Meet the “Glee”-tles

Can the show, at a crossroads on and off the small screen, come together over the Fab Four?

In late May 2010, near-deafening screams filled New York's Radio City Music Hall during a performance by the cast of "Glee," in a scene straight out of “A Hard Day’s Night.” Barely five weeks later, the venerable arena shook as Paul McCartney strode on stage in a surprise appearance at Ringo Starr's 70th birthday concert, making the roar from the "Glee" gig seem (and feel), by comparison, like restless wind inside a letterbox.

For those of us not yet alive when the Beatles arrived in the U.S. 50 years ago this coming February, the Radio City shows, to different degrees, offered tastes of what it must have been like in the early days of pop’s greatest phenomenon, one that lives on more through music than memory for most fans. If the magic can never be replicated, it certainly can be celebrated.

“Glee” returns for a key – and undoubtedly, bittersweet – fifth season Thursday with a two-part salute to the Beatles, whose iTunes sales alone are testament to the group’s enduring and intergenerational appeal. But can the Fox show, at a crossroads on and off the small screen, come together over the Fab Four?

The program’s creative team has faced tough decisions since the sad death in July of cast member Cory Monteith, who played high school quarterback-turned-glee-club-leader Finn Hudson. Should the show go on? How, if at all, should his passing be tackled?

The “Glee” producers reportedly have opted to wait until the season’s third episode to deal with Monteith’s death, making a bold, if risky, decision to open with Beatles. They also released a preview of the Beatle-themed shows’ 14-tune soundtrack, which, on first blush, seems like a by-the-numbers greatest hits cover album.

But, as with all things Beatles, there’s plenty of depth beyond the surface. Sure, the “Glee” selections include glorious pop tunes (“A Hard Day’s Night”) and straight out rockers (“Get Back”). But much of the rest provide timeless takes on life’s passages – friendship and growing up (“Hey Jude”), death and acceptance (“Let it Be”), taking love beyond the infatuation stage (“Something”), struggling with youthful emotions while maintaining a public face (“You've Got to Hide Your Love Away”).

There’s the inevitable inclusion of “Yesterday,” which McCartney wrote and recorded before turning 23, when he was younger than most of the “Glee” cast. Lea Michele, who dated Monteith both on and off the show, finds new emotion in the most recorded song of them all, her sweet voice plaintively expressing wistful longing for what was and can never again be.

Even before Moneith’s death, “Glee” struggled with identity and direction last season, as original characters moved on past high school, and the show's trademark delicate balance between the silly and the serious amid big production numbers faltered at times. While the Beatles, in some ways, seem a good fit for “Glee,” there’s a danger of the two-part season premiere coming off as gimmicky, especially with the death of Finn/Monteith yet to be addressed on air.

Monteith and Michele led the show’s first tapping of the Beatles songbook, with a buoyant version of “Hello Goodbye” in Season 1. The show more effectively employed the group’s catalogue the following season with a radical reworking of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” which Kurt sang to his ailing father in the “Grilled Cheesus” episode, the best installment of “Glee” yet.

There’s more at stake, of course, for “Glee” with the much-hyped return, than for the legacy of the Beatles. With the golden anniversary of the band’s first U.S. TV splash on “The Ed Sullivan Show” nearing, 71-year-old McCartney is set next month to release a new album (called “New”). November brings “The Beatles: On Air – Live At The BBC Volume 2,” which contains long-unheard versions of Beatles hits along with renditions of the (mostly American) songs that inspired John, Paul, George and Ringo when they were high school age.

The group’s music resounds, echoing far beyond the joyful screams of a half-century ago, taking a permanent place in the heart and offering something worth sharing, all together now. So perhaps we should give “Glee” a chance. In the meantime, check out a preview of the show’s season premiere below:

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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