On the east side of Indianapolis, flopped just beyond I-465 and just above I-70, in a neighborhood where the streets were laid out four decades ago under that 1970s suburban architectural stricture that demanded winding roads, built without sidewalks so that the streets are a kind of maze known mostly to locals, I am driving in search of Ryan Murphy. It is a warm spring day. The grass in every lot has outgrown the season, looking tufty and wild. The roads desperately need to be repaved. Yards and driveways are festooned with the extremis of a harsh economy, a foreclosure sign in one, an old pontoon boat in the next. This was country once, absorbed by the growth of the city, and change makes the memory here short. On this particular street, which backs a now-deserted golf course, where the most common sign is “Beware of Dog,” there is a boy riding his bicycle.
He is 12. The only living soul outside on the street. From one end to the other, there is just the boy, who hardly glances at me as I pass the first time but sits on high alert as my tires hiss past him a second time. Finally, I stop and roll down the passenger window. The boy gives me a brave little up-nod. “I’m looking for a specific house,” I say. “It’s the house where Ryan Murphy grew up.”
He gazes down the street, toward his mother, I imagine, who I hope is watching from the window of her dining room. I know what this must look like. Man, leaning across the front seat to speak to a boy. I’m eager to speak to an adult, even an angry one, prowling against strangers in late-model Toyotas. I want my mission out in the open. “I am looking for Ryan Murphy,” I will tell them. Then the boy pipes up. “No Murphys on this street,” he says. Then he adds, “officer.”
He thinks I’m a cop, and I don’t bother to correct him. I’m silent. Puzzled by myself, by what made me think this would work. I’m alone on the street with a little boy. What am I going to ask him, “Do you like Glee?”
I could launch into a litany from there. Have you seen The Glee Project? Eat Pray Love? Running with Scissors? All Ryan Murphy! Ever heard of American Horror Story? Nip/Tuck ring a bell? The busiest man in television? He was born here in this very neighborhood. I’m told he lived on this street. Ryan Murphy is a big celebrity. Can you see if someone, anyone around here remembers him? They must, right?
The boy on the bicycle rises up, stands on the top pedal, and rotates himself away from me.
This is called a write-around. It’s a situation that comes up in the magazine business when the subject of a profile refuses to meet with the writer, or otherwise provide access, and yet the writer is still compelled to proceed toward deadline, and publication, while working to draw as dimensional a portrait as possible. And looking for a person’s boyhood home is precisely the sort of thing one does to uncover facts, stories, details. On that same day, I got the cold shoulder from the current administration at Warren Central High School, from which Murphy graduated in 1983. It seemed more a matter of what was not remembered—teachers move on, drama departments change directors, the inspiration for a show like Glee rises and falls. No one remembers him. Or no one will say so. They are hesitant even to show me yearbooks, let alone the videotapes of productions in which Murphy participated. So a write-around—difficult, but to be expected with a visionary writer/director/producer like Murphy, who brought the travails of gay teenage life to prime time with, well, a song.
When it comes to Ryan Murphy, it might be said that he is even-handed in the way he handles the press, mostly speaking in junket settings for a short period before the opening of a movie or television series. He’s just a tough nut to crack, rarely agreeing to speak about anything other than the work in question. It seemed like the second season of The Glee Project, which premieres this month with Murphy himself vetting a group of would-be cast members for the hit Fox TV show, might open the door. But like everything he’s done, Murphy strikes hard with the publicity in the first season and then grabs onto other projects.
"He's a new kind of genius," says Julia Roberts. "Which of course means he's regular old-time talent. He does everything, every part of the job."
And big ones at that. Consider the first few months of this year: In February, he signed Beyonce to join Gwyneth Paltrow, Cameron Diaz, and Andy Samberg in a movie musical called One Hit Wonders. In April, it was announced that he’d signed Glee cameo NeNe Leakes of The Real Housewives of Atlanta to join Ellen Barkin in a pilot called The New Normal, about a gay couple trying to have a baby through a surrogate. Early this year, news also broke that Murphy had finalized the movie cast of The Normal Heart by tapping Eat Pray Love’s Julia Roberts. In an interview I did with Roberts for Esquire a few years ago, she gushed about Murphy, a man with multiple shows on television at once. “He’s a new kind of genius,” she said. “Which of course means that he’s regular old-time talent. He does everything, every part of the job. He’s a monster when it comes to work.”
So, okay, Ryan Murphy won’t talk. No time. Not about the show. Not about the city he grew up in. But surely someone from Indy will.
Amid the winding roads on the east side, Murphy went to Heather Hills Elementary until 8th grade, and Warren Central after that. To the extent that he is recalled at the high school at all, he is remembered as an extrovert who loved writing as much as theater. He came out as a gay man during those years, and there are hints that the revelation strained his relationship with his father. Murphy even found himself thrown into therapy for a few sessions. On the rare occasions he speaks about that time in interviews, Murphy dismisses it as mildly unpleasant.
