16 Fascinating Facts About ‘Glee’

From auditions gone wrong to a spin-off that never was, here’s what you missed on ‘Glee.’
The cast of ‘Glee’ on set.
The cast of ‘Glee’ on set. / Vera Anderson/GettyImages

On May 19, 2009, a group of fictional high school misfits sang their way into the hearts of people around America. Co-created by Ryan Murphy, Ian Brennan, and Brad Falchuk, Glee was an instant smash.

After Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) takes over McKinley High’s show choir, New Directions, from a disgraced teacher, he recruits Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), Mercedes Jones (Amber Riley), Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer), Artie Abrams (Kevin McHale), Tina Cohen-Chang (Jenna Ushkowitz), and Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith). Over the next six seasons, New Directions tries to achieve bigger and bigger goals—like beating rival glee clubs to compete at Nationals—despite the interference of cheerleaders Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron), Brittany S. Pierce (Heather Morris), and Santana Lopez (Naya Rivera) and their coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch).

Though sometimes derided for its over-the-top storylines, especially in later seasons, Glee also tackled serious issues like teen pregnancy, homophobia, domestic violence, cyberbullying, and eating disorders. The show became a bona fide phenomenon, winning numerous accolades, sending multiple soundtracks to the Billboard charts, and turning its young actors into stars. Today, Glee’s legacy is decidedly complicated, but its standing as a cultural force of the early aughts can’t be denied.

Glee started as a movie script.

Following his success with Nip/Tuck, Ryan Murphy signed a deal to create more shows with Fox. He wanted to go in a more light-hearted direction with his next project—and after he read a movie script about a glee club written by Ian Brennan (who drew inspiration from his own history in a high school glee club), he thought it could be the one. “It was much darker, like an independent movie,” Murphy told Deadline. He told Brennan he thought it would work better as a TV show. Brennan agreed, and Murphy brought his then-writing partner, Brad Falchuk, to help them rewrite the script from scratch. Fox picked up the show within hours of reading the pilot. 

The auditions for Glee didn’t go smoothly for some of the cast.

Michele totaled her car on the way to the Glee audition and walked in with glass in her hair; then, the pianist flubbed her audition song (“On My Own” from Les Misérables). “The piano player skipped through the second verse,” she later recalled. “So right in the middle of my song, I was like, ‘Excuse me!’ … Very Rachel Berry!” (Murphy had actually written the role specifically for Michele, who had been performing on Broadway for years.) Former boyband member McHale auditioned by singing “Let It Be,” but didn’t know any more of the words when the casting director asked him to keep going. Ushkowitz sang a portion of “Waiting for Life” from the musical Once on this Island, to which she said the casting director responded, “Maybe you should think of a better cut next time.” Agron, meanwhile, was the last actor to be cast—the night before filming began.

Kurt Hummel wasn’t in the original pilot script.

Colfer originally auditioned for the role of Artie with “Mr. Cellophane” from Chicago. He didn’t land the role—it went to McHale instead—but Murphy was inspired to create Kurt, a bullied, theater-loving gay kid, based on Colfer’s background and experiences. The new character (who was named “Artie 2” on Colfer’s contract) replaced an Indian character named Rajesh.

Producers wanted a Coldplay song for the pilot episode, but didn’t get it.

According to music producer Adam Anders, the show didn’t have much trouble clearing rights for music, not even at first. But there was an exception. Initially, producers wanted Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” to be the song that New Directions sings in the climactic performance of the show’s pilot episode, but Coldplay wouldn’t agree to it—so the show went with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” instead.

“I think it was meant to be,” Anders told the Los Angeles Times of the Journey classic, which was featured on the series six times and became the show’s first hit song (it reached No. 4 on the charts in the U.S.). “Don’t Stop Believin’” “became the show,” according to Anders. “I don’t think [‘Viva la Vida’] would have been close to as good.” Coldplay eventually granted the show the rights to use its catalog in 2010; Glee covered “The Scientist” in its season 4 episode “The Break Up.”

No one expected Glee to be a hit.

Chris Colfer, Dianna Argon, Amber Riley, Cory Monteith, Mark Salling, Kevin McHale, Lea Michele, Jenna Ushkowitz
Fox Presents The Gleek Tour. / Lisa Lake/GettyImages

Fox’s series about underdogs was a bit of an underdog itself when it debuted in 2009. “No one thought that was going to be anything, I think,” Murphy later told Entertainment Weekly, “other than a solid double, maybe at best.” In summer 2009, Murphy headed to Bali to shoot Eat Pray Love with Julia Roberts; while he was there, Glee debuted after the penultimate episode of that season of American Idol—and became an instant hit. When he came back, Murphy said, “It was like The Beatles. It was so crazy, like you could not go out with those kids.” It was so successful that the cast later went on tour and even shot a concert movie.

Those were real Slushies being thrown at the Glee cast.

A running gag in Glee features the popular kids flinging Slushies on the members of the glee club—and the show’s production team opted to use the real thing when filming. “It literally takes the air out [of you],” Michele told Jimmy Fallon in 2010. “It’s so cold I have to, like, recover for days.” Beyond the initial shock, Michele said the drinks stained her body, and “the only way to get it off is to cover yourself with Gillette shaving cream.”

Brittany and Santana got together because of fans.

