MySpace will be turned into a reality show that will debut on Fox in the lead-up to the fall return of "Glee."
Moreover, during the hiatus, "Glee" marketing will continue online-some in official forums like MySpace and promotional video teasers from Fox, some not. A large part of the show's digital footprint comes from outlets that aren't necessarily approved by Fox, namely Twitter. Most of the cast is very active on the service, with Cory Monteith-who plays soft-hearted jock Finn Hudson-offering details of how to win tickets to the "Glee" tour to Amber Riley (Mercedes Jones) asking for advice on what to wear to red carpet events to all the actors describing their heart palpitations before performing at the White House.
Speaking of nerves-back at the Saban, rival glee club Vocal Adrenaline (spoiler alerts!) has done a frenzied performance -- literally, a dancer fell and conked her head during one run-through-of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" for regionals. Under such heady competition, will the "Glee" characters get a fairytale ending during the season finale by taking home first place? We'll leave that as a cliffhanger-but in true "Glee" style, the show does come full circle: The team from McKinley High goes in it to win it with a medley from Journey.