After graduating from Warren, he attended IU, where he majored in journalism (perhaps enough in itself to spoil his taste for the old Q-and-A routine) and participated in several choirs. I phoned the Jacobs School of Music, was transferred out to the many directors of singing groups, and then generally stalked Bloomington, poking around campus looking for a choir member who would speak to me about Murphy’s skills, energy, performance—all of which I took to be prerequisites of his enormous success. He sang in high school. He sang in college, where he also did some writing for the Indiana Daily Student. Is it any wonder he connected the two?
I stopped a mop-headed kid coming out of a choir rehearsal hall, the first person who claimed to know Murphy, an assertion that he promptly corrected. “Well, I know who he is, of course,” he said, hinging his wrist so that a hand fell on the middle of his chest. “Why? Is he going to support us?” When I tell him no, that I’m just looking for evidence of him, the kid tells me his singing group is in trouble: “We’re going under. No funding. We need a little Ryan Murphy right now.”
“Money?” I say.
He looks at me strangely, then sings several bars of Pink Floyd’s “Money” before walking away, delighted with himself. In this way, I find myself yanked yet again into the world of Glee, a show with a preposterous premise that seems to extend from coast to coast in the hearts of musical underdog types who are unsurprisingly sometimes gay.
It’s not exactly true that I found no one who knew Murphy. Three weeks earlier, I found the only person who could authoritatively speak about him. “I love him to death,” says his mother, Andy Murphy, who joins me for lunch at Nordstrom’s cafe. “From the very morning he was born, everything went very easy on me.” Everyone else had said no—12 phone calls to purported friends, one to a dance studio I’d heard about, one to the offices of his brother, an Indianapolis lawyer. Hostility, anger, and suspicion from everyone except his mother.
Mrs. Murphy is a modest and kind presence on the other side of the table, apologetic for actually not being able to supply the names of high-school friends who might comment. “They’re a very protective bunch,” she says. “It has been tried, they’ve been approached, but they all want to see Ryan speaking about himself on his own terms. Ryan has so many projects. His work comes very fast, and who can say what’s going on from out here in Indiana.”
I had hoped that bringing my very own “Gleek,” my 15-year-old stepdaughter Fiona, to the lunch might be a decent step toward bringing some authority. I had admitted to everyone in advance, including Mrs. Murphy, that the show annoys me deeply, that the storylines seem plucked from current commercial trends, and that with the exception of the Jane Lynch character—her track suits and megaphone, her corner-of-the-mouth wisdom—I was pleased to have remained Glee-free for 15 months and counting. I liked the movies well enough. And I loved Nip/Tuck back in the day. But Murphy’s breakout hit? It struck me as bad long before he reportedly stepped away from active involvement with the show early this year.
Undeterred, Fiona and Mrs. Murphy (there’s a sitcom title for you) fall into a comfortable exchange on the show almost as soon as we sit down, without giving me another glance. The new cast members were great, they agree. They miss the tribute shows. They both love Jane Lynch. And so on, pretty much like every chat room where a teenager goes to wrestle with her love for Glee. At some point, Fiona announces that one “girl” on the show seems particularly mean.
“Woman,” I correct her. I had been taught, why shouldn’t she?
Andy Murphy shakes her head. “No,” she says, “she’d want to be called a girl.”
“Do you know any of them?” Fiona asks. “Have you ever gone to watch them make the show?”
“Oh yes,” she says. “Ryan has me out there every year. He introduces me to them all, and then I try to fade into the background.”
Fiona presses on. “Have you met Dianna Agron?”
“Yes,” Mrs. Murphy says. “She’s a wonderfully talented girl.”
“I don’t like the new hair,” Fiona says. “Or her nose ring.”
This makes Mrs. Murphy laugh. I’m not sure what’s all that funny—who really likes nose rings, after all? And I live in a universe where network television doesn’t provoke that level of interest. Which is why I brought the fan with me. Now, the two of them are speaking intimately about young stars of a series I don’t know, but enough of them are familiar to me that I recognize many of the names as emerging talents in upcoming movies. “Your son has created a generation of talent,” I tell her. “Only Glee viewers knew them at first. Now, not even I can pretend I don’t know them. They must come from that show feeling they owe him a lot.”
“Those kids tell me that often,” Mrs. Murphy says. “But Ryan doesn’t think of it that way. He likes making discoveries. He likes unearthing people. That’s why I like watching him on The Glee Project. That’s what he does best, drive things toward their best outcome.”
“Ryan has so many projects,” says his mother, Andy Murphy. “Who can say what’s going on from out here in Indiana?”
I mention that it seems to annoy him at times on The Glee Project when some of the young talent isn’t coachable.
“Yes, it matters to him,” she says. “He always looks a little tense to me on that show, like he’s in pain during the process.”
Fiona hasn’t seen the show yet. “You ought to audition, honey,” Mrs. Murphy says. Fiona really can sing.
This makes the girl laugh. “I’m not that … important,” she says.
