Without a Net, Without a Chair?: Character vs. Actor as Glee goes Live

“Without a Net, Without a Chair?”

April 6th, 2010

When FOX announced that Glee would be doing a concert tour in support of the show’s second season, I wasn’t particularly surprised: while they had initially said that they had no such plans, the show is too much of a phenomenon to resist what seems like a really logical brand extension.

However, two performances in the past week (At the White House Easter Egg Roll yesterday and on tomorrow’s episode of Oprah, filmed on Friday) have proven a really intriguing glimpse into both the potential for and the challenge of these concerts. The White House concert was very much enjoyable, especially having Michelle Obama and the first daughters grooving to the music in the “pit” between the stage and the crowd, but it also revealed that navigating the twisted web of character and actor, and doing it all without the benefit of auto-tune, is going to make for an extremely interesting concert-going experience.

Glee at the White House: Part One

Trapped between recreating and celebrating the show that fans love so much, the concerts are going to need to remain a careful negotiation of the cast’s musical ability…or maybe they just need to lipsynch to “Don’t Stop Believing” and fans will be happy.

After the cast was was finishing taping the Oprah Winfrey Show, Cory Monteith tweeted that the segment on the show was his “first live singing performance, ever.” That sounds fairly ominous when you think about it, but Monteith wasn’t brought in as a singer, and he is definitely the most auto-tuned member of the cast. This is not to suggest that Monteith is unable to sing live, but rather that the over-produced nature of the show’s numbers has been more evident in his performances than it has with Amber Riley or Lea Michele. So I started to wonder how the show was going to deal with those sorts of discrepancies when it came to a concert, especially since most of the series’ big production numbers feature Monteith’s character, Finn, in a lead role.

For the White House show, at least, Monteith was fine – he has a good voice, and while he doesn’t have Michele’s ability to project (broadway experience tends to help) he’s doing his best to hold his own in the group numbers. But the chances of Monteith breaking into a solo performance like Mark Salling (who has his own music career), Jenna Ushkowitz (who’s coming from Broadway) or Amber Riley (who can belt with the best of them) may be unlikely, so Monteith may be limited to “capturing moments from the show” as opposed to showcasing his musical talents.

Glee at the White House – Part Two

The White House concert sort of straddled those two lines: while the opening and closing numbers (“Somebody to Love” and “Don’t Stop Believing”) were captured down to their choreography, the other performances were the actors, out of character, performing not only songs from the show but also songs that either haven’t been on the show yet or may never be on the show. Lea Michele sort of caught herself up in the confusion apparent to this when she introduced Mark Salling and Matthew Morrison to perform this version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”:

“Up next we’d like to bring up our favourite teacher, Mr. Schuester, played by Matt Morrison, also accompanied by our best high school bad boy, Mark Salling, who plays Puck.”

I don’t mean to play semantics with Lea, who I very much enjoy, but her inconsistency really captures the complexity of this sort of arrangement. The cast was just performing as their characters, doing the same choreography and everything, but now there is no connection to the show itself in this number beyond the people performing it. But then Mark Salling, getting ready to perform “Sweet Caroline,” yells “How about that Mr. Schuester,” retaining a connection to the character he plays. It’s done in a fairly humorous fashion, so it’s obvious that Salling isn’t “in character,” but that line between character and actor is certainly being blurred.

It raises an important question, really, about the iTunes releases that came out each week during the show’s run. The “Artist” on those performances, even when it is largely a solo performance, are listed as “Glee Cast” rather than the actor or actress who took a leading role. So while I might be intensely aware of who plays each character, and can pick them out based on their voice, a lot of the show’s fans might not be able to separate them from their characters to the same degree.

And this brings us to the most interesting, at least for me, element of the concert. Kevin McHale, who plays wheelchair-bound Artie, is able-bodied in real life, a fact that some people who watch the show may not be aware of, so perhaps they might find it odd to see McHale, in this performance which was edited out of the “live”stream due to the technical problems after it, standing during his performance of “Smile” or sitting down with the rest of the cast without his wheelchair during other songs.

Lea Michele and Kevin McHale – “Smile”

However, isn’t it a bit weird for McHale to appear outside of the chair in those moments but then return to the chair for the group numbers, at least without context? Based, I presume, on the use of existing show choreography for the group numbers, McHale appears both in and out of his wheelchair, completely shattering the line between actor and character in the context of the performance. It makes sense logistically, as everything is blocked out for the wheelchair and the cast was busy filming while preparing for this concert so learning new choreography seemed like a bad idea, but the idea that the wheelchair is just an accessory to the choreography does little to help concerns about the show’s depiction of disability. To be clear, I would never argue that McHale should be forced to stay in character, nor do I think it would be “positive” for the wheelchair to be entirely removed from the concert. However they could do one wheelchair-centric number where McHale could perhaps talk to the audience beforehand about his experience in the chair (perhaps starting on “Dancing with Myself” and segueing into “Proud Mary”) and then have McHale perform the rest of the concert without it as a sort of compromised.

If I were a betting man, though, I presume that the Concerts will take a similar style to this series of performances, in that there will be big group numbers (with Artie in the chair) followed by some smaller solo pieces from the various cast members. What isn’t clear, precisely, is how they plan on managing those transitions, and whether there will be some in the audience who wanted to see the show come to life as opposed to seeing the actors performing songs from the show. The White House concert sort of tried to capture both sides of things, and I’m curious to see how they iron out the transitions for the full concert experience. There is no question that a concert is a logical brand extension, but there is more than one way to skin this cat so to speak, and how they navigate the tricky character/actor divide is going to prove very interesting for those attending the concerts.

Cultural Observations

  • While “Don’t Stop Believing” is the show’s most definitive number, it’s the one song that no one on the show can actually sing live: the a capella parts were clearly piped in, and even Lea Michele isn’t able to hit the notes that appear in the recording.
  • Matthew Morrison won’t be joining the cast on tour, as he has other commitments related to his own music career (unless I’m mistaken), so there’s one less seasoned performer they can lean on.
  • So what do we think are the chances of the “two male members who never speak” (I think one is named Matt) actually getting a solo? I presume that “Other Asian” will be featured in some sort of dancing role, as he’s a member of the League of Extraordinary Dancers (Ugh, that name), but I don’t know about Matt.
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2 Comments

Filed under Glee

2 responses to “Without a Net, Without a Chair?: Character vs. Actor as Glee goes Live

  1. jim

    You might have missed there were a lot of technical problems. Lea can hit the notes but something was off especially the first set.

    Give it a break.

  2. No Matthew Morrison? Those Glee tickets on my shelf just got a little bit less special.

    I’m also assuming that, unlike these performances, the concerts will be heavily scripted and choreographed (and rehearsed). But I’ll let you know. (I might even have video . . .)

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