Utah is known for its love of choir music and musical theater. And unlike many other states, where funding has cut all forms of arts education to the quick, most high schools in the Beehive State have long-running choir programs.
But "Glee," the NBC series now in its third season that follows the misadventures of a Midwestern high school show choir and its members, has breathed new life into that already-strong tradition.
The show, set in Ohio, is essentially a musical about high schoolers in a show choir called New Directions. But instead of characters bursting into song for no reason (as in musicals of old), the school show choir gives these teens a reason to sing and dance. And the songs they perform in harmonious glee-club fashion often are surprising choices from pop music's heavy-hitters -- Lady Gaga, The All-American Rejects and Neil Diamond, to name a few.
Claudia Bigler, teacher and choir director for Box Elder High School, said she has students come up to her and ask to do a song they've seen on the television show. And she believes there is room for that sort of material in the mix.
"They have some really wonderful arrangements," said Bigler. "But, of course, they have the pieces completely polished before they ever sing them on the show. And sometimes the students don't realize the amount of work involved in pulling something like that off in a real performance."
McKell Price, 17 and a senior at Box Elder High School in Brigham City, said, "What I have noticed most is people will come in after an episode of 'Glee' and be like, 'Mrs. Bigler we have to sing this! We have to!' And she'll be, 'Great, but we need a lot of time to do this right' -- and then they'll get frustrated when it does not come out exactly like the show in 30 seconds. Because on the show, of course, it comes out perfect the first time they try it. So it has been kind of deceiving to people who come in and try these songs in first-year choir."
Glee clubs date back to England in the 1800s, when boys' school choirs would sing short tunes known as glees. Today's glee clubs, now more commonly known as show choirs, tend to mix elements of musical theater with traditional chorus. They perform a mix of show and popular tunes, complete with props, costumes and choreography.
Such choirs are something of a tradition in the Midwest. Chris Thomas, a 17-year-old senior at Layton High School, hails originally from Iowa. This is his second year at Layton High, and his second in the show choir, called The Laytones.
"Between football and show choir, those were the big deal there in Iowa," said Thomas, who is president of The Laytones. "But it has been great here, too. There is a lot of talent here and a lot of willingness to try different things. I think 'Glee' has expanded the material we think about doing."
The Laytones show choir has roots stretching back decades, according to Katie Stanger, who has been teaching choir and directing the chorale groups for the past two years at Layton High School. "I think interest was definitely stirred up in new students when the show got popular. For one thing, 'Glee' does a lot of music that the kids hear on the radio, but then turns it into four-part harmonies and into really sound choral arrangements. That makes them start thinking creatively of what other songs we can do with the choir."
The 'Glee' effect
Before the show, many students who thought of choir related it to the kind of sacred music featured in church choirs, or perhaps associated exclusively with school Christmas programs. But the popularity of the show has people taking a second look, said Josh Harrop, 18-year-old senior at Box Elder High School.
"I think there has been more interest in the choir due to the show," Harrop said. "But it really is a show more for teenagers, so
I don't think it has affected our audience as much -- I mean, I don't think more parents and that age group are coming because they watch the show, but they are coming out if their kids are in the choir to hear them. So in that way, it increased the audience."
Most choir directors say their students are requesting songs and arrangements from the show. And, since the show's arrangements are well-crafted, some are being included in performances. Layton High School did 'Safety Dance' after the show featured the Men Without Hats song. One of the middle schools in Brigham City did the same with "Glee's" arrangement of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing."
Nick Yonkee, a 16-year-old sophomore at St. Joseph High School in Ogden and an avid musical-theater actor, said that most of the people he knew who got hooked on 'Glee" were already involved with the performing arts in some fashion.
"But I will say that people at my high school seem to be more interested in the theater these days," said Yonkee. "I am not sure it is a direct attribute of watching the show. Maybe the musicals we do are getting better as a whole, but I think there is an impact on people wanting to see performing arts more often, due to this show making them curious."
MaKall Chatwin, a 16-year-old junior at Layton High School, said, "I think we have attracted new members due to people liking it ('Glee'). More people are aware of show choir because of it, no doubt about it, and I think we've even attracted some new members because of it."
The appeal of the TV show to young performers is not just in the music. The plots often address, in dramatic fashion, hot-button concerns and conflicts that teens face. The complicated dynamics between the jock and misfit factions, and the struggles faced by gay teens and teachers, have been dealt with in "Glee" episodes. In short, there is plenty of drama laced in with the well-arranged music and comedic antics -- enough to keep the teen viewer hooked week-to-week.
"The story line really appeals to me most, I think," Yonkee said. "Sometimes they do songs I really like, but more for me it is a good show with song and dance in it than it is a show about song and dance. The writing is strong."
Said student McKell Price: "I do watch 'Glee' a lot. It is about evoking the emotions, with music and with the story line. More recently, I think they have gone for the shock factor, doing songs we would not necessarily do in Brigham City, and have had some guest stars that are a little controversial. But I really think that certain people might see choir, and the people in it, in a different light after watching it."
Teacher Katie Stanger adds, "Especially when 'Glee' first started, the kids ran in and asked if I was watching. So I did watch some of it, but I found it to be a little too soap opera-ish for me. But the music really is always delightful, and seems to inspire my students. And I see that as being a good thing overall."