Since she opened her mouth to sing in the 2009 premiere of Fox's Glee, Lea Michele has been the show's big breakout star. Week after week, her character, Rachel Berry, the Broadway-bound emotional train wreck, delivered effortlessly show-stopping performances in a multitude of genres. As Glee's following mushroomed both in the U.S. and abroad, and its endless soundtrack volumes dominated the charts, Michele's transition into a recording artist seemed inevitable.
On March 4, Michele released her debut album, Louder (an attempt to one-up Rihanna's 2010 Loud?), a polished contemporary pop record filled with the high drama and impeccable enunciation that audiences grew to expect from Michele on Glee. According to Billboard, it sold 60,000 units its first week to debut at No. 4 on the Billboard 200.
Lea Michele is the latest in a line of Glee's would-be pop stars. Since its debut, the Fox show has been a miracle of music marketing. Every song featured in every episode was available for download immediately after broadcast. More than 200 Glee songs appeared in Billboard's Top 100 -- the most ever charted by a single act -- with 51 of them landing in the Top 40. Fifteen soundtrack albums have been released thus far, with another featuring music from this month's 100th episode due March 25.
In 2011, the Glee Live! In Concert tour -- featuring all the cast members bringing their small-screen characters to life and belting out their most inspiring songs -- sold out concert halls in 40 cities in minutes, with more than 450,000 tickets sold. The same year, a 3D concert movie was released. Oxygen also got into the Glee game, picking up reality competition series The Glee Project running for two seasons ahead of the show's debut in syndication.
Despite its early commercial success, the primetime musical has not proven to be a particularly strong launch pad for its singers as Glee's fortunes have slowly faded. The problem may lie with Glee being overexposed. There was a lot of Glee around -- maybe too much. The concert movie opened at an anemic $5 million. The soundtrack spinoffs began to chart lower and sell less, with 2010's The Power of Madonna the last Glee release to go Gold. The following year, co-star Matthew Morrison (Will Schuester) embarked on a solo recording career outside the auspices of the series. Glee-mania was still in the ascendant when he began recording his self-titled solo album, which included guest spots from Elton John, Sting and frequent Glee guest, Gwyneth Paltrow. The widely publicized album debuted at No. 24 on Billboard and vanished shortly thereafter.
The show's most commercial pop singer, Naya Rivera (Santana), signed a record deal with Sony in 2011. A single, "Sorry," was released last year and failed to chart. Darren Criss (Blaine) also signed to Sony in 2011 and has yet to release a record despite a 16-city sold-out concert tour last year for the actor and Broadway player (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying). The Glee concert tour was scrapped in 2012 after the cast spent two summers on the road.
Glee's most powerful singer, Amber Riley (Mercedes Jones) may now be best known for winning season 17 of ABC's Dancing With the Stars after her character was downgraded from series regular to recurring. Riley has yet to record an album and is poised to return to Glee, along with several of the Fox musical's original stars, for this month's 100th episode. She's expected to have a larger role in the second half of Glee's fifth season. Mark Salling (Puck) also independently released Pipe Dreams in 2010 to little buzz.
Although Glee is steady in its DVR growth -- the show improves 65 percent in live-plus-7 day returns, almost even with the same time last season -- that jump is from a much softer starting point. All told, season five is down 22 percent, and averaging a 2.6 rating among adults 18-49. Moving around the schedule has done nothing to mitigate the dips. Two weeks into its return to Tuesday, Glee most recently hit a series low 0.9 rating in the key demo and pulled in a mere 2.4 million viewers.
While Glee's pop culture dominance may be dimming, the series has, however, launched the career of original cast member Chris Colfer (Kurt), who has achieved a modicum of extra-curricular success -- but not as a performer. The actor, one of only a handful of the show's original series regulars to still serve in the same capacity on the series -- is a best-selling author of a children's book series. The first in his The Land of Stories franchise (released in 2012) held the No. 1 spot on the New York Times Best Seller List in the children's category for two weeks. The second book (2013) debuted at No. 2 and by the end of the year had spent 11 weeks in the top 15 for Children's Middle Grade Books. The third book is set for release in July, with a fourth novel expected in 2015. Also due then is an illustrated book based on an original short fairy tale that Colfer first told in the the initial Land of Stories. Additionally, Colfer wrote, starred, exec produced and novelized coming-of-age feature film Struck by Lightning. He's also developing The Little Leftover Witch for Disney Channel and has another film in the works on top of voicing the title character in the 3D animated film Robodog.
Of course it's not an easy road to crossover from TV success to the music industry -- but it can be done. By contrast, Disney and Nickelodeon are both renowned for successfully turning their TV actors into simultaneous pop stars. No one could credibly argue that Selena Gomez or Hilary Duff -- or even Miley Cyrus -- are capable of anywhere approaching the vocal power of Michele or Riley. (Demi Lovato -- currently recurring on Glee -- might be) but the audience accepted them as pop stars. Just last year, Ariana Grande, co-star of the cheerfully infantile Nickelodeon sitcom Sam & Cat, released her debut album Yours Truly. It went double platinum and received glowing reviews, mainly from people who had never seen her show but bought into her warm-hearted resuscitation of 1990s R&B.
Michele, however, is in a different position than Grande. For one thing, Louder attracted lackluster reviews. Billboard's Mike Ayers says Michele's leap to pop stardom alongside Katy Perry, Cyrus and Taylor Swift wouldn't be an unreasonable one, but called the album "rather one-sided." Rolling Stone gave the album 1.5 out of five stars and noted Michele's "show-tune-style belting is a little too perfect for today's pop charts." The AP also was less than impressed, calling some tracks "convincing," while others seem as if "she is acting."
Another inescapable element of her debut: a certain air of uneasiness brought on by the July death of her boyfriend and co-star, Cory Monteith. His presence can be felt all over Louder, and especially on the album's closing ballad, "If You Say So," which took its title from Monteith's last words to Michele. So she has explained many times over.
The likelihood of Michele successfully crossing over in an era when Glee's weekly singles no longer chart on the Hot 100 is far from certain. And with that, the singer-actress will have to hope that her magazine covers, loyal and large Twitter following (4.3 million) and Broadway pipes are with her if she's going to be louder than her co-stars' musical careers have been thus far. And once the final curtain falls on Glee -- season six will be its last -- Michele's musical ambitions may find their most appreciative audience on Broadway. Which is what Rachel would have wanted all along.