“The Glee Project” Will Add a Real-Life Underdog to the “Glee” Cast

You’re probably feeling a little less “Glee”-full going into the summer months now that the show’s wrapped Season Two. Don’t be – Here comes “The Glee Project.”

Think “Glee meets “American Idol”: the new reality competition series – airing on Oxygen beginning June 12 – brings together 12 unknown aspiring actor/singer/dancers under the wings of a trio of mentors working on the hit series (casting director Robert Ulrich, choreographer Zack Woodlee and vocal arranger/songwriter Nikki Anders) and puts them through a rigorous training process to determine who will win a seven-episode guest arc on Fox’s hit series – the final winner will be selected by no less than “Glee” creator Ryan Murphy, who will tailor a new character specifically for the last Gleek standing.

The Oxygen show intends to remain faithful to “Glee’s” underdog spirit, says Dante di Loreto, who executive produces both series. “This is about the idea that everyone does have a voice, and it's as much about watching people grow and watching their talent grow and see them learn and for the audiences discovering things about performance that they might never have known,” he explains. “So the mentoring process is really key to us, much more than trial by fire. It's giving them the tools to make themselves better people and better performers.”

It’s a process di Loreto says he’s seen successfully play out behind-the-scenes on “Glee” itself. “Some of our performers were amateur singers when they first auditioned for the show, and by the time that they'd gone through the audition process they had improved dramatically as singers. This is really just expanding on that idea. It's actually giving them time to improve. We're very serious about growing talent. If you look at people like Heather Morris, Harry Shum and Naya Rivera, they all started as guest stars and then grew, as their characters developed, into series regulars.”

“What makes the casting process fun and unique but also difficult is that basically anyone is right for ‘Glee’ and ‘The Glee Project’ – any size, shape, ethnicity,” says casting director Ulrich. “The only qualifications they had to have were that they had to be over 18 and could conceivably play a high schooler. Initially, through the beginning of the process until the callbacks, it was solely singing – we were obviously looking for people who could sing, but ‘Glee’ is always more than just singing. We’re looking for somebody who fits into the ‘Glee’ world and is accessible and that special something that you can’t describe.”

Over 40,000 applicants were winnowed down to the final 12 contenders, who include: Alex, 18, who lost his father to cancer and found expression through performing; Ellis, 19, a high school outcast who found friends through music; Bryce, 22, who fought back from a broken neck during a diving accident; Emily, 22, a feisty competitor who’s spent half her life on stage; Cameron, 21, a natural musician who never had a lesson; Hannah, 20, a singer/rapper who’s self-conscious about her weight; Damian, 18, a Celtic vocalist discovered in Ireland; Marissa, 19, a multitalented bohemian artist; Matheus, 20, who turned to music to ease him through being 4’9”; McKynleigh, 19, a seemingly unlikely country singer; and Samuel, 19, who’s more confident serenading women then talking to them.

Vocal arranger Anders says the mentors become far more personally involved with the contestants than the typical TV reality judges. “It’s more than just sitting behind a table and saying ‘Yes; no; try this,’” she reveals. “We’re actively involved in these kids’ lives, working with them, talking to them about what makes them tick and trying to get to the heart of why they want to do it and what makes them special. I wouldn’t say that there was therapy involved, but we did get really deep inside these kids lives. That made it a very special and inspiring experience for us.”

“It was so much fun to be seeing people from little towns and some who had never sung anywhere except inside their shower, and to give those people an opportunity was wonderful,” concurs Ulrich. “We did become so attached, and the fact that we had to determine, as the show went along, who was going to be potentially eliminated was really tough.”

“The most stressful moment as far as my part was trying to get these kids up to speed that fast,” says choreographer Woodlee, “because I don’t think any of them realized how much they would be doing. What it all boiled down to was that we were up against such a small clock to get these kids ready to shoot their performances, and getting them all to be immediate professionals was, like, ‘Yikes! How are we going to do this in such a small amount of time?’”

di Loreto says the experience, if somewhat accelerated, gives both the aspirants and the viewers a real sense of just what it takes to be a part of “Glee.” “The idea is that everybody who goes through that program, or for that matter the audience who watches the entire program, is going to learn so much about what it takes as a performer,” he says. “We're not trying to make complex challenges that make fun of, that skewer, that unrealistically challenge these people. This show is really hard to put on. Every cast member who works on it will tell you how incredibly demanding it is, and that is certainly an element of this show. But we're not trying to make them jump through hoops without cause and without learning something along the way.”

Other, more familiar from the hit show will also pop in – co-star Darren Criss is in the first episode, and the mentors promise more “pleasant surprises.” The “Glee” cast, they say, are intrigued about who’ll be joining New Directions. Darren Criss is in the first episode. “I think they’re excited, because ‘Glee’ has grown from six kids on the glee club to now we’re pushing 13,” says Woodlee, “so I think every time that someone new is added there’s a bit of a ‘Ooo, how are they going to fit in here?’ [reaction]. I think they’re going to be welcoming, and I know that they’re extremely curious.”

But it will come down to who Murphy handpicks as the muse for the new character (“Ryan is the ultimate judge –Ryan is the ultimate authority of everything 'Glee,'” affirms di Loreto). “It’s totally tailored for the winner,” says Ulrich. “We were just supposed to find the best kids to inspire Ryan and the other writers to write for them. They did not have to fit into any mold. The note they were given most often throughout was ‘Just be yourself – let us see who you really are.’ And hopefully a character can come out of that.” 

Adds Woodlee: “As Ryan gets more time to see the kids, he starts to sense a character and who he can write for, and he really does help to steer these kids in a direction of finding who they can be in the show. That was part of the challenge: who can you be on ‘Glee’ that’s someone different that we don’t have?”

And the winner’s enrollment at McKinley High could continue on, Ulrich reveals. “They’re winning a seven-episode guest-starring arc – which is more than most of the kids on the show even have,” says Ulrich, “so it is not, quote-unquote, a series regular, but it’s obviously with the hope that it will continue on, to be much more.”

If “The Glee Project” clicks with both the viewers and the professionals, di Lorerto says the show could become akin to a farm team to develop fresh talent for the mothership series. “Hopefully this is successful and we get to do it again,” he says. “Anytime there's more singing and dancing in the world, it's a better place.”

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