Welcome to the club
He didn’t sing. But for his new TV show, ‘Glee,’ Brad Falchuk drew on his days as a Newton high schooler hungry for notice.
Back in the late 1980s, when Brad Falchuk was a student at Beaver Country Day School in Newton, he found a particular way to stand out: Amid his trendy and mostly-liberal classmates, he declared himself a young Republican. He wore a tie to school every day. He channeled Gordon Gekko.
Times have changed; Falchuk, 38, says he’s no longer a Republican, and as a television writer and director, he doesn’t always need to wear a tie. But for “Glee,’’ his new Fox series about the aspirations of a high school show choir, he reached back for 20-year-old memories. Several students at fictional McKinley High School are named for his high school friends. And there’s a deeper connection between the schoolboy in the tie and the characters who go to extremes for recognition: the overachieving ingenue who posts video of herself online, singing overwrought ballads from “Les Miserables’’; the slender gay kid who tries out for the football team to please his dad, and shimmies toward the ball to the strains of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).’’
“Glee’’ is often farce, but sometimes it isn’t; the characters go through serious crises, suffer real anxieties, live a high school life that, like Falchuk’s, is bittersweet. He has kept a group of tight-knit friends who still take trips together, but he also remembers being dyslexic, undiagnosed, and insecure.
“I was always trying to look smart because I didn’t feel smart,’’ he recalls. And there’s something universal about that. Even in a 50-person high school class, “the dynamics are the same,’’ Falchuk says. “Everyone is searching for something. And usually what they’re searching for is to be heard or to be seen. . . . I was desperate to be seen. For someone to see me for who I was.’’
“Glee,’’ one of the new fall TV series with the biggest preseason buzz, is a mix of Falchuk’s experience and that of his two co-creators: actor and fledgling screenwriter Ian Brennan, who grew up a drama geek in Chicago, and Ryan Murphy, who came of age as a gay kid in Indiana. (“Glee’’ has developed particular buzz in the gay community, and has spawned at least one viewing party in the South End for the Sept. 9 premiere.) Murphy went on to create “Nip/Tuck,’’ the edgy FX drama about a plastic surgery practice, which shares with “Glee’’ an arch sensibility and embrace of the absurd.
Falchuk has been a writer on “Nip/Tuck’’ since its inception, and collaborated with Murphy a couple of years ago on a pilot for a drama about a transsexual gynecologist in Connecticut. (FX bought the pilot, but didn’t pick up the series. “Nip/Tuck,’’ meanwhile, launches its sixth season on FX on Oct. 14. The seventh and final season will air in 2010.)
For their next TV project, Falchuk says, he and Murphy wanted a subject that wasn’t quite so dark. Fox executives, meanwhile, inspired by their hit “American Idol,’’ were looking for a scripted series with music - songs that could be sold on iTunes the day after they aired on TV. Brennan had written a screenplay about high school show choirs, and when word reached Murphy, the three men got together.
They developed a pitch for a one-hour comedy that featured pop songs, re-imagined and meticulously produced. In the pilot, a rival show choir does a Broadway version of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab;’’ another episode features a rollicking group-sing of Kanye West’s “Gold Digger.’’ And while the characters aren’t always kind to one another, Falchuk says, no one will ever poke fun at anyone for the act of singing and dancing.
With Nip/Tuck, “the idea was always, ‘What’s the cynical turn to the story? What’s the dark turn?’ ’’ Falchuk says, “With ‘Glee,’ it was the opposite . . . really embrace how great it is to sing and dance and how great it feels to express yourself.’’
That idea is sometimes easier to appreciate when high school is long past, says Arthur Stroyman, an old friend of Falchuk’s - and the namesake for a “Glee’’ character named Artie. Stroyman helped Falchuk make horror films as a teenager, and drove to California with him 15 years ago, when Falchuk was headed for film school at the American Film Institute.
The Artie in the show uses a wheelchair. The real-life Stroyman was more of a high school jock. And at Beaver, Stroyman says, he never fully understood the artsy kids.
“It’s not easy to go onstage and sort of bare your soul like that,’’ Stroyman says. “I never really appreciated what they did.’’
Falchuk was never a musical theater guy himself; his taste in songs, he says, “sort of begins and ends with Springsteen.’’ But while the “Glee’’ soundtrack comes largely from Murphy, who “literally has the iTunes library in his brain,’’ Falchuk says he managed to insert a few songs of his own. “If it’s classic rock or Springsteen covered it, I probably got it in,’’ he says. That and a Fenway Park inspired version of “Sweet Caroline.’’
He also largely contributes the voice of the jocks in the show. A former baseball, basketball, and lacrosse player, Falchuk says he relates most to the character of Finn, the quarterback who realizes, to his teammates’ chagrin, that he likes the stage as much as the football field.
Other aspects of Falchuk’s life have made it into “Glee,’’ as well. He had a serious health scare last year: a problem with his spinal cord, diagnosed by Best Doctors Inc., the Boston medical consulting firm that his father started and his brother now runs. He had emergency spinal surgery last fall and feared he would never walk again. And while he has recovered almost fully, his ordeal inspired a “Glee’’ episode in which the cast performs a number in wheelchairs.
The staff at Beaver Country Day is both amused and impressed with how Falchuk makes a living, says Peter Gow, Falchuk’s high school history teacher, who still works at the school as director of college counseling and special programs. Beaver recently gave Falchuk an award for co-creating the Young Storytellers Foundation, a program that helps fourth-graders in Los Angeles public schools create their own screenplays, and brings in famous actors for staged readings.
“He gets to poke fun at the world while doing good in it at the same time - nice combination!’’ Gow wrote in an e-mail.
But while high school clearly provided material for “Glee,’’ leaving it behind helped to inform the show, too, Falchuk says.
“The East Coast, and certainly Boston, has a provincial quality to it that makes it harder to bust out and move up,’’ Falchuk says. “Try to be too different and they’ll pull you down. . . . What we’re trying to say is, ‘You know what? It’s OK to be different. And we all know how hard that struggle is.’ ’’