GLEE is an undeniable phenomenon. It’s a hit musical comedy-drama series on Fox, now going into its third year; it’s a series of original cast worldwide live concert tours; it’sGLEE: THE 3D CONCERT MOVIE, now in theaters.
All of these are choreographed by Zach Woodlee, who also serves as an on-camera mentor on Oxygen’s reality competition show THE GLEE PROJECT, which has its season finale this Sunday, with the winner getting a role on GLEE the series. Woodlee talks with ASSIGNMENT X about his GLEE-full life.
ASSIGNMENT X: On the original GLEE, was there a minimal level of dance talent required during the audition process?
ZACH WOODLEE: In the very beginning, [with] the first core cast, we literally showed up and it was like, “This is your cast and they’re going to be dancing and singing.” [laughs] So some of them had never danced before in their lives.
AX: Are there particular types of moves that are easier for the actors to do?
WOODLEE: Of course. Based on what the number is – something that has a little bit more of an urban style to it, their bodies sort of naturally move to that, and then some of them are trained dancers, and it’s much easier to learn spatially, and some are free-stylers. Depending on the number, there will be someone who’s always a little bit more fluent. There are particular steps that everyone does – everyone can walk in a sequence or whatever. What works the best for them [is when they are] a whole unit, so they’re really, really good with [providing] each other with a wall of who they are, so that to me is their strong point. Whether it’s a slow number or a faster number, I think it’s their unity that makes it easier.
AX: Do you match the movement to the character?
WOODLEE: Completely. That’s one of my most difficult things with [series creator] Ryan [Murphy] is doing all the numbers that he comes up with. There are many story points that he wants to have told, so he’ll say, “Make sure if Dianna [Agron as Quinn] with [Cory Monteith as] Finn, we need to be able to see Mark [Salling as Puck], and find him,” so what takes the most amount of time is getting Ryan’s story told.
AX: Are there actors who actually seek you out and say, “I’d like to do more with dancing”?
WOODLEE: I think it’s interesting, because Cory came to the show not dancing at all, [although] he was an incredible jumper, and now, in the last season, he’s counting eights and it’s a whole transformation. Now he has a language of dance. And then there were people like Heather Morris who were professional dancers.
But to say whether or not they want to improve – we never know what is going to pop out of Ryan’s head, so you won’t know who’s doing what. They’re just given this task and the actors make it happen. We had an episode last season that was meant to accentuate why Cory can’t dance. The idea was to teach a number with Harry [Shum] and Cory extremely fast, so Harry could get it, but Cory would not get the outline, that he couldn’t process it as fast. It actually turned out to work against them, because Cory was picking it up so fast. “Wait, you’re not supposed to be able to get this!” They’ve all really gotten their own way and their own process of learning and they do help each other out.
AX: What numbers have you had the most fun choreographing?
WOODLEE: Impossible answer. They’re all so different I don’t think there’s anything that I can pick just one. The mattress number was fun, because we were literally jumping around on mattresses for eight hours a day. The wheelchair number was fun because we’d never worked with [that type of choreography before]. The pop numbers are fun, but then some of the slow, emotional numbers are fun as well. I think it depends on the script. And I’m more pleased when it’s done to see it in the full context of the show.
AX: For instance, was the first-season “Vogue” number maybe a little bit easier because everybody has seen that video?
WOODLEE: Ryan is so meticulous that it was harder to make sure that everything was identical. It wasn’t so much of a feeling of the video, it was verbatim. So to match that up was definitely more difficult to me.
AX: Do you have a song that you would like to particularly like to choreograph on GLEE?
WOODLEE: Ryan has my dream play list [laughs]. Every song he picks, I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, I love that song!” I don’t think there will be a song that I love that he won’t touch on.
AX: What are your work hours like?
WOODLEE: I have so much homework on this show. You get the song at nine o’clock at night and then you have to rehearse it the next morning, so I have to stay up until two or three in the morning trying to think of something.
AX: For the GLEE film, did you have to do anything different for the 3D choreography?
WOODLEE: It was the stage show. Because our cast had three days to learn the whole show, we tried to keep it as true to the show as possible and then just add in our own transitional moments, but the 3D movie has a couple of surprises in it that will make people happy to see it.
AX: In THE GLEE PROJECT, you’re shown on camera mentoring people. Does that please the performer in you, or does that make you go, “You know, I wasn’t really planning on having my process documented”?