Naya Rivera, Heather Morris
Naya Rivera and Heather Morris in 2010. / Michael Buckner/GettyImages

Glee was known for its groundbreaking portrayal of gay relationships, including Kurt and Blaine (a.k.a. “Klaine”) and Brittany and Santana (or “Brittana”). At first, producers meant for Brittany and Santana to be simply best friends, but the show’s fans wanted them to get together, and they weren’t quiet about it. “We sort of took it lightly at first,” Rivera told Vanity Fair in 2011. “But then we thought it was something people really wanted us to do, that it was something we should tackle.” Brittany and Santana dated—secretly, at first, as Santana struggled with being a lesbian and coming out to her family—broke up, got back together, and, eventually, married.

Rivera’s portrayal of Santana was lauded, and the character herself was a breakthrough: As Jarrett Barrios, then-president of GLAAD, noted in 2011, her story was “one that hasn’t been told on a prime-time network television show at that level, particularly by an LGBT teen of color.” (Sadly, Rivera died of an accidental drowning in July 2020.)

The choreography sometimes included inside jokes.

Many of the actors on Glee weren’t trained dancers. “I have been given a most unique job of turning a Bad News Bears-esque group of dance skill into a unit,” choreographer Zach Woodless told Entertainment Weekly in 2011. “Having actors that have become so comfortable moving and embracing their own skill set and style is rewarding.” One of his favorite things to do, he said, was to incorporate “inside dance jokes” into the show’s official choreography. “There are numbers that have ‘moves’ borrowed from the cast and crew’s off-screen jams,” Woodlee said. “Valerie,” for example, incorporated dance moves from both the show’s Steadicam operator and its director of photography.

The cast didn’t have much time to record songs or learn choreography.

When Glee first started, its stars, music producers, and choreographers were able to take their time recording songs and learning dances. That changed as the show got more and more popular. “We used to spend a whole day on one song. Now we have 30 minutes,” Anders told The Hollywood Reporter in 2011, noting that he and his team were working on as many as 10 songs at a time, literally around the clock (when he went to bed, his partner in Sweden would pick up where he had left off). “We finished a song in a day once, ‘The Living Years,’ but I don't ever want to do that again,” Anders said. “That was awful.” That same year, assistant choreographer Brooke Lipton told Us Weekly that “we're learning numbers in an hour, and they’re performing, because time is so limited with the show rolling along.”

The show attracted some A-list guest stars.

The number of A-list stars who appeared on Glee is huge, so you’d be forgiven if you’ve forgotten about some of them. Wicked star Kristen Chenoweth played a drunken classmate of Mr. Schuester’s, while Wicked’s other star, Idina Menzel, played a rival glee club coach. (So did rapper Eve.) Gwyneth Paltrow appeared on several episodes as a substitute teacher. Gloria Estefan was Santana’s mom; Ken Jeong and Jennifer Coolidge were Brittany’s parents; Jeff Goldblum and Bryan Stokes Mitchell played Rachel’s dads. Pop stars like Ricky Martin, Demi Lovato, and Adam Lambert popped in. Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan made cameos. Patti Lupone played herself.

There were some stars who were in talks to appear, but didn’t, including Anne Hathaway, Javier Bardem, and Jennifer Lopez.

There was a Glee reality show spin-off …

It wasn’t long before Glee’s success spawned The Glee Project, in which talented fans vied for a spot on the show. Grammy Award-winning singer Lizzo auditioned, but didn’t make the cut. The Glee Project ran for two seasons.

… But another planned spin-off didn’t go forward.

There were plans for another spin-off, this one scripted, that featured McKinley High graduates Rachel, Kurt, and Finn attending Juilliard. According to Murphy, he spoke with the actors about leaving Glee for a spin-off long before the news broke that Season 3 would be their last—but when he made the announcement the characters would be graduating, word spread that the actors said they had found out they’d been fired from Glee on Twitter. “I think that some of those actors’ representatives spun it in a certain way, to be quite honest, I don’t understand,” Murphy told Deadline. Fox hit pause on the spin-off, which was shelved permanently. Colfer, Michele, and Monteith all stayed on Glee.

Some of the cast did more than just act in the show.

Morrison made his directorial debut on the show’s 2011 Christmas episode. Colfer wrote the Season 5 episode “Old Dog, New Tricks.” And Darren Criss, who played Blaine Anderson, wrote the series finale song “This Time” for Michele to sing.

After Glee ended, one of the actors took a couch home from the set.

Glee ended its run in 2015 after 121 episodes, and each of the actors took home souvenirs of their time on the show. Many went for clothes: Lynch nabbed a few of Sue’s tracksuits that she intended to auction off for charity, while Riley took the shoes she wore during “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Criss snagged pieces of the choir room’s soundproofing tiles, as well as the green couch from the McKinley High principal’s office. “I've been waiting forever to take [that] couch,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s this beautiful green leather couch that I took many naps on.” Michele’s keepsake was a framed jersey belonging to Finn, who died on the show after Monteith, Michele’s real-life boyfriend, passed away of an overdose of heroin and alcohol in 2013. “That was always very special to me,” she said of the jersey. “I'm glad that they allowed me to keep it.”

Glee broke a record held by Elvis.

The cast of Glee recorded more than 705 songs over six seasons, including a few originals. In 2011, the show broke a record previously held by Elvis: Most Singles on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. At that point, the cast had 113 singles on the chart to The King’s then-108; ultimately, 207 Glee songs reached the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

The most-covered artist on Glee was The Beatles.

The title of most-covered artist goes to The Beatles; Glee covered a whopping 19 of the Fab Four’s songs. Coming in a close second is Madonna, with 18 songs (which doesn’t include a song that was recorded but only used in the background of an episode). Other oft-featured artists included Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, and, of course, Journey.

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