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Life after 'Glee': Matthew Morrison on his dream role and his national concert tour

A pained frown raced along Matthew Morrison’s brow. This wasn’t the terrorized expression of horror we recall from the hit TV show “Glee” when his Mr. Schuester was under attack by his archenemy gym coach played by Jane Lynch. Nor the exaggerated, fierce scowl he sported recently on a Broadway stage, clashing with Kelsey Grammer’s Captain Hook in “Finding Neverland.”

No, this was the resigned look of the weary homeowner realizing more bills are on the way. Morrison, 38, was back from the Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan, where he and wife Renee also live, to his cozy compound in the Hollywood Hills. First, the driveway’s electronic gate was being balky, and now the front door latch was proving uncooperative. 

These annoyances morphed the frown to grumbling: “Boy, go away a little bit and everything crumbles.”

Morrison plopped down on a comfy leather couch, stretched his legs out onto a coffee table and pushed aside repair thoughts to chat about a bit of everything, which seems suitable given his 15-year career is equal parts acting, singing and dancing.

Morrison has a number of pots boiling. Last year he filmed a role in “Tulip Fever,” a Tom Stoppard-written period romance with Oscar winners Alicia Vikander, Judi Dench and Christoph Waltz slated to open Feb. 24. In late November, he workshopped numbers in the eagerly awaited Stephen Sondheim musical, working title “Bunuel.” (“Melodies are so ungeneric, challenging, I couldn’t sleep the night before singing my parts,” he said.) Fingers crossed, that will open at the Public Theater in New York in the fall.

Meantime, his focus is on a touring show in which he sings Broadway standards with a backing jazz band. It stops Jan. 14 at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica and March 4 at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

“My arrangements are organized so I can dance, a bit different than contemporary people like [Michael] Buble and [Josh] Groban who sing this kind of music,” Morrison said during a recent interview (edited for length), our first since our conversation for a Times article published during the first season of “Glee” in 2010. 

The 24-7 public attention you got in the first year or two when “Glee” blew up: a blessing or a curse?

Yes, [laughs] both. But that was fine. I kind of live in an emotional 5, I’m an even-keeled guy.

During the peak, would people react as if you were that character?

Oh, yeah. Once I was waiting to go into a restaurant and these kids came up and started singing, auditioning on the spot. And then they were, “So, can we be on ‘Glee?’” I gave them a bit of the Mr. Schu pep talk, but it was awkward. How do you say, “I play a fictional character on a TV show, I don’t cast it”?

"I could have been on a cop or lawyer show that hit, but 'Glee' actually stood for something," Morrison said.
"I could have been on a cop or lawyer show that hit, but 'Glee' actually stood for something," Morrison said. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

I gotta know, what was the song?

[The slightest of frowns returned to his brow.] Ah, pretty sure it was “Don’t Stop Believing.” [Laughs] Yep, I got that one a lot.

You had done Broadway, but that show established you nationally.

And I am so proud of it! I could have been on a cop or lawyer show that hit, but “Glee” actually stood for something, legitimately meant more to real kids, like those I went to school with [at an arts high school].

“Glee” had a significant part of the gay rights movement, its surging among younger people, letting them feel more confident to be themselves in public.

You attended the Orange County School of the Arts. Looking back 20 years, what did that give you?

A big thing was being in a school where everyone there wanted to be there — not just going because they had to go or learn to get an A and then forget stuff. People there applied learning in real time, so they were growing and changing. And so did I.

You are now on the school’s board?

Yes, it’s a mission of mine. I feel it is a perfect model of a charter school for the arts. Next year we are opening one in the San Gabriel Valley, and then we are looking to be in San Diego. We’re exploring doing about three in Northern California down the road, hopefully making this a national thing.

You’ve anchored an hour-long TV show and been the lead in a Broadway musical. What have you learned about sizing up projects that come your way?

[At first] it was, “It’s a part, I want any part!” After I had done a couple musicals, I was more looking at the roles — “Does this work for me? What do I get to do? Can I act, sing and dance?”

Now when a project comes up, I look at the team. Are they people likely to put something good together? Because I have been a part of some projects — sorry, no names — that didn’t really have a good leader or weren’t shaped right or the dynamics were off, and the results showed, I felt.

Now you have more control?

I do concerts, like these ones coming up, all over the world, and I am able to make a nice income so I don’t have to do just any show to pay the bills. I turn down more things than I accept.

That said, is there any specific role you would crawl over glass to play?

Gene Kelly!

In the day, people seemed to be either Fred Astaire fanciers — he was suave and smooth — or fans of Gene Kelly, more physical and rambunctious. How did you compare them?

Astaire felt a little high class for me. It was “tails.” Gene was the proletarian working man, average guy, you know? And I think I fell in love with Kelly because maybe I could be like him: I sing, act, dance. He excelled at all of them.

Beyond the obvious “Singin’ in the Rain,” is there a Kelly movie that especially knocks you out?

I love “An American in Paris,” but a dance routine that blows me away was in the movie “Summer Stock.” There was a creaking board and then a newspaper on the floor, and he tears it with his feet. It gets smaller and smaller, so effective and simple. Now, talking about it, I want to go watch it again!

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Can you tell us about a song you are likely to sing live in these shows, why it matters to you?

There is a sense of longing to “On the Street Where You Live” that makes it special. But the song has changed meanings for me over my lifetime.

How so?

I sang it in high school and I auditioned with it in New York for many things. It was the song I got “Glee” with. But it really changed for me after I got married. In the past, it was so in the present for me — I was wooing, walking down the road with different women — but now it has a reflective, almost past tense feeling: I always walked down the path that led me to you, my wife. I will always stay here, be true to you, with you. 

Do you have any nonentertainment professional pursuits?

I have gotten involved in an online business officially rolling out in June for Father’s Day. It is called Sherpapa. We are creating and selling what we think of as high quality “field kits” for younger dads who travel with their families. A parka kit, a beach kit, an airplane kit, just grab your quality-gear little kit and go.

How did this come to be?

Renee and I love traveling. We are friends with another travel-hungry couple who just had a kid and we were lamenting the challenges of being a “dad adventurer.” We hit on the name, in part from a Sherpa guiding, leading the way, plus, also the person carrying all the stuff, which often falls on dad.

All this talk of dads: Is fatherhood in your future?

We’re actively pursuing it. I am so looking forward to that next phase.

You are an only child. Do you want just one or more?

Family is so important so I would want there to be a sibling. Two, I think, but I want it manageable. I think we could handle that. [Pauses, then laughs.] I better check this is the right answer.

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Matthew Morrison

Where: The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica

When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 14

Tickets: $75-$115 (subject to change)

Information: (310) 434-3200