Multitalented “Glee” alum Matthew Morrison puts on a show in Marina del Rey
By Christina Campodonico
Matthew Morrison is hard to pin down. The multi-hyphenate performer moves fluidly between acting, singing and dancing — and he’s one heck of a busy guy. He’s currently shooting a film in China, taking a solo concert show on a national tour, and running a men’s apparel and accessory business he co-founded this summer.
Acclaimed for his golden voice in Broadway musicals such as “Hairspray” and “The Light in the Piazza,” Morrison’s been nominated for a Tony, a Golden Globe and an Emmy while playing heartthrobs on the big and small screen — most notably the compassionate and crush-worthy high school glee club director William Schuester, or “Mr. Schue,” on the wildly popular TV musical dramedy “Glee.”
The barrier-breaking series about a misfit group of show choir kids chasing their dreams not only launched the Broadway star into the pop culture mainstream, it arguably made musical theater cool again.
“‘Glee’ was great because it shamelessly stood for something at a time when social responsibility was as uncool as, well, being in your high school show choir,” wrote The Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon when the show ended in 2015. “It was a nerds-shall-rise moment for musical theater fans who had been waiting for their turn on the pop-culture kick line.”
More recently, Morrison went on to star in the Harvey Weinstein-produced musical “Finding Neverland” and has a role in the upcoming period drama “Tulip Fever,” starring Oscar winner Alicia Vikander.
But pretty soon he’ll be adding the role of a lifetime to his resume: dad. The 38-year-old is expecting his first child with wife Renee Puente later this year.
Morrison is tight-lipped about baby details as well as the set list for this Thursday’s free Marina del Rey Summer Concert Series performance at Burton Chace Park. But in a telephone interview Friday, Morrison did say he looks forward to jazzing up his repertoire of standards and show tunes with “some great pop songs that are great songs to dance to,” including musical renditions from “Glee” and maybe a few Elton John hits.
“I love anything Elton John,” Morrison says. “Just his melodies and his lyrics are so amazing and evocative and fun and fresh. I’ve been listening to his music for the past 20 years and it’s still so relevant. … It’s something that every generation can really get behind.”
But mostly Morrison just wants to put on a good show.
“I’m an entertainer,” he says, “and I just want people to be entertained.”
How did Gene Kelly become one of your idols?
Growing up, I was always in the theater. I started at a very young age. The two monuments of musical theater that you could watch on film were Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Fred Astaire was kind of the aristocrat and Gene Kelly was kind of the proletariat, the working class man. I always really associated myself with Gene Kelly — just seeing him dance, it really inspired me to dance. He made [dance] look so masculine and so athletic. … He was my role model. He made [dance] look so cool. And it’s something that I’ve tried to do for future generations — to kind of keep dance alive and keep it masculine and keep it cool.
Did you have to overcome social biases about men who dance?
My first foray into dance was breakdancing. I got some cool points from people for that. But the breakdancing really led me into a love and an appreciation for all forms of dance. I got into ballet, tap and jazz. And I was lucky in high school. I really kind of held my own, and I was also an athlete. I didn’t bear the brunt of too much talk or bullying. But I really felt it was my personal duty to stand up for a lot of people who weren’t necessarily good at athletics and were still into dance. I felt that was my place and my role, and some lifelong friendships came from those moments.
Was attending the Orange County School of the Arts anything like “Glee”?
I guess there were some similarities. Big difference though, I was student in high school and not a teacher. [Laughs] … My inspiration for [Mr. Schuester] was a teacher I had in high school. That teacher — the guy who founded the Orange County School of the Arts, Ralph S. Opacic — is someone I’m still incredibly close to, and OCSA’s my legacy. I go back to the school. I do master classes with the kids. And I always try to tell them that “I was you. I was a kid who had a dream, and I just worked really hard and had a couple of lucky breaks and was able to have a great career basically singing and dancing and playing make believe for a living.”
“Glee” was such a cultural phenomenon. What do you think it did for musical theater in America?
Most people in Middle America, their idea of theater is basically going to see a kids’ high school production of a show. … I think people had such a bad connotation of theater because that’s all they were really exposed to. So I think “Glee” just opened people’s eyes to the magic of live theater.
Other than the fame it brought you, what impact did “Glee” have on your life?
I’m just so happy that I got to play a character on TV that actually stood for something and was such a positive role model. I could have played a doctor, a lawyer, a cop — the standard thing you see on TV. But this is someone who actually had passion for teaching and those kids and performance.
And I think I still have that impact on people who are fans of the show. As I get further and further away from the show, the impact of the show resonates even more for me now because people come up to me and say, “I had such a hard time in high school, but ‘Glee’ really changed my life and it gave me a new perspective and a new outlet.”
And I think it really changed people’s lives. It was the only time when people could actually sit down with their families and watch an episode about being gay in high school, or being bullied or … being pregnant in high school. And hopefully people can just sit and watch an episode of “Glee” and actually have a conversation with their family after an episode. That’s how I picture a perfect night of watching “Glee” — watching it and having a great outlet to vocalize more thoughts on what you just saw.
What do you see as your next act?
It’s been a crazy ride since the show. I have a big role in “Grey’s Anatomy” coming up. I’m shooting this fantastic movie in China. I’m doing concerts all over the world. I just stared a business called Sherpapa because I’m going to be a new dad.
Thank you! I just realized that there’s nothing out there for cool dads. If you want to have a diaper bag, you’re forced to carry your wife’s bag, or put stuff in a backpack. So [friend Zach McDuffie and I] kind of created this new manly and classic bag for dads, and we also have a lot of great apparel. So that’s been a really cool and different journey for me as well.
How do you feel about becoming a father?
There’s a few moments in your life when you get to actually hit the reset button and kind of start fresh, and I’m so excited to do that. I’m 38 years old and I feel like I’m doing this at the perfect time because I got to live and I had so many life experiences that I can really pass down to my child. … I have the perfect partner in my life — Renee. We’re so ready for this journey. I’m really excited to be a present and proactive father.
Do you have a song that speaks to you in terms of becoming a father?
The song that’s been playing in my head a lot is “Fix You” by Coldplay. I love that song. It’s just so beautiful. The way [Chris Martin] sings it in his falsetto, too, it’s almost like a lullaby. I’m trying to learn it right now so I can sing it to my kid.
Acting, singing or dancing — do you have a favorite?
I love them all. Honestly, it really depends on the day. Right now I love acting, I think. If you ask me right now, just because I’ve been doing it so much. But the great thing about my career is I’ve been able to do all three. That’s why I think “Glee” and my performances on Broadway have been the perfect jobs for me, because I got to do all three at once. It’s just like the perfect song.
Matthew Morrison performs at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 3, at Burton Chace Park, 13650 Mindanao Way, Marina del Rey. Free. Visit beaches.lacounty.gov/concerts for venue FAQs.