In Texas, a Real-Life 'Glee' Unfolds -- With a Twist

real life glee

You've no doubt heard of "Glee," the Golden Globe Award-winner this year for best TV comedy. The show follows a high school teacher who tries to turn a talented group of misfits into stars.

Well, this is a story about a real-life "Glee" -- with a twist.

Real Life "Glee"
Real Life "Glee"

For decades, Lynn Zednick Shaw -- or Zed, as most students called her -- ran one of the most successful high-school theater programs in the country at J.J. Pearce High School in Richardson, Texas.

Watch the full story tonight on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. ET

"We are the opposite world of the show 'Glee,'" said Heather Biddle, a 1995 graduate of J.J. Pearce. "We're the kids who are student council president, captain of the football team, the beauty queen, the prom queen -- and they're all in theater."

Alumni include Jessica Simpson, who starred as Cassie in a 1997 production of "A Chorus Line."

To commemorate the theater program's long success, Shaw hatched a plan: She would put on the biggest show of her life, with everyone she taught over 25 years.

What Shaw didn't know when she began to plan the event was that she didn't have much time.

Recruiting Performers for Real-Life 'Glee'

Shaw made a practice of reaching out to students who otherwise might not have thought about performing in the theater.

"She came up to me and said 'Can you sing?'" recalled Will Hughes, whom Shaw recruited from the baseball team. "And she kept after me and said, 'You need to come audition.' I didn't know I could act, but she told me I could do it and gave me a lead in 'Beauty and the Beast.'"

Elizabeth Judd was on the cheerleading squad when she landed her first lead role. Her performance in "Miss Saigon" was a sellout for three solid weeks.

"She changed my life in the sense that I think now I can do this, this career," said Judd, who is studying musical theater in New York City. "She pushed me to believe in myself."

Former Students Respond to Call

When Shaw put on a show, she set the bar high. Nobody wanted to be the one to tell her "No."

Peter Pan needed to fly -- and so he did. Jesus needed to rise from the dead in "Jesus Christ Superstar." And when Shaw directed "Miss Saigon," she told her technical director, Kelly Cox, that she needed a show-stopper.

"She would say, 'Build me a helicopter,'" recalled Cox. "And we'd say, 'Well, we don't have any room, any height,' and she'd say, 'Well I'm sure you'll find a way.' So we flew it in sideways and banked it. Exact scale model of a Huey helicopter."

And so, when word went out that Shaw wanted to mount the show of her life, more than 80 of her former students said they were in.

"She said, 'When I get to 25 years, I'm going to do a big show and bring back everyone from all the years,'" said Biddle. "I think that's why everyone jumped at the chance. I mean, who doesn't want to come back and relive their glory days?"

But this reunion took an unexpected turn: a final farewell that no one expected.

Last summer, Shaw got devastating news. She'd beaten breast cancer nine years before, but now it was back. In no time, word spread she had days to live.

A Tearful Farewell

Former students like John Redlinger went to say goodbye.

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