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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Class of 2012: Graduating Gleevas!

I could write you a detailed thesis on why Glee is the most important TV show to have been created this century. I truly believe its portrayal of the full range of human diversity in a prime time, family-oriented show on American network television will come to be seen as a landmark moment in popular culture. However, I do not write a TV blog (now there's an idea...), I write about extraordinary female singers, which brings me back to Glee. As a show focusing on a High School show choir, New Directions, it uses music to drive its storylines, so needs performers who can both act and sing; a rare combination of talents. While the show has many competent singers, it has a few shining stars, whose performances alone make this must-see TV for me. I would love to eulogise Darren Criss, but he's not a woman, so I will instead focus on three amazing Gleevas whose characters are all due to graduate from McKinley High in the coming weeks. Their future in the show may be uncertain, but I'm sure their music careers are only just beginning.

Lea Michele - Leading Lady

As proto-diva Rachel Berry, Lea Michele is central to the success of Glee. The character is a familiar staple of musicals, the ruthless starlet who will do anything to make it to the top. That Rachel remains loveable in the face of some ghastly character moments has much to do with Lea's ability to break the audience's heart with little more than a sideways look or quivering lip. And then there is that voice.

Lea has the magic diva combination of range, power, tone and expression, which means she can pretty much sing anything. She is undoubtedly Glee's leading lady, with the lion's share of solos, but importantly she is equally excellent when sharing the stage. She is able to mold her voice to match a wide range of duet partners, always generously sharing the space rather than trying to outdo the other singer. Lea is particularly strong when her duet partner can match her vocal ability, as this allows her to let rip. A great example of this was when she duetted with Idina Menzel, who plays her mother in the show, on Somewhere from West Side Story. Both start the song gently, expressing every lyric, before their voices join on a truly epic crescendo. It's a must hear.

Glee has showcased a number of classic musical numbers and Rachel is more often than not at the centre of these performances. Lea is able to make Rachel believable as a budding Broadway star because she is the real deal herself. She has been performing on the Great White Way since childhood, with roles in Les Misérables and Ragtime, and as an adult she originated the critically-acclaimed role of Wendla in Duncan Sheik's hit musical Spring Awakening. Lea is a huge fan of her fellow New Yorker and Broadway star, Barbra Streisand, and, no surprise, so is Rachel Berry. Lea/Rachel has gotten to fulfil her inner Barbra a number of times on the show, covering songs the great one made famous. The best example of this was her version of Don't Rain On My Parade from Funny Girl. It must have been nerve-wracking for Lea to take on such an iconic number by her heroine, but she pulls it off with aplomb, matching Babs note for note.

Lea is not just a show singer though, she has also put in some remarkable pop performances in the show. My personal favourite was her take on Rihanna's Take A Bow way back in season one. She takes this R&B number and makes it her own, giving it a fresh pop feel and a sense of heartbreak and loss not evident in the original. Which all begs the question when will we hear a Lea Michele solo album? Not anytime soon it appears. When interviewed by Billboard recently she said "I feel like I've already made... like five albums in these past three years... I'm never going to say I'll never do it, but it will probably be down the road." It seems extraordinary to me that Lea isn't making this a priority. Sure we're being regularly treated to her voice on Glee, but these are her prime vocal years and it seems a waste not to be exploring her talent with other producers and songwriters right now. I'm sure Rachel Berry wouldn't miss such an opportunity.

Amber Riley - Heart and Soul

Mercedes Jones is a self proclaimed "diva-in-training who refuses to sing back-up" and Amber Riley does an amazing job at bringing her to life. Mercedes has often had to play second fiddle to Rachel on the show, which has led to some great drama, including when she broke off from New Directions to form her own rival Glee club, the Troubletones. While this may work in the fiction of the TV series, it is a redundant comparison in real life. Amber and Lea are completely different singers. Amber in my book is the heir apparent to the Queen of Soul. If you doubt me then just listen to her sing Aretha's Ain't No Way. This girl has serious chops. Amber performed this at the Glee live concert and she blew the roof of the arena when she sang, it was goose pimple central.

