While FOX's Emmy-nominated "Glee" doesn't kick off its third season until next Tuesday, co-creator/executive producer Ryan Murphy invited some of the press, including our Jim Halterman, to view the season premiere (entitled "The Purple Piano Project" and directed by Eric Stoltz) earlier today on the Fox lot in Los Angeles. Following the screening, Murphy stuck around to field questions about how he's incorporating some of the contestants from this summer's "Glee Project" into the show, the state of the much-talked-about "Glee" spin-off and a few teases such as the return on Idina Menzel and exactly how many tribute shows will happen this year.
Even though a big portion of the talk about the new season has been called "back to basics," much of the first episode treads very familiar ground such as the kids breaking into song (a cafeteria number set to the Go-Go's classic "We Got The Beat," for one) and the biggest foe to the New Directions Glee Club still being Sue Sylvester (played by Emmy nominee Jane Lynch). Sue's latest scheme in the new season, however, is not just to get rid of McKinley High's Glee Club but educational arts programs altogether. Murphy explained that he didn't have to go too far for what sparked that story. "The inspiration for that was simply we'd been reading last year where a lot of politicians were on board to cut back the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) so that was the idea."
A more surprising portion of the season premiere, however, is the appearance of "The Glee Project" runner-up Lindsay Pearce in a musical number. Since the competition on the Oxygen reality show just wrapped recently, did Murphy and the writers always know they wanted Lindsay? "It was a little weird," explained Murphy, "because we were shooting that number before the [finale] of the 'Glee Project' aired so we built that big conference hotel set on the stage and sort of cloaked [Lindsay] under, I believe, a blanket and we were nervous about that getting out so we kept delaying it but that part had already been written. I just said 'Why not Lindsay?'"
Murphy also shared how the other "Glee Project" contestants will be incorporated on the show. "Damian (McGinty, co-winner) comes in episode four, which I love, which Adam Shankman is directing and we're shooting right now. He's a foreign exchange student who is living with Brittany, who believes he is a leprechaun with magical powers. I'm really thrilled with Damian because he doesn't have a lot of acting experience so he was very nervous and I think on his first day he was shoved into a locker 25 times. But, without saying what the song is, [after] the first taping of his first song the crew gave him a huge ovation and he got a little emotional." Murphy added that Sam Larsen (the other co-winner) will appear in episode 10 or 11, possibly as a relative to Puck (Mark Salling) and that runner-up Alex Newell will also turn up later in the season.
With all the new talent at his disposal, Murphy shared his thoughts on how "Glee" is akin to another musical series that is iconic in its own right. "I think 'Glee' has become a sort of modern 'American Bandstand;' it's what I love about it. I love that we found Darren Criss (Blaine). You look at Darren Criss, for example. Nine months ago he was obviously established and he was going on auditions and look at him now. He just played opposite Kristen Wiig and Annette Bening [in the movie 'Imogene']. He's going to be the lead in a Broadway show (he's taking over for star Daniel Radcliffe in 'How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying' for three weeks in early 2012). That's what's amazing is to find talent like that."
Despite the new talent that keeps popping up in FOX series, Murphy insisted that his focus this year is going to be on the core "Glee" cast members as opposed to guest stars and big tribute episodes. "The stars of the show are the stars of the show and particularly this year I want to give a lot of air time to the characters that people love. There are a lot of characters that people, I believe, have felt are a bit under serviced." That said, last year's regular Chord Overstreet is gone and Ashley Fink (who plays Lauren) also leaves New Directions, which also leaves her romance with Puck in the balance. Unlike Overstreet, though, Murphy confirmed that Fink, "will be back in a really big story with Chris Colfer (who plays Kurt) and those two are very close and I know Chris is very excited about that."
Outside of these cast changes, Murphy, also lightly acknowledged how he found himself in the middle of a press brouhaha this summer when he spoke about regulars Colfer, Cory Monteith and Lea Michele possibly graduating from high school at the end of season three and, perhaps, leaving the show altogether. Today, Murphy joked and said, "I would never again say that people are leaving. I have learned my lesson. Never again will you hear me say that!"
But what is his plan for this senior year and how he may or may not keep some of the seniors around beyond season three? "I think it's a big, big world and I think not everybody... I think there's lots of things they could do. I think they could become teachers. I think they could become college students. We would never do 'Glee: The College Years' but I think there are very organic ways that you could keep them on the show and keep them and keep the audience invested. You know, the show is always going to be about that core."
One thing Murphy did not rule out was talk about a potential "Glee" spin-off and he offered up a status update as to where things stand. "It's no secret that we had talked about a spin-off. We had talked about it and we had talked about, 'Well, who is going to go?' and then things became what they became and Brad [Falchuk] and Ian [Brennan] and I and Dana [Walden] and Gary [Newman) and Kevin [Reilly] and Peter [Rice] all said, 'Let's not talk about that right now. The show ends with the core group and many of them graduating and you figuring out what their futures are so let's wait until the spring to make that decision.'" Murphy cited that he and Falchuk are also a bit busier now that they're running their second series, FX's upcoming "American Horror Story," so it might be best to wait. "Things are very different and I think it's better to just concentrate on making this the best year that we've ever done and I, so far, feel that that's what we have done simply because we haven't worried about the other stuff."
Finally, Murphy was able to give a few teases for what fans will see when new episodes of "Glee" launch next week. While there are no plans to bring back Gwyneth Paltrow at this point, singer/actress Idina Menzel will return for at least six episodes as Rachel's mother, Shelby Corcoran. She'll be involved in a "juicy" story involving bad girl Quinn (Dianna Agron) and will also be a teacher at the school. Murphy also teased that Menzel could stick around longer. "It was going to be six episodes but her stuff has been so great and people have loved it and I think it's so unexpectedly dramatic and juicy that we'll probably do more. I love her being with Lea; I love that relationship but I also love her being with Quinn."
Another reveal he offered was that we would not see as many tribute episodes. "One thing about the tributes," he explained, "is I think we did them great and I love them and people would rag on them but they were always our highest rated shows... I think this year we're going to do one huge tribute that, I hope, is going to be a two-hour event in the spring that we've been working on clearing for a year and a half and I think that will be the only tribute that we do." Of course for now at least, he is keeping the subject of the potential tribute a secret.
The third season premiere of "Glee" airs Tuesday, September 20 at 8:00/7:00c on FOX.