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Glee: The show heard round the world

The cast and crew talk about the season finale and beyond

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Although it?s difficult to fathom, the original pilot script for Glee did not contain Sue Sylvester. The viciously snarky Cheerios coach (and the woman who rivals Run-DMC and New Jersey housewives in her love of tracksuits) was actually a late addition—a change instigated by Fox Entertainment president Kevin Reilly. ?On our first phone call, Kevin said, ?You need a villain,?? remembers Glee co-creator Ryan Murphy. ?And I said, ?You know, you?re right.? I knew exactly who she is. I said, ?Her name is Sue Sylvester. And she is the cheerleading coach. And she may be on horse estrogen.?? With those three sentences, a television icon was born.

No doubt Sue?s popularity has been helped immeasurably by the woman who sports the warm-up suits: Jane Lynch. The 49-year-old character actress—who until now was best known for her scene-stealing supporting roles in Best in Show, Role Models, and The 40 Year-Old Virgin—has become the prom queen of this year?s TV season, winning accolades (she was nominated for a Golden Globe) and Gleek adoration. During her EW photo shoot, Lynch was mobbed like a rock star in New York City?s West Village—even Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman stopped to watch her in action.

Off screen, Lynch is also an out lesbian and is engaged to psychologist Lara Embry. The actress says that she?s proud to be a role model for those viewers who face prejudice due to their sexuality. ?There are kids out in unnamed spaces where it?s not a welcoming atmosphere for their sexual orientation. And to see somebody living their life openly I think is a good thing,? she says. ?I wish I had had that when I was young.? Mostly, though, Lynch loves her day job, and says Glee?s success hasn?t changed much on the set. ?It?s been wonderful and surreal,? she says, but ?we all still get up and go to work and do our thing. The bottom line is we do it because we love it, and we?d be doing it if our ratings were in the toilet.?

Luckily, Glee?s ratings are nowhere near porcelain-bowl territory. In fact, since the show returned from a four-month hiatus and nabbed the prime slot behind American Idol, viewership has grown 70 percent, from 7.3 million to 12.4 million. But it?s more than just a ratings hit: Glee has become the industry?s biggest story of the year. It has spawned three albums that have sold 1.6 million copies (that doesn?t even include the fourth one, which was just released), and the cast?s covers of songs such as Madonna?s ?Like a Prayer? and Queen?s ?Somebody to Love? routinely hit the top-downloads chart on iTunes. And last week, the cast embarked on a four-city tour, with the first concerts in Phoenix drawing sold-out crowds. ?I never thought the show would even last,? says Murphy. ?I just didn?t think people would get it. It truly is a show that the fans think is theirs, that they discovered it.? And the Gleek ranks are growing by the minute, with the show also thriving overseas. ?The international story is bloody amazing,? says Rob Stringer, chairman of Columbia/Epic, Glee?s label. ?In Canada, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand—the Glee franchise is expanding, and the good news is the results are similar.? Now with only two episodes before the finale (the most expensive hour yet), the show has to walk a delicate line by continuing to appease fans but also avoiding an overexposure-inspired flameout. Lynch, for her part, has only experienced fans? exuberance for the series. ?Everyone has affection for Sue. Nobody is afraid of her. Or, if they are, they stay away from me.?

Of course, there is much more to Glee than just Sue Sylvester, and the kids in fictional choral group New Directions will have their hands full in the last few episodes of season 1. Before the team competes in regionals, there will be two installments, including the much-anticipated May 25 Lady Gaga episode, featuring ?Bad Romance? and ?Poker Face.? Then on June 8 comes the season-finale matchup Gleeks have been waiting all year to see: New Directions finally face their adversaries, Vocal Adrenaline. The New Directions singers, including on-again/off-again couple Rachel (Lea Michele) and Finn (Cory Monteith), will once again cover Journey, with the pair duetting to the band?s ?Faithfully.? After that, the rest of the club will join in for a medley that climaxes with a Journey tune that Glee viewers know quite well. ?We sing ?Don?t Stop Believin? again in the finale,? reveals Monteith. ?It?s part of a larger tribute to what the show is, but with a wink.? Meanwhile, Jesse St. James (Jonathan Groff) and Vocal Adrenaline tackle Queen?s ?Bohemian Rhapsody? in a number so intense that four of the backup dancers were hurt. Says Murphy, ?It was a really rough day, but worth it.? Also, look for Quinn (Dianna Agron) to give birth, Emma (Jayma Mays) to reveal a potential new boyfriend, and Will (Matthew Morrison) and Sue to share some final moments that Murphy calls ?incredibly touching.?

Michele says filming the season ender was emotional for the cast and crew. ?We are just crying the entire final episode,? remembers the actress. ?I don?t know how [they?re going] to edit it.? While most of the major story lines will be neatly tied up, the finale will have a major cliff-hanger for the New Directions gang. Says Murphy, ?It ends with: What will be the future of the club? Will they be able to continue or not? And if they can?t continue, what will happen to them all??

