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Broadway veteran Lea Michele takes center stage in the Fox dramedy Glee.

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LEA MICHELE was ready for a break. Not her big break -- she’d already gotten that at the ripe old age of eight. What she needed was to get away.

For five years, the actress had been performing on Broadway and in Toronto, Canada, in the blockbuster musicals Les Misérables and Ragtime. She’d honed her skills working in the company of Tony Award winners Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell. But the grind of eight performances a week was exhausting. So with her 14th birthday and her freshman year of high school rapidly approaching, Michele put a halt to auditions so she could enjoy a normal life for a while, away from the spotlight.

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One can only imagine what Rachel Berry’s incredulous reaction to Michele’s decision would have been. For those who haven’t already caught on to Fox’s Glee, Rachel is the fame-hungry high school sophomore whom Michele, now 23, plays to perfection on the much-hyped musical-comedy series. As the head “gleek” -- the nickname given to the school’s glee-club members -- the unpopular but talented Rachel craves the spotlight. She’s so sure of her star status, in fact, that after she signs her name on something, she adds a gold star sticker to the end of her John Hancock.

“Rachel is so much fun to play,” says Michele, whose own star has been shining brighter than ever since the Glee pilot debuted in May. “I’d been getting so many scripts that were the same character over and over again: the beautiful, gorgeous wealthy girl. I hadn’t read a script or a character as funny, as outgoing, and as different as Rachel. Plus, coming from a musical-theater background, to be part of a show where I get to sing at the same time is perfect.”

Glee’s musical appeal is capturing the attention of fans as well. A soundtrack for the show, which is due out this month, serves a stellar sampler from the 50-plus musical numbers the cast has recorded this season. Director Ryan Murphy borrows hits from iTunes and classic show tunes alike to set his scenes; they’ve ranged from Queen’s “Somebody to Love” to “Mister Cellophane” from the musical Chicago.

“In one particular episode, we were doing a Beyoncé song, [“Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”], where I was laughing so hard and we were being stupid and crazy,” Michele says, remembering. “Fast-forward to five minutes later, and we transition to another number where I’m hysterically crying. That, right there, is what Glee is.”

Such mood swings and shifts are to be expected -- this is a show about high school life, after all. Rachel is especially prone to melodrama, as she’s competing with the head cheerleader for the affections of Finn Hudson (played by Cory Monteith), a fellow glee-club member who just so happens to also be the star quarterback. And like a typical teenager, Rachel broods about it all on her MySpace page. Every detail of the show rings true to life, which is what makes Michele so proud to be a part of it.

“When I was younger, I had shows I watched where I could look at a character and say, ‘I wish I could be as pretty or as cool as that girl,’ ” Michele says. “I never had a show that I could watch and say, ‘I get that. I know what that feels like.’ I think Glee will be that show for so many teens.”

Michele cops to a few not-so-gleeful high school flashbacks while shooting this season. “Every time we’re in the choir room, I get these awful pangs and memories of how much my choir teacher hated me,” she says. “It was terrible.” But mean teachers are part of a normal teenage upbringing, which is what Michele had left Broadway in search of -- and she found it. Then, the bright lights of New York called to her again during her senior year. While attending Tenafly High School in New Jersey, she played volleyball, was a champion debater, and even performed in the school play -- but just once. “I wanted to give other kids the opportunity to act who didn’t otherwise get to perform,” she says. For that, Rachel would give her a gold star.

In the Key of Glee

With one Glee soundtrack hitting stores this month and a second set to come out in time for the holidays, the “gleeks” are poised to take over the charts. Here are some of our favorite tunes from the show so far.

“Bust Your Windows”
by Jazmine Sullivan

Mercedes Jones (Amber Riley) belts out this number during a fantastic fantasy sequence. Take that, Simon Cowell; Riley was rejected from American Idol before landing this plum role.

“Don’t Stop Believin’ ”
by Journey

The cast’s rousing rendition of this 1980s anthem debuted at number four on the Billboard Hot 100 -- five spots higher than where Journey’s original version peaked back in 1981. It now serves as the show’s unofficial anthem.

“On My Own”
from Les Misérables

In the series’ pilot, Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) records herself singing this and uploads the video to MySpace, to great ridicule. Michele herself performed the song to great acclaim in Les Misérables in Concert at the Hollywood Bowl and used it for her Glee audition.