Mrs. Murphy smiles and assures Fiona that the girl is very important, that she’s sure lots of people think so. I swear to God, this is how it goes. Just like a little Glee-alogue, like they were about to break into “Here Comes the Sun” at any moment. My kid blushes. “Not important like your son,” she says.
“I don’t think he assumes that he’s very important,” Mrs. Murphy says. “I think he’s just a hard worker. And that his work is good. We didn’t know he could sing. I remember he went out for choir on his own, and he came back and told us he was in it. Then he started singing around the house. And then we all knew, I guess, that he could sing. So can his brother. But in most other ways, nothing changed. It just allowed him to do more, to be more himself. We didn’t remark on it. We just suddenly knew more about him.”
“Was that what it was like when he came out?” the kid asks abruptly. Like a journalist. Bam! I think to correct her, to step in and reword the question, but it seems aptly delivered and received, and Mrs. Murphy has been asked this question dozens of times. Gay in Indiana.
“Exactly,” she says. “I just said ‘Okay,’ and we got on with things. What he discovered about himself, and what he revealed, that didn’t make him any more or less important to me.” She looks at me then, levelly. “That’s why he doesn’t want to talk to you. These things just led him to write, to create, to start to think bigger ideas. He knew he had places to go.”
“Where did he go?” Fiona wants to know.
“He went to college, dear,” she says. “To Indiana University.”
And I find myself echoing the question out loud, almost dreamily, with a different emphasis. The literal answer is well-known—Murphy parlayed his college newspaper work into gigs writing for the Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly, and ultimately television. “But where did he go?”
“To California, I guess,” Mrs. Murphy replies, “to do the things he was ready to do. He made Nip/Tuck. Did you like that show?”
She knows that I did. I can hear that she’s really trying to get away from the metaphoric ramifications of the question. The What Became of Ryan Murphy? “When did he last come back here?” I ask. “When did he return?”
This one seems to startle her. She swallows, tilts her head, conveying that it seems fair. “Last time was when his father died,” she says. “Several years ago.” She looks around the restaurant. “That was a very hard journey for Ryan …” She drinks some water then. She begins to say “backwards” before shrugging a little, then finishing the thought. This hurts, but the woman has grit. “We’d moved. We didn’t have money when he was a boy. There was some eventually, but the new place isn’t really his home. I live in the Geist area now. It’s a long way from Post Road and Pawnee Drive. Ryan didn’t grow up in the current house, didn’t live there with his father. We left the east side. Bigger house. People do that. I like to watch my grandchildren. But it’s a new place to him.”
“Place is important to him?” I ask. I’ve never had this sense with Ryan Murphy’s work, which seems to be characterized by drifting (Eat Pray Love) or lack of place (a high school in a bland, issues-oriented community, shot on a soundstage, in a location that feels without any relevant past, other than the vague reference to Carmel High School as the rival glee club). And I do think it’s an important question, because place matters to me. I grew up in a city. I moved to Indiana 25 years ago. I know areas where country has been subsumed by city, or a city has simply been forgotten, and I know what was lost in each case. I repeat the question, and she pauses.
“I think Ryan would have to answer that,” she says. And she is perfectly right. She has been since the start of this write-around. She’s a writer herself, like her son, and she knows that discovery can be difficult. “It’s his journey,” she says. “I think his work is important. I think Glee remains important. Don’t you?”
Surreptitiously, I wrote down the streets she mentioned, assuming that she had given me the address for their original home, the one he grew up in. I should have known I was wrong. When I visited that place later, seeking that eastside intersection, I discovered that the two streets never meet. I pressed on, insisting to myself I could find the place inside the man, even if he couldn’t. That’s where I met the boy on the bicycle. That’s where I ended up, and where I started the search for Ryan Murphy.
Fiona, who is dear and empathetic, smart and soulful, bound for music and better places, perks up again at Mrs. Murphy’s question. She’s more than a Gleek. She’s a kid from a small town, who occasionally feels trapped in Greencastle where we live, just like many kids on Glee and The Glee Project, just like—it must be fair to say now—Ryan Murphy did once. Fiona senses the tension as I fail to answer about the importance of the show and pipes up: “I do!”
Mrs. Murphy smiles a little then, and looks over her glasses at my girl. “You do?” she says.
“I know what it’s like,” Fiona says, “to live in a place you may never go back to. Sometimes that’s what I think they’re singing about on Glee: me.”
They really take to chatting then, and soon I excuse myself to wash my hands and give them some time. When I return, they are talking about religion and atheism. Peas in a pod, these two. One of them has turned off my digital tape recorder. I’d hoped to be able to eavesdrop later. “Hey!” I say to Fiona, in mock outrage.
The mother of Ryan Murphy, nurturer of creative souls, friend to young discoverers, tells me she did it. “I didn’t think you’d mind,” she says. “You have to respect the privacy of your children, don’t you?”
She has a point. And you damned sure can’t write around the truth.
» BONUS: We look back at Ryan Murphy's career here, set to the music of Glee.
Photos of Ryan Murphy in high school courtesy of Warren Central;
photo with Julia Roberts and Richard Jenkins by Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images.
This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue.