Fox’s new high school musical dramedy has had the blogosphere buzzing all summer in anticipation. Glee star Jenna Ushkowitz prepares to join the in-crowd.
ISSUE: Fall 2009
DEPT: Girl Talk
STORY: Janice Jann
A dash of High School Musical, a pinch of Election, a slice of saucy adolescent drama topped with pop medleys both nostalgic and trendy, and you almost have the irresistible concoction of Fox’s most anticipated series of the fall, Glee. I say “almost” because Nip Tuck creator Ryan Murphy’s new musical dramedy creation is unlike anything else seen on television recently.
Glee centers around an ambitious young teacher, Will Schuester (played by Matthew Morrison), hoping to lead the high school glee club’s ragtag team of misfits to the national show choir competition. Facing the oppressive caste system that is high school hierarchy, with its stereotypes, teen angst and over-the-top drama, Will realizes that it’s going to be a rough ride to nationals.
What Will does have going for him, though, is a hodgepodge of diamond-in-the-rough outcasts who can carry one heck of a tune. And while the show doesn’t officially start until September 9, the glee club has already set off a fan frenzy with their rendition of Journey’s 1981 hit “Don’t Stop Believin’,” featured in the pilot, which aired in a sneak peek preview last May. The cover immediately shot to the number one downloaded song on iTunes and the Youtube versions have had more than half a million hits each. The show already has garnered three Teen Choice nominations and critical praise all around.
One glee club member is Jenna Ushkowitz. She plays Tina Cohen-Chang, a shy punk-goth chick who can belt out a rendition of I Kissed a Girl that would fluster Katy Perry herself. The Seoul, Korea-born Ushkowitz, adopted from Korea at the age of 3 months by a Polish-Italian father and Irish-English mother, is no stranger to the stage. Ushkowitz’s parents started taking their daughter to auditions and casting calls when she was 3.
“When I started, people would always tell my parents, ‘Jenna is a funny little girl,’” says Ushkowitz. “I would just go up to people in restaurants and say hi. I was very outgoing.”
Ushkowitz is similarly bright and chipper during our early morning phone interview. And why shouldn’t she be? With a primetime spot after juggernaut American Idol, all indicators point to Glee becoming one successful incoming freshman.
“It has been the most amazing experience and the most exhausting,” says Ushkowitz. “I don’t think anybody has ever done anything like this before, so a lot of hard work and experimenting and creating as we go along, but it’s been so rewarding.”
No stranger to hard work, Ushkowitz’s résumé is peppered with appearances on Sesame Street and As the World Turns, as well as roles in Broadway’s The King and I and Spring Awakening. Despite having appeared in The King and I at the age of 9, Ushkowitz didn’t discover her love for song and dance until high school. “I went to a Catholic performing arts school, so along with taking regular and religion classes, there was also theatre, dancing and choir,” she says. “I loved high school.”
Stop the record. That’s something you would never hear Ushkowitz’s alter ego, Tina, utter.
“Tina’s a little quieter, a little less involved,” Ushkowitz admits. “I did everything I could possibly do. I was in student council and high school musical. But I was also a total theatre geek. People would make fun of us.”
While Ushkowitz says it’s refreshing to play a character so unlike herself in real life, staying in character may not be the hardest part about her new job. “In theatre, you have six weeks and then you do your show,” she says. “In TV it’s different every time. They’re two different beasts, but I would say TV is a lot harder, a lot more time consuming because you’re rehearsing for a new show every week as well as shooting a TV show. So you’re rehearsing all the time.”
With never-ending rehearsals, rigorous shooting schedules, not to mention all the promotional appearances, Ushkowitz has hardly had any time to think about the skyrocketing stardom looming in the horizon. When asked about her impending fame, Ushkowitz laughs. “That’s a good way to put it,” she says. “Everyone says to us, ‘It’s going to be a hit, it’s going to be a hit,’ and all you can do is work hard and just cross your fingers. I don’t think any of us is thinking, ‘Oh, we’re going to be famous.’”
For now, Ushkowitz is content with being a “gleek,” the term Fox is using to promote the show. She toured the country with her castmates this summer as a part of “The Gleek Tour,” stopping by malls from New York to Denver to Los Angeles. “I would definitely consider myself a gleek,” says Ushkowitz. And it looks like, come fall, so will everyone else.
Glee airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT, starting September 9.