LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - It’s six hours into the taping of the “Glee” season finale and the audience at the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills, California — made up of Facebook and Twitter fans of the show, some of whom have flown in from across the country just for the taping — is getting restless.
Fueled by just Dixie cups of water and fruit, blood sugar is lagging, and patience with the overhead balloon lights, being tweaked by a millimeter yet again, is wearing thin. Actress Jane Lynch, who plays the obstreperous cheerleader coach/drill sergeant Sue Sylvester, comes to the balcony to answer some questions and keep the crowd engaged — or at least awake. One fan asks her what has been her favorite bitchtacular “Sue line” from the script.
“Actually, my favorite line hasn’t aired yet,” Lynch says, “but it’s one she says to Kurt, the gay kid. ‘Loving musical theater doesn’t make you gay — it makes you awful.’” Au contraire, Sue.
Starting Saturday (May 15), the entire cast of “Glee” — from Broadway vet Lea Michele, who plays lead ingenue Rachel Berry, to dancer Harry Shum Jr., dubbed the “other Asian” in the show’s snark-a-minute vernacular — will embark on a four-city, 13-stop tour. It represents a turning point for the show; in less than a year on the air, it has moved beyond the Twitter-fueled zeitgeist to achieve a rare showbiz trifecta, generating substantial income across three platforms: TV, recording sales and touring.
Still in its first season, the Fox series has sucked in young fans with its inventive mix of musical-theater brio, pop-chart savvy and outsider empathy. In an episode that Nielsen says was watched by 13.5 million viewers, Michele’s lead performance of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” sold 87,000 digital downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan; in addition, the stand-alone “Power of Madonna” soundtrack from the episode debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with sales of 98,000 copies. The show’s first soundtrack sold 799,000, the second 594,000 and the best-selling digital track to date, the cast’s version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” a show-stopper from episode one, has sold 730,000 downloads.
“I remember I talked to (executive producer) Dante Di Loreto, and (co-creator) Ryan Murphy and said, ‘If all works well, we should see records in the top 10 and we should sell albums. And if all that works, we should do a tour,’” says Geoff Bywater, head of the music department at 20th Century Fox Television.
The “Glee Live! In Concert!” tour will travel for two weeks and hit Phoenix, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. Ticket prices range from $35 to $94, depending on the market. All five of the New York shows at Radio City Music Hall have sold out, Bywater says, and the fourth and final Los Angeles concert sold out in 30 seconds after sales went live. (“I’ve never even been to Radio City Music Hall before,” says actor Kevin McHale, who plays the paraplegic Artie.)
Adam Anders, who produces the songs featured on “Glee” as well as the soundtracks, arranged the tracks that will be performed during the tour. There are 17 songs being considered for inclusion in the stage show. The 90-minute concert will mix big cast numbers from the TV show with solos from various cast members — and Anders says there is the possibility that some of the cast will switch off and sing songs originally performed by a different cast member during the show. The announced set list includes “Don’t Stop Believin’,” Van Halen’s “Jump,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”
“It’s really a concert — it’s not a stage production of the show,” Bywater says, although there will be video footage to complement the performances. “We think the audience is coming to hear songs.”
There are several stage veterans in the cast, in addition to Michele. Jenna Ushkowitz, who plays Tina, grew up playing child roles on Broadway and appeared in the Tony Award-winning musical “Spring Awakening” just before “Glee.” While the rigors of touring may be new to most of the cast, Anders experienced firsthand what it’s like to go from “the vacuum” of recording the music in the studio to seeing the impact the songs have when performed live.
“I was in the crowd at (the cast’s appearance on) ‘Oprah’ and I thought I was at a Jonas Brothers concert,” Anders says. “There was just so much screaming — and they were all adults. It was pandemonium. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like when kids are there.”
Plans are already in the works for another, longer “Glee” tour to follow the show’s second season in 2011; Bywater says they’ve been offered dates in arenas. “One of the promoters called me and said, ‘Geoff, you have the hottest ticket in the country,’” he says. “It’s good to hear that, but we have to make sure we deliver.”
TV shows have spawned tours before. The “Hannah Montana” tour grossed more than $54 million in 2007, according to Billboard Boxscore, and created a ticket-scrounging frenzy among parents and tweens; American Idols Live!, featuring the show’s top 10 finalists, has been an annual summer trek since 2002. The 2009 edition, featuring “Idol” winner Kris Allen and runner-up Adam Lambert as headliners, grossed $30.1 million from 52 shows that had 485,324 attendees.
But the success of “Glee” stands apart because it was adapted to the stage so quickly and its TV rollout was so unconventional. The show’s first season was split into three parts: a sneak peek after the finale of “American Idol,” which aired in May 2009, followed by the first 12 episodes from September until December 2009. The show then went on a four-month hiatus, picking up again with the final nine episodes beginning April 13. Thanks in part to another “American Idol” lead-in, the show earned its highest ratings ever with an average viewership of 13.6 million during that hour.
The stutter-start programing strategy was an audacious one that could have backfired, but it was supported by an omnipresent marketing campaign that kept “Glee” in the spotlight even when the show wasn’t on the air. In addition to announcing a MySpace-based open casting call in February for three new characters, the cast sang at the White House Easter Egg Roll and appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” before the April debut.
The ratings peak for the show’s spring return proved that Fox’s marketing machine is impressive. It also proved that “Glee” fans — who dub themselves “Gleeks” — were eager to see the show’s cast in person.
The TV show’s marketing strategy, put simply, is to be omnipresent: The tour will run concurrently with the final episodes of the first season and lead into the release of the third soundtrack from the show — all while the “Power of Madonna” episode will continue to be rerun on Fox and on Hulu.
The Madonna episode was the first time the music on the show was turned over in its entirety to one performer — and in the beginning, getting the artist onboard was a bit of a challenge.
“Her camp did say ‘no’ originally, but we had gone in cold with little explanation as to what ‘Glee’ and (Murphy’s) master episode plan was,” the show’s music supervisor, PJ Bloom, says. “Once we laid the groundwork, Ryan closed the deal with an amazing appeal in letter form to Madonna, not just as the creator and driving force behind the show but as a lifelong fan.”
Sony Music Label Group chairman Rob Stringer, who says “The Power of Madonna” was something of a risky album release because it was based on the songs contained in just a single episode, says he wants to see the longer-term response to “The Power of Madonna” before decisions are made about doing another artist-themed release from the show.
Stringer says the third volume of the “Glee” soundtrack will probably be released in late May, and another compilation from the show is expected later this year. (So far, Matthew Morrison is the sole cast member with an individual record deal; his debut will be released on Mercury this fall.)
At this point, a live cast CD or DVD of the tour isn’t planned, although Anders anticipates that footage from the trek will likely be an extra on the next compilation DVD of “Glee” episodes.
“Glee” was picked up for a second season, which begins airing in September. As it did during the hiatus between the first and second halves of the first season, “Glee” will remain in the spotlight. The auditions for the new second-season characters taking place on News Corp. sibling MySpace will be turned into a reality show that will debut on Fox in the lead-up to the series’ fall return.
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