A song in their hearts

And on their curriculums, as universities Glee-fully cater to song-and-dance wannabes

A song in their hearts

UWO students belt one out. Suddenly, perfoming seems like a viable career choice. | Photograph by Andrew Tolson

Thank the Gleeks. First, the fans of the hit TV show Glee made singing and dancing programs cool in high schools everywhere. Now, just as the high-schoolers on Glee will wind up going to the same college, Glee-mania is migrating to real-life universities.

According to Jazz Times magazine, American universities have “noted a sharp rise in student interest and enrolment” in choral and music programs, and some have created new groups to meet the Glee-fuelled demand. Ditto in Canada. Earlier this year, after two students at Carleton University started the school’s first glee club, one of the founders, Emile Scheffel, told the school paper the Charlatan that, “I got, like, 47 comments from people wanting to join in the first two hours.” It could be only a matter of time before Glee mania becomes as ubiquitous in school as it is on TV.

Students and teachers alike say that they’re noticing a Glee-inspired impact on the popularity of that type of performance. James Medeiros, a graduate student in music literature and performance at the University of Western Ontario, says that the show is changing the old perception of musical theatre as “old-fashioned, too over-the-top and generally uncool,” and “making it far more popular” among the younger generation.

“Shows like Glee have made the style accessible.” Mark Sussman, assistant professor at Concordia University, adds that “it has an impact on students’ perception of the culture of the theatre department.”

The show’s power is even felt at universities that never associated themselves with show tunes. Cynthia Ashperger, director of the acting program at Ryerson University, was told by one of the music instructors that more and more students “seem to be singing and dancing. Our focus isn’t on musical theatre, but still he’s getting a lot of students in the music department who can sing and dance really well, and he attributes it to the TV show.” James Crooks, director of the singing program at Bishop’s University in Quebec, notes that the university choir, once dominated by women, “last year had approximately 140 people and of those, about 55 or 60 were guys. So something is going on.”

Glee is just the latest in a string of shows that make performing seem like a viable career choice. Charlene Kulbaba, at the University of Winnipeg’s School of Contemporary Dancers, says there’s been a dramatic rise in enrolment, and that when they ask students why they signed up, “nearly all of them have said it is because of the show So You Think You Can Dance.”

But there’s something special about Glee, because it makes students want to do every possible kind of performance. In the drama department, Ashperger explains, instead of specialization, “the acting students are singing. Dancing not as much, but some of them are.”

This interest in multidisciplinary performing isn’t good news for every theatre department. Gwen Dobie, who teaches theatre at York University, noticed that at their first-year orientation, “quite a few of our students asked me if we have a musical theatre program,” and the problem is that “it isn’t in fact what we specialize in.”

But Glee is helping to paint a picture that’s truer to the demands of modern theatre. For one thing, the show is about people who have to be strong in all aspects of performance, and this may be pretty much the way things are today: “No longer can you just be one thing—singer, dancer or actor,” says George Randolph of Randolph Academy in Toronto. “You’ve got to be excellent in one area and have potential in the other two.”

“Our job is to help kids get into the professional theatre and get them jobs,” adds Kayla Gordon, who has taught acting and musical theatre at the University of Winnipeg, and so it’s helpful that TV is opening up new interests for students “who wouldn’t normally have taken a singing class.”

Glee, then, could be part of a growing trend toward combining theatre disciplines into one. Of course, students may be surprised when they discover, as Medeiros says, that you can’t “be handed the sheet music to a song and perfectly sight-read it while executing flawless and unrehearsed choreography.” But that may just be the first thing drama departments will have to teach the new recruits.

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