SOTW 11.15: “Defying Gravity” from Glee (feat. Lea Michele and Chris Colfer)

There are some friends you haven’t seen in awhile with whom the conversation requires a little warm-up. Some superficial chit-chat here, a few perfunctory questions about how life has been going there.

And then there are the friends with whom you pick-up as if you’ve never left off–as if the weeks, months or years between encounters never eroded the ease of familiarity, the depth of intimate knowledge, or the dormant in-jokes and shared secret languages awaiting their special interlocutors.

Today my hope is that returning to Oh! with a song of the week will feel like the latter. Or like slipping into the comfy “at-home wear” you insta-change into after a long day buttoned-up and flying right at work.

Last week, during an extended east coast jaunt to Washington, D.C. for ASA, and to New York to find a spring semester sublet, I was fortunate enough to spend some quality time with a couple of old pals–”civilians,” not academics–from college and high-school.

One is my friend Lynne (“neither male nor female, but Kvang” as the joke went about the fake I.D. we once bought with her on Alvarado Blvd., misidentifying her sex as “male,” and transposing her Chinese middle name into something more sci-fi). The other is my galpal Keri, a former alto-sister from my high-school’s equivalent of Glee Club, The Ramona High School Madrigals. I hadn’t seen Keri since my 10th year high-school reunion back in the Riv in 2001, but we picked up right where we left off, re-enacting Sprockets skits and quoting other early-90s SNL joints that weren’t nearly as iconic (“you put your weeeed in there.”) [Right - Photo Detail from 1991: Keri in the middle of the bottom row; me, third from the left, standing | Below: Ramona Madrigals cutting loose on tour a long way from Riverside, CA at the Heritage Choir Festival in Seattle, WA, 1991].

Both encounters lifted my spirits after a long stretch of time spent “doing the work” (to invoke the mantra of my Oh! sistah, ATV). My hang sessions with Keri and Lynne didn’t merely reactivate the comfort to be found with folks who “knew me then,” but also reminded me how much I’ve desperately needed the spirit of “then” to leaven the now: the hustle, bustle and flow of an assistant prof.’s life on the verge. On the verge of sharing something–the first book–that’s been lovingly if sometimes tortuously wrought in that writing bunker we find ourselves sequestered in starting around year 4, as the tenure clock tick-tocks. On the verge of one of the biggest auditions of my life, not just for a panel of unknown judges who will ultimately arbitrate my future, but also for the rest of you. For anyone out there who might be willing to read, to listen to me straining for a “high F” that could very well crack beyond my range even as it aspires to defy gravity.

[Chris Colfer, aka "Kurt" performing his solo rendition of "Defying Gravity" from Glee or the musical Wicked]
And so my first SOTW back after a very long absence doubles-down with not one (the version you just heard above), but TWO renditions of “Defying Gravity” recently recorded for the hit-show Glee. Rest assured that my other Oh! sisters and I are bound to have much much more to say about the show in the coming months for reasons obvious (jazz hands, big feelings, Heart and Journey), and others maybe not-so. But that’s for another time.

Last week’s “Diva-Off” between Rachel, the pretty, but dorky and unloved ingenue spawned by two gay dads, and Kurt, the fabulously fashionable but ostracized queer son of a mechanic single dad, offered one of the most poignant “confrontations” I’ve ever seen on the small screen. Despite being billed as a clash of two divas, it was ultimately a reluctant stand-off, regardless of what the cut-away shots were meant to convey.

In the Broadway smash, Wicked, “Defying Gravity” is the finale to Act I, the moment when Elphaba, aka “Elphie,” the green girl presumed to be wicked by virtue of her odd appearance, decides to “fly solo” in order to fight tyranny and prejudice in the land of Oz.

The nature of the conflict in last week’s Glee is framed by a similar desire to ascend to great heights as a soloist in the hopes that a virtuosic display of talent might undo some of the tyranny and prejudice directed at a bunch of “losers” like the kids in Glee Club. And yet even the original source material from Wicked offers an option beyond the self, and beyond the individualistic gestures of heroism and self-sacrifice that win admirers and agitate adversaries.

[Wicked: "Defying Gravity" finale, Act I]

During the Glee “diva-off,” Kurt cracks the high-F (keyed for a female vocalist) just at the moment triumph seems within his reach. We learn he does so out of sacrifice. Out of his wish to spare his dad (who passionately lobbied the principal and Mr. Schuester to let Kurt audition to begin with), the burden of a parental role he has yet to fully comprehend: caring for a gay son. Leaving aside debates about whether or not this gesture of generosity can be read as internally homophobic (for the record, I don’t think so), something gives me the sense that Kurt is not done with “Defying Gravity.”

In Wicked, Elphaba asks Glinda (the pretty, “good witch”) to “Come with me. Think of what we could do – together.”

Together we’re unlimited
Together we’ll be the greatest team…
If we work in tandem
There’s no fight we cannot win

“Defying Gravity” is not strictly a solo number. The verses I just cited above are actually traded between the two divas of Wicked, Elphaba and Glinda (the latter role was originated by recent Glee guest star, Kristin Chenoweth).

Voices are best sharing verses. When we find ourselves struggling to reach notes beyond our range, solace and support come at unexpected intervals from companion voices capable of carrying the harmonies. As I learned from singing alto in the high-school madrigals, even if one splits from the splendor of a melody, a song will never truly soar without you. “Defying Gravity,” in other words, is not something to be accomplished alone. (KT)

[Duet from Glee: "Defying Gravity" feat. Lea Michele + Chris Colfer]

This SOTW is dedicated to Kathy Rossi, my 7th grade English teacher. In that formative year at Sierra Middle School, she taught me how to love books, musicals and writing. I saw Wicked for the first time with her last December in Los Angeles. I know I’m not the first, nor will I be the last to say to her:“Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”

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