As a fan of the film musical, I have a peculiar love/hate relationship with the television musical, Glee. On the one hand, I am so excited to see musical performances on television that I am willing to accept them in any form. On the other hand, my love of the film musical also makes me critical of what I see as Glee’s misuse, even squandering, of one of the key functions of the musical number. In the film musical song and dance performances should act as a bridge between the various oppositions erected by the musical’s syntax, namely, the barriers between fantasy and reality. A good musical number should convince the viewer that it is possible to feel the joy of song and dance (fantasy) in our everyday lives (reality). As Jane Feuer writes in The Hollywood Musical, “In the musical, as in life, there are only two places where we feel secure enough to see so vividly: in the theater and in dreams. The musical’s multiple levels of reality contrast the stage with the world, illusion with reality” (68).
Musical numbers are also used to express the inexpressible. When Gene Kelly performs the title number in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), his voice and his body radiate pure joy. He has just fallen in love and the only way he can express these emotions is through song and dance. Therefore, the transition from the real world, where a rainy day is dreary and depressing, becomes a dream world, where the pouring rain is a delight. For most of its run, Glee has eschewed this type of musical number. Song choices may relate to the narrative, but performances are rarely used to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality (for more on Glee’s mishandling of some of the basic conventions of the musical genre, see Kelli Marshall’s insightful Flow article). Instead the show often functions as a kind of “Glee’s Follies,” that is, as a musical revue featuring unrelated performances that showcase the talents of each of its stars and sell singles on iTunes.
However “Grilled Cheesus” (a fantastic title) is one of the few Glee episodes to not only establish, but also to play with, the opposition between dream world and real world in the musical. For example, early in the episode, Mercedes tells the Glee club that she has been struggling to come up with something comforting to say to Kurt after his father is hospitalized: “Then I realized I don’t want to say it. I want to sing it” she explains. Mercedes then launches into a rendition of Whitney Houston’s “I Look to You,” which asks Kurt/the audience to believe in the ability of a higher power to comfort us in our suffering. The shot/reverse shot between Mercedes and Kurt at the conclusion of the number implies that Kurt has been moved (his eyes are filled with tears) and that he now “believes” in the dream world created by Mercedes’ performance. But instead, Kurt calls out the lie of the musical, telling Mercedes, “Your voice is stunning but I don’t believe in God.”
This scene thus pulls the audience into the dream world only to abruptly force us back out of it again. As Sue Sylvester notes, in a brutally honest argument for the case of atheism, “Asking someone to believe in a fantasy, however comforting, is an amoral thing to do.” Mercedes may have a beautiful voice, but Kurt should nevertheless be prepared for the possibility that his father will die.
Even Rachel’s schmaltzy version of “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” worked in this regard. The scene begins with Finn and Rachel sitting in the park at night. When Finn asks why they are outside, Rachel explains “Because I don’t want anything coming between us and God. And because Yentl was outside when she sang this song in the movie.” So while Rachel’s song is a musical prayer for Kurt’s father, it is also very much about Rachel’s desire to perform. The scene transitions from the dark outdoors to the bright interior of a hospital room, where we find Rachel singing to Kurt’s comatose father. Rachel’s passionate performance effectively transports the viewer into the dream world of song and faith. However, we are abruptly returned to reality when Rachel concludes her emotional song with“Who’s next?”
While I am prone to criticizing Glee, I think this episode worked as both an example of the musical’s primary theme—dream world versus real world—and as its critique. Yes, it is unrealistic that Kurt’s father wakes up from his coma at the conclusion of the episode. But the deus ex machina is not faith in God, but rather Kurt’s faith in his father. The episode seems to be equating the former with fantasy and the latter with reality. And it’s hard to get too wrapped up in the dream world of the final number, “What If God Was One of Us,” when it is intercut with Finn contemplating, and then eating, his Grilled Cheesus.