Rise’s Damon Gillespie, Auli’I Cravalho on ‘Glee’ Comparisons, Diverse Cast

When NBC first started promoting Rise, it was hard not to see the similarities to Fox’s hit show Glee. A star quarterback joins the musical and falls for the lead, while a teacher looking for more decides to take over the theater program and inspire his students. Add in the trailer shows the cast singing to Macklemore’s “Glorious,” and it may seem like a knockoff.

It’s also been compared to Friday Night Lights, the drama created by showrunner Jason Katims, that did not have a musical element but was all about the football team in a small town. These Rise characters have many similarities to the leads in FNL: one helps her mother pay the bills by working at a diner; another’s dad is the town’s coach who has an affair.

Auli'i Cravalho as Lilette Suarez, Damon J. Gillespie as Robbie Thorne in Rise.
Auli’i Cravalho as Lilette Suarez, Damon J. Gillespie as Robbie Thorne in Rise. Peter Kramer/NBC

However, Rise is a story in its own. “We’re very different. We’re a show within a show,” the drama’s lead, Auli’I Cravalho, tells Us Weekly. “We’re putting on Spring Awakening within Rise. The real heart of the show is in fact the students and Lou, the teacher, and Tracy and how they’re coming together and really inspiring everyone. And then we also have the musical aspect.”

“We’re not gonna randomly break out into song like some of the other musical shows or movies that we’ve seen,” the show’s male lead, Damon J. Gillespie, says. “The music serves either as an underscore or a parallel to what’s going on outside of the theater. But it’s a lot like Friday Night Lights. It wasn’t all about football — it was about these people’s lives around what’s going on. [Rise] is about the students and Lou and their families and what’s going on in their lives, as opposed to how stressful it is to put on a musical show.”

Damon J. Gillespie as Robbie Thorne in Rise.
Damon J. Gillespie as Robbie Thorne in Rise. Peter Kramer/NBC

The show is also full of diversity, with one character exploring his own sexuality while a transgender teen faces his own struggles, such as deciding which locker room to use. The leads on the show, Gillespie and Cravalho, are black and Puerto Rican and Pacific Islander, respectively.

“I think I’ve heard that our show is a little controversial or something like that but in actuality, it’s just real,” Cravalho tells Us. “Sometimes, nothing connects us more than heartache. I think many people will relate to that because they see themselves on screen. We work very hard as does NBC to show diversity, to be inclusive to everyone. For us, for high school, that’s what’s shown in a normal high school so who are we to shy away from real life?”

Rise premieres on NBC Tuesday, March 13, at 10 p.m. ET.

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