WOODLEE: You know, I had no idea what I was getting into, and it is very much a situation where I stepped in the first day with a new cast of twelve and thought, “I’m starting over again” [laughs]. But I think as far as the viewership, there’s a wonderful insight to how fast we have to move on a scripted show, and it shows you the real process just sort of crammed together in an hour.click read more
AX: GLEE producers Ryan Murphy and Dante Di Loreto and Brad Falchuk are now also working on AN AMERICAN HORROR STORY for FX – I’m assuming you’re not choreographing anything for AMERICAN HORROR STORY?
WOODLEE: [laughs] Not yet. Could you imagine? I’ll call you if they need a dancing ghost.
AX: Have those of you involved in THE GLEE PROJECT and regular GLEE who aren’t involved in AN AMERICAN HORROR STORY had to take on a little more of any duties because the producers’ time is split?
WOODLEE: No. With AMERICAN HORROR STORY, it was set to be in our pocket on the hiatus from when the cast were on the tour, so Dante and I went on tour with them and split our duties up there, but for the most part,, everyone is still in the exact same involvement. My vision of this [THE GLEE PROJECT] is basically as the on-camera mentor. The three of us [Woodlee, Nikki Anders and Robert Ulrich] are through the whole [GLEE PROJECT] process.
AX: How do you feel about the young performers you are mentoring on GLEE PROJECT?
WOODLEE: It’s so crazy how much I actually fell in love with all these kids. I had no idea that I would really bond with any of them, but the time spent – it’s not like a normal reality show, where you just show up, you see one product and you’re like, “I want that one” and this one is cut. It’s literally – Robert, Nikki and myself are doing our real job for Ryan and trying to get [the producers] ready to see something acceptable, and I do every week starting falling more and more in love with each of them. To say if there’s a favorite? No. All of them.They are the true energy of the show, and it is a real live infectious sort of glee, and I love it so much. Going back to our show [the original GLEE], I have such a relationship with our cast now, and we’ve been together for three years. It’s always feeling good with them. They’re my friends.
AX: Do you work differently with the GLEE PROJECT contestants than you do with the actual GLEE cast, or is working with them now like working with the original GLEE people at the beginning.
WOODLEE: To jump into this reality show, where the first day, it’s, “Okay, we have to move and we have to go,” our cast is already aware of the amount of time that we have to work with. To go back to earlier, when you were asking about having the process documented, I think it’s great that people can see how the cast has [learn choreography].
AX: Contestant Cameron bowed out of THE GLEE PROJECT because he didn’t want to do an onscreen kiss …
WOODLEE: It was an extremely emotional moment in the show, and I’m happy it didn’t show me crying. That whole show, there were a lot of tears going on. It was an extremely emotional decision, I think, and as far as Cameron making that decision, I think Ryan himself was just trying to put it all in perspective and say, “I’ll never step over your boundaries.” But Cameron came to a decision that he was maybe more of a singer than an actor – “Maybe this isn’t what I want.” It was a very mature decision at the moment.
AX: Unlike shows like, say, AMERICAN IDOL, THE GLEE PROJECT doesn’t take audience input as far as who stays and who goes …
WOODLEE: The point of the show isn’t a popularity contest. It really is [about finding] someone that [the GLEE staff] can write a character for. A lot of new characters have come on and either get a negative response or a positive response and it’s just a part of the show. I don’t think that making it a popularity contest with America would be the right choice.
AX: Are there any choreographers who are your heroes?
WOODLEE: My mama Vicki. My parents had a dance studio. They had four boys and we all grew up dancing, and a lot of times, I reference her and her workload and what she used to be able to put out in the world, so when I get bogged down, I really do look towards her. There are other choreographers that I do hold in such high regard as far as what they’ve been able to put out. I had a group that I trained with back here that I’m in awe of.
AX: Any famous ones, like Gene Kelly?
WOODLEE: Gene Kelly is referenced so much [in film/TV choreography] that for me, the real talent with him is being able to master your craft and just let it go, so an audience member thinks that’s just his behavior. You can’t take your eyes off him. Gene Kelly’s a genius.
AX: Because a lot of the GLEE audience now knows you from THE GLEE PROJECT, would you consider doing an on-camera cameo in GLEE?
WOODLEE: [laughs] No! I like my current job. GLEE is GLEE. I like to work on the show, not be on the show.