Don’t be surprised If Matthew Morrison makes you think of some of the great song-and-dance men of the past. It’s intentional, yet also perfectly natural.
“I grew up watching people like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., and we don’t have those kinds of performers anymore,” says Morrison, calling from Los Angeles. “That’s the kind of show I want to put on: singing a lot of classic Broadway standards from the Great American Songbook, telling anecdotes about my life and just having fun.”
Morrison’s idol is Gene Kelly, and you can see the great man’s influence in his athletic, acrobatic dancing style. Like Davis and Sinatra, Morrison can croon sweetly or swing with a ferocious rhythm, never losing sight of a lyric. And as anyone who has watched him as Mr. Schue on “Glee” can attest, he can create a vivid, fully rounded character full of humor and melancholy.
“ ‘Glee’ doesn’t even begin to touch the range of what he can do,” says Brad Ellis, who serves as musical director for both Morrison and the Fox series. “He’s very versatile. He’s doing something really very special that we haven’t seen in a long while. He’s authoritative, like an old-school leading man with a microphone.”
The TV phenomenon of “Glee” brought Morrison international fame, but his roots can be traced back to the theater. He was raised in Southern California and has family in Arizona, so he often spent summers in the Valley. His stage debut came at age 10 in a Theatreworks production in Peoria called “The Herdmans Go to Camp” — “Did you catch it?” he cracks.
He graduated from Orange County High School of the Arts then went to New York University. He dropped out before graduation after landing a role in the Broadway production of “Footloose.” Later he played Link Larson in the original Broadway cast of “Hairspray,” followed by a Tony-nominated turn in “The Light in the Piazza.”
“I wasn’t surprised when he did Broadway stuff so well on ‘Glee,’ because we had crossed paths in New York and his Broadway experience told me he could do that,” Ellis says. “But then when he started doing hip-hop moves and rapping and he did those so well, I thought, ‘What else can this guy do?’ ”
Indeed, the sky seems the limit for Morrison, 35. He’s blessed with the kind of matinee-idol looks that make women swoon. He’s taken seriously as a performer (he’s got the Emmy nomination to prove it), yet he created waves when he posed shirtless on the cover of men’s mag Details, showcasing some chiseled six-pack abs. Fans of both sexes probably sighed in disappointment when he announced his engagement to model Renee Puente last year.
“Here’s what’s cool about him,” Ellis says. “He has all the opportunities to lead a ridiculously glamorous life, but he prefers to live like an adult. He lives in a quiet neighborhood. He’s been with his fiancee for a long time. He’s not at all seduced by the ridiculous crap of Hollywood.”
After “Glee” took off, Morrison made his first solo album, a self-titled affair that was geared toward pop radio. It came out in 2011 and featured several tracks penned by the performer. The disc reached the Top 25 on the national pop charts, but didn’t reflect his musical theater roots, save for a sweetly folksy take on “Over the Rainbow” that featured Morrison on ukulele — again, is there anything he can’t do?
“I was trying something new,” says Morrison, who mulls over every question before answering. “I’m such a stage guy and people know me for that. I was trying to mix things up a little bit. It was a great process for me and a different experience.”
Rather than follow the disc with a similar offering, he switched gears for last year’s “Where It All Began,” which features standards and show tunes. The album has some absolutely shimmering moments, from a blistering take on “Basin Street Blues” to a yearning “As Long As She Needs Me.”
On the disc, he achieves the neat feat of making familiar standards like “Hey There” and “Luck Be a Lady” feel vibrant and contemporary while not drastically changing the way they are presented. Morrison doesn’t disagree when it’s suggested that he’s more at home in the world of the Great American Songbook.
“This album definitely is more me,” he says. “Personally I think these songs are timeless. These are the songs I grew up listening to, and they were written and recorded long before I was around. They weave a good story. I kind of approach each song like a monologue, and each song has its own story.”
Morrison’s live show has earned acclaim. Stephen Holden in the New York Times, reviewing his performance last year in July, opined that the star, “with his sleek Guy Madison looks and cool self-assurance, came across as a talent of formidable versatility and intelligence.”
Despite the good notices, that evening is full of mixed emotions for Morrison. His friend and “Glee” co-star Cory Monteith died July 13, the day before Morrison’s engagement in New York began. Morrison and Ellis began receiving texts about Monteith in the middle of the night. The star initially considered canceling the concerts before deciding to go on.
“I’m glad he didn’t (cancel), because he’s a showman,” Ellis says. “He’s an entertainer. People bought tickets to see his show.”
Once the decision was made to continue, the two worked out how to address the news. Rather than start the show with the typical overture, they decided that Morrison would go onstage and speak to the audience about what happened. After talking about his friend for a few moments, he sang a simple, straightforward “What I Did For Love.”
“It was just a big elephant in the room until he sang,” Ellis says. “When he did that, it worked because it was both respectful of our fallen colleague and of the audience who came to see him perform.”
Morrison says it was the toughest night in his career.
“I honestly didn’t know if I could get through the shows, but it wound up being the best decision I ever made,” he says. “I never realized as much as I did that night that singing is really therapy for me. The crowds were just there with me, and it was a very communal experience.”
After Monteith’s death, “Glee” creator Ryan Murphy announced that next season will be the show’s last. Morrison isn’t saddened by the news.
“I think we’re all ready for it to end,” he says. “It’s going be bittersweet because we’ve become such a family there, but I think we’re all ready to go. Plus, I come from the stage. I’m used to being in a role for not even a year at a time, and I’ll be doing this role for six years now. I’ll definitely be ready to tackle something new.”
Something new for Morrison may be something old, musically speaking. He’s been appearing with symphonies around the country, and he’s having a ball. Thanks to his TV exposure, his fans range from the very old to the very young.
“That’s the great thing about these shows,” he says. “It’s mutually beneficial for myself and the orchestras. They bring in a younger audience, and people who normally wouldn’t bring their kids to the symphony take them to my show. For me, it’s great fun.”
Reach the reporter at email@example.com or 602-444-8849. Twitter.com/randy_cordova.