Can you imagine Glee’s iconic “Don’t Stop Believin’” performance with Twyla Tharp touches and knee-slides? How about McKinley’s school colors as anything but red, black, and white? A Glee without any gay characters? These were all real possibilities when the pilot episode was under development in 2008. Glee began as a movie script by co-creator Ian Brennan, and it was transformed into a TV series in the hands of producing duo Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. Their vision to celebrate the high school underdog by way of catchy pop covers and soap opera elements rang true for a generation looking for stardom (as Rachel Berry’s voiceover reminds us in the pilot, “Fame is the most important thing in our culture now.”) In a sea of reality shows, fictional Glee felt strangely real — despite the ubiquitous song-and-dance — during its tenure. Along the way it racked up serious accolades, and serious detractors. But where most agree about Glee is the pilot episode. It’s Glee’s purist form, and it’s what captured so many hearts in the pop culture landscape.
When it aired after the American Idol finale in 2009 it became a must-discuss water cooler topic, leaving a whole summer for fandom to flourish with fervent rewatches. The dark, snarky, never-before-seen integration of teenage outsiders and pop music fantasy sparked a phenomenon that dominated pop culture. As the show winds down in its final few episodes, we look back with the cast and crew of its original pilot, who shared an oral history of the making of a definitive TV moment, from neck injuries to green card delays to hoping for just enough screaming fans to outnumber the cast — and getting so much more.
Ulrich: Chris’s story, everyone’s heard. He was 18, his father drove him up. I’d never met him. There wasn’t a role for him, which everybody knows. He said one word and sang one sentence, and I said, “Oh my gosh.” I took him to Ryan. To think there was no gay character on Glee is bizarre.
Chris Colfer (Kurt Hummel): I remember getting an audition for a new Ryan Murphy show, and I was super excited because I was obsessed with Nip/Tuck. I wasn’t actually allowed to watch it, so it was the closest thing to an adolescent rebellious phase that I had — then I read the script for Glee, and immediately fell in love with it. I was a performing arts kid and grew up in a community theatre, I was ecstatic someone was making a show about kids like me. I wasn’t surprised when it blew up like it did: I always knew it had an audience. The big surprise was that I was a part of it.
McHale: I had never tested for a TV show before. I auditioned on a Monday, I had a callback on Tuesday, and then found out I was testing on Wednesday. It was very early on in the process, so I had to wait. I knew they were having a problem finding Quinn and Finn, and maybe they found a Mercedes, but they weren’t sure. Then I met Chris, and I was confused what he was auditioning for.
Colfer: I remember meeting Jenna and Kevin in the early auditions and we bonded over The Dark Knight casting rumors. Someone said Cher was going to be Catwoman, so naturally we all had opinions about it. I remember I could hear everyone singing in the next room for the studio and network executives and I was blown away. Everyone was so talented. I didn’t know how I could possibly fit in and I probably wore my vulnerability on my sleeve – which may have been a reason I was cast now that I think about it.
McHale: I remember Chris and I came up in the elevator together from the parking garage in Fox. I was terrified, but I could see that he was even more terrified. He seemed so lost in a way, which is funny to say now because he seems more mature than I am. So I decided to help him. I checked us both in at the security desk, and we rode up to the right floor together. When we sat down I saw that he had Artie sides, and I was like, “Shit, I’m helping the enemy.” But then Robert came out and mentioned something about Kurt, so I gathered he wasn’t auditioning for Artie but I didn’t know who Kurt was. Chris told me how he auditioned and how they kind of made a new role. He was being very modest. I don’t know if he was aware or not that he was the only one auditioning for that part. Like, You’re definitely getting it.
Ushkowitz: Chris was testing against himself, so obviously he got it. Me and another girl, and Kevin and another guy were all testing. We just sat there quietly and Ryan came in before the test and went, “Hi guys, how are you, is everybody nervous?” That made us more nervous. It was a weird thing, but we all booked it within the hour of auditioning. Before I got on my flight home I knew.
McHale: I was so nervous I had my friends drive me that day. We went out to eat after, which is the worst idea because I was such a mess that I couldn’t even think straight, never mind try to eat food. I felt like I was going to vomit all over the table. My manager called to say they’d found out Chris got it, and they were still waiting on me. Then she called back a few minutes later and I heard her voice crack and she goes, “it’s yours, it’s yours.” I gave a thumbs up and my friends all start screaming in this nice restaurant in Beverly Hills. My family was crying when I called them, they were waiting by the phone too. I had been trying to do it for a long time, and I didn’t know if music was going to work out or acting was going to work out, but this seemed really special.