The thunder's just stopped rumbling, but a storm's still a-brewin' in a chilly parking garage just outside the Paramount Studio gates on a gusty Hollywood night. Inside, oblivious drivers exiting for the evening pass choreographer Zach Woodlee putting the warmly bundled-up Glee kids through a rigorous routine. Having only just been introduced to their complicated dance moves, the physically drained troupe will be in costume and before cameras in less than an hour shooting their big "Bad" production number — the crown jewel in a tribute episode to the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, that airs on Tuesday, January 31.
As the deafening prerecorded track plays "I'm bad, I'm bad/Come on/You know it," Woodlee, a recognizable face himself as one of the judges on Oxygen's The Glee Project, shouts his marching orders: "Walk, walk. Swipe, swipe, punch. Now swing! Ladies, you have to start backing up against the wall like you're scared." Woodlee separates Lea Michele (Rachel), Naya Rivera (Santana), Dianna Agron (Quinn), Heather Morris (Brittany) and Jenna Ushkowitz (Tina) from the boys in a dance-off pitting the New Directions against the Warblers. "I promise you this will work. Well... maybe."
This ambitious homage — which includes 10 of Jackson's hits, such as "Rock With You," "Smooth Criminal" and "Black or White" — is an enormous undertaking pulled together in platinum-record speed after receiving the blessing of the überprotective Jackson estate. "It's a different thing to do a posthumous [tribute] episode as opposed to dealing directly with Madonna, Britney [Spears] or Lady Gaga," explains exec producer Ryan Murphy. "Michael's kids are somewhat fans of the show, so the estate was lovely. In fact, they liked the writing so much that halfway through the planning they asked us to do another one about him next year." (Murphy has not yet confirmed a follow-up.)
When Woodlee gives the gang a quick breather, Michele cuddles with Darren Criss (Blaine) to keep warm, while Kevin McHale gets up out of Artie's wheelchair for a stretch and Mark Salling (Puck) lightens the mood by parading around in a red Cheerios skirt.
While the skirt will never actually be seen on Puck, Glee's costumers stretched their budget considerably, just as they did for their first-season Madonna and Lady Gaga tributes, decking out the cast in flashy fedoras, red leather jackets, sparkly rhinestone socks and gloves and other Jackophernalia. One standout is Chris Colfer, who as Kurt is rocking a black leather jumpsuit. "This is the closest I'll ever get to playing Catwoman," cracks Colfer, who has been entertaining his cohorts with his imitation of Meryl Streep as Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher.
But who was Michael Jackson to this cast of twentysomethings? Many were far too young (or even yet to be born) during Jackson's 1980s firestorm when Thriller became the top-selling album of all time. Like many of his cast mates, Colfer remembers his first "conscious awareness" of Jackson was "seeing him going from hospitals to courtrooms, which overshadowed all the amazing music." Echoes Criss, "Unfortunately for our generation, it was a dark time in his life."
"When I was in high school, there was definitely a lot of controversial stuff going on," adds Michele, doing her best to remain upbeat despite the gnawing pain of wisdom teeth soon to be extracted. "That's what I remember. But his best friends were Liz Taylor and Liza Minnelli, so he was always good in my book."
For more with the Glee cast, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, January 12!