LOS ANGELES – "Glee" fans – and those who see the feature film "New Year's Eve" – would not hear the angelic singing voice of Lea Michele if not for Fresno's Audra McDonald.
"Audra is probably the best singer in the world – up there with Barbra [Streisand]. I don't think she has any idea what an influence she had on me. I would say 80% of my singing knowledge came from Audra," Michele says. "How to warm up. How to breathe. How to take care of my voice.
"All of my beliefs are because Audra instilled them in me. And I'm forever grateful to her."
Michele, 25, was only 8 when she was cast in the Broadway production of "Ragtime," starring McDonald. During the four years they were together on the production, Michele acquired all of the vocal mentoring.
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That training stayed with her through Broadway productions of "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Spring Awakening," and then as the determined and talented Rachel Berry on "Glee."
"New Year's Eve" writer Katherine Fugate was so impressed by the singer/actor on "Glee," she wrote a role for her in the film. Michele plays a backup singer trapped in an elevator with a charming but cynical man (Ashton Kutcher).
She gets to perform three songs in the film, including "Auld Lang Syne," a last-minute addition by director Garry Marshall just for Michele.
Michele spent two weeks filming the sequence – mostly in the small confines of an elevator. Getting that much time to do her small part of the movie's multiple stories was a huge departure from the "Glee" work schedule.
In the three years the TV show has been on, Michele has only had a handful of days not filming, rehearsing, touring, promoting or working on some part of the popular Fox series. She loved having all the time to work on the film, but she didn't get a break because she bounced between the movie and her series.
Michele's not complaining. She loves the work.
"I would not – no, let me rephrase that – I could not physically, emotionally, mentally do 'Glee' if I didn't love it. It's the hardest work when you are up at 5 a.m. dancing, singing and working 17-hour days. Living across the country from my family," she says. " 'Glee' is really hard work, but at the same time, Rachel is so secondhand to me at this point, I could be Rachel Berry right now in a second. It was more of a struggle to do the movie because it was a new character for me.
"It's easy to love 'Glee' because it's good," she adds, "but the main reason we love it is because we love each other."
She calls everyone of the show her best friend, but she says her best best friend is Clovis East graduate Chris Colfer. Michele describes her connection with the actor, who plays Kurt Hummel, as the kind where she can see them sitting together in New York when they are 50, sharing a cocktail.
By then, Michele will have liked to have appeared in productions where she didn't have to sing – just to give her voice a rest for a short time.
"To act while I'm singing is so enjoyable for me," Michele says. "To be passionate through my voice. To show my emotions through my voice is so fun. I love singing. I'm falling more in love with it as I'm getting older. I love singing, and its the best way I express myself, and I don't know what I would do without it."
She can thank McDonald for the inspiration.