Not that Amber cannot sing a show tune when she wants to. It seemed inevitable that Mercedes would get to sing the Dreamgirls showstopper And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going after the success Jennifer Hudson had with that song in the movie version. I am not going to get into a fight over who sang it best, I stood up and applauded Jennifer in the cinema when I saw her rendition, along with most of the audience, but I know those who think Jennifer Holliday's interpretation in the original show is unbeatable. What is indisputable is that Amber's version is in the running, as she sings the heck out of it. She auditioned for the part in the movie and if she sang it that way in the audition, it must have been a close call with Jennifer for the part.

Unlike Lea, Amber is working on her first album. It will be interesting to see what genre she opts for, I suspect it will be R&B and the record company will look to pitch her in the Jennifer/Beyoncé/Rihanna club, but I think that would be a missed opportunity. With the passing of Whitney there is a gap for a powerhouse pop diva, who can cross the pop and R&B genres. She has the ability, just listen to her version of Christina Aguilera's Beautiful from Glee's first season for proof. She has heart as well as soul and can meld pop lightness with deep emotion and passion. Regardless of her choice of musical direction, I look forward to hearing much more from Amber in the future.

Naya Rivera - Songbird

For me the most underrated voice on Glee belongs to Naya Rivera, who plays the saucy, snarly Santana Lopez. Originally a supporting character, Santana soon became a fan favourite as McKinley High's queen of mean and was promoted to cast regular in Season Two. Happily her character's promotion meant that Naya was increasingly used in musical numbers, gaining her first solo in The Rocky Horror Glee Show episode in Season Two. The first time she made a lasting impression on me though was when she took on Amy Winehouse's Back To Black, a tall order for any singer. Naya did a great job of it and she shares some of Amy's vocal darkness, if not her deep soul tones. Naya is more of a pop singer and I adore the rich tone of her voice. I began to get excited every time she was featured in the show and grew to love her more with each performance.

My favourite Naya performance to date was her emotional reading of Fleetwood Mac's Songbird in the Rumours episode. Santana started on the show as a bit of a maneater, but fell in love with fellow cheerleader Brittany S. Pierce (one of Glee's finer comic characters) and begins to expose her feelings more publicly in this number. It is sweetly delivered, full of subtlety and shows Naya's vocal talents to full effect.

Given she has to compete with her castmates for solos, Naya is more often heard in duets and ensemble numbers. She has been paired a number of times with Amber and their voices work particularly well together. They give a storming rendition of River Deep, Mountain High, but my personal fave is their Adele mash-up Rumour Has It/Someone Like You. It is getting a bit tiresome hearing every reality TV show wannabe diva taking on Adele, but these girls keep it fresh on a great arrangement, not trying to be Adele, just confident in their own talents.

Glee is Naya's big break after a career of TV bit-parts and nearly roles. I have the feeling she is on the verge of greatness, as she has appeared to grow significantly in confidence and ability during her time on the show. She signed a recording deal with Columbia Records a year ago, so we can only hope this means a first solo album is not far away. Naya may have to fight for centre stage on Glee, but I have a feeling in the real world of pop she may leave the other Gleevas trailing in her wake.

Hard acts to follow...

So with Rachel, Mercedes and Santana all set to graduate, who is going to step into their shoes as New Direction next generation of Gleevas? There's no heir apparent in the current cast, so no doubt Ryan Murphy and his team will be scouring the country looking for new female stars. It's rumoured that Lea will be back in Season Four, but for the show to be believable in its High School setting it needs to bring on new talent. The reality show The Glee Project is back soon, so maybe a star will emerge from that process. Whoever is cast will be stepping into some big diva shoes, so they better bring it (as they say in showbusiness) and prove there is life after graduation.

If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link: Graduating Gleevas!

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