Well, we do know that for the rest of May, the whole New Directions crew will be performing live in that four-city concert tour. The elaborate hour-and-a-half production features 22 of the series? hit songs, as well as an opening performance by dance squad the Legion of Extraordinary Dancers (featuring cast member Harry Shum Jr.) ?There?s no pitch correction, there?s no safety net,? says Monteith, who never had professional vocal training prior to the series. ?It?s a serious rock-concert show with lights and pyrotechnics and people suspended by cables. They?re pulling out all the stops. People are going to freak out.? Some of those lucky fans may even have a shot at being part of the Glee spectacle. Producers initiated a nationwide casting call last spring for three new roles they plan to add in season 2: a potential love interest for Mercedes (Amber Riley), a boyfriend for Kurt (Chris Colfer), and a Carrie Underwood-esque fundamentalist Christian who will be a rival to Rachel. ?When people hear we?re going to do that, they will expect that we?re making fun of her,? says Murphy. ?We?re not. The show is about inclusiveness and about giving voices to a lot of people.? The casting call has yielded more than 34,000 video entries, and the Glee team is perusing all of them. Murphy is also considering leaking some of the audition tapes online this summer as a tease.

But with all this success and media saturation comes the inevitable backlash. The TV landscape is littered with shows that started as zeitgeist-changing phenoms and cooled quickly (the recently canceled Heroes, The O.C.). And the criticisms of Glee have already started, with barbs like They?re covering that song now? and claims that the show sacrifices the likability of its characters for a laugh. Then there are rumors that the cast is acting out. (Most recently, there were reports that Michele was rude to a photographer at the TIME 100 dinner, but the actress later tweeted that her reaction was a poor attempt at humor.) Glee also found itself pulled into a controversy after a Newsweek columnist wrote that he had trouble believing Groff, who is gay, in a heterosexual role. Murphy responded by labeling the article ?blatantly homophobic? and calling for a boycott of the magazine.

The question becomes: Can Glee maintain the momentum now that it?s under the media microscope? Murphy says he?s aware of the pitfalls. ?I told [the kids] at the beginning, ?When you burn hot, there will always be a moment when they turn on you, and then they?ll come back around. You just have to learn how to navigate it.? Now you can feel we?ve gone from sort of America?s squeaky-clean sweetheart to ?Lea Michele snubs photographer!? Like, really?? And Fox?s Reilly has a message for fans: Don?t Stop Believin?. ?I worry about everything. Every show has its ebb and flow. People like it and they wanna eat it up right now. Fortunately, we?re going to take a summer off and come back. Every time I watch the show, I breathe easier because it?s delivering the goods.?

When the series returns this fall, Glee mania will be in full force, and Gleeks will be able to get their hands on branded merchandise such as apparel and videogames. ?We?re trying to do everything we can do to make this show feel exclusive and roll things out in a measured way, to slowly build the intensity as opposed to just blowing it out,? says 20th Century Fox Television chairman Gary Newman. Murphy also approves each piece of merchandise, and promises it won?t be too over-the-top. ?I?ve been very conscious, as has Fox, not to put too much out,? he says. ?You don?t want Glee bath towels with Lea Michele?s face on them. You don?t want life-size Glee huggable pillows.? (Um, yeah, we kinda do.) The complete first season will be released on DVD in September with a plethora of extras, including a karaoke feature and hours of bonus footage. Another extension that should please fans is a planned autobiography of Sue Sylvester (slated for this fall), penned by Glee co-creator Ian Brennan and containing tales of her Nazi-hunter parents as well as grooming tips. Plus, look for the ultimate Glee stocking stuffer: a cast Christmas album.

Production on season 2 doesn?t officially begin until July, but Murphy, along with his writers and co-creators Brennan and Brad Falchuk, has already mapped out the first six episodes. The season will most likely be broken up into two parts (as it was this year), and it will get a huge promotional push when Fox airs an episode following the Super Bowl in February 2011. Murphy says he also already knows the setting for next year?s season finale. ?Season 2 ends with nationals in New York,? he reveals. ?I don?t know if they?ll make it—we haven?t figured that out.?

Despite the fact that many well-known actors and actresses have either appeared on Glee (Neil Patrick Harris, Kristin Chenoweth) or openly pleaded for a role (Jennifer Lopez, Gabourey Sidibe), Murphy plans to limit the number of guest stars next year and focus on his core players. But there is one star who might be paying a visit to McKinley High just in time for the Christmas episode: Susan Boyle. The Britain?s Got Talent runner-up and the Glee cast are conveniently on the same record label. And who would she play? ?I have two words for you: Lunch. Lady,? quips Murphy. ?I think Kurt would just die to give her a Christmas makeover.?

Lynch isn?t completely sure what season 2 holds for Sue—apart from some new tracksuits, perhaps—but she?s enjoying the ride. ?There is a particular sweetness,? she says of her later-in-life success. ?People always say, ?Oh, you deserve this. You?ve been working so hard for so long.? You know, I never felt like that. I never felt like my ship hasn?t come in, because I love what I?ve done.?

How to Be Sue Sylvester
Is the Cheerios head coach secretly your role model? If so, Lynch lays out the five things you need to be more like the tracksuit-loving tyrant.

1. Intensity
?You need to have a constant hunger for that next fight.?

2. Swagger
?When you walk into a room, you need to be able to suck all of the energy out and take it all for yourself. All heads should turn the minute you enter the room.?

3. Wardrobe
?You need tracksuits, and they need to be in a variety of colors, and in each episode you must never, ever repeat. There should be three or four episodes between tracksuits.?

4. Arrogance
?You totally need to be in your own movie where you are acting, directing, and writing. If people?s responses to you aren?t what you wrote, you just ignore them.?

5. Hair fetish
?I, Jane Lynch, have a thing about hair too: I have a little head, thin hair, and a fat ass. When the hair doesn?t have enough volume, the proportions just go off.?