Early Sunday morning (late Saturday night on the west coast) my phone began to light up with text messages. First it was rumors that “Glee” star Cory Monteith had passed away, and then came condolences once the Vancouver police confirmed his death. People were checking to see if I was all right. I didn’t know Cory personally, but my friends know I’ve spent countless hours writing about Cory and “Glee” for Billboard and other news organizations. I’m a gleek, and as one I’m deeply saddened by the loss of Cory.
It’s a blessing to write about Cory before we have an autopsy, before the specter of reasons for his death cloud our memory and our sorrow over it. All what’s important is a young man with a lot of promise died too soon, which is an all-too frequent tale whether we’re talking about television stars or ordinary kids.
Cory had one of the hardest roles to play on “Glee,” because he often had to be unlikeable but always sympathetic. Finn was positioned as our hero, our everyman who — while Kurt and Rachel had solid passion and trajectory — floundered when the story moved from high school to college. He clung to wild ideas, he lashed out, he thought he was being helpful when he was sometimes being oafish or accidentally cruel. He could sing, but he wasn’t Rachel Berry. He was all of us, looking for a place but scared to take it when it was within reach. He was popular, but keenly aware of the threat of Lima Loser-hood, that he needed to be better than his circumstances to escape, even if he had no idea how do that just yet.
Cory was one of the few main cast members I hadn’t had the privilege of interviewing during my time covering Glee for Billboard, nor was he one I had run into in mutual circles. Instead my appreciation and understanding of him came in the most part through my television screen, or interviews on YouTube, GIFs on Tumblr, witty tweets retweeted. I have one moment with him that’s so miniscule compared to I’m sure the many others out there, but also so similar to the experience that many of his fans have had, and treasure, over the years. Just a moment of warmth, from Cory.
I paid for somewhat ridiculously priced second-row seats for the “Glee” tour in 2011, and thanks to the front row being filled with 5 year olds who didn’t come up to my chin when standing on their chairs, I had a first row view. It was an overwhelming experience, with more than a dozen cast members and dancers often all on the stage at once, lights and video screens and confetti and the never-ending cheers around me. I remember explicitly once my neck craned to get a look at Chris Colfer across the stage when I felt eyes on me, rare in an arena setting when all eyes are always on the stage. I looked straight up to see Cory, impossibly tall above me, smiling knowingly down right at me.
Some of his best work on “Glee” over the years was with Colfer’s Kurt Hummel — the pair transitioning from being drastically on different sides of the high school coin as queer kid and straight bully (by default, Finn was somewhat passive in his bullying) to show choir teammates, and eventually, to brothers when their widowed parents married in season two. Finn’s growth was the growth “Glee” inspires in the outside world — from intolerance to acceptance, with every bump along the way. His work in these moments, between him and Colfer, or him and Mike O’Malley as his stepfather Burt, spoke of a deep talent for tapping into such universal but tricky-to-convey feelings with compassion and a gentle hand.
He knew, more than most, why I might have been transfixed on his frequent scene partner. I was caught, but his warmth meant I wasn’t in trouble; there was no jealousy or annoyance. We were in on this together, this moment in the arena where there was just too much to see and do. And that’s all. For Cory I was some random woman, so distracted by his coworker that I’d almost missed him, even though he was close enough to touch. For me, it’s my “Cory Monteith Story.” That’s the fan experience, and Cory’s generosity in my and all his fans’ treasured moments is what makes being a fan of someone like him so rewarding. Even now, in his death, for those of us who only knew him from the outside looking in, the way his spirit inspired a fandom often fraught with frustration and arguments, to circle the wagons and celebrate a life. Any frustrations we had with the turns “Glee” had taken with his character are mellowed and easily overshadowed by the man behind the character who was upbeat, giving and kind. He channeled his past experiences into ways to help others, working with homeless youth with Virgin Unite, championing arts education and standing up as a straight ally for LGBTQ issues.
“Glee” is a million beating hearts together, and a true ensemble show with a passionate fan base that can get as excited about a background character as they do of a supposed lead role, but there’s no denying that Cory’s heart beat among the loudest. Whenever the show returns in whatever form they choose to deal with this great loss, we’ll feel that missing beat.
Rae Votta has written passionately about “Glee” for Billboard since 2011. Click here for an archive of her stories, recaps and interviews with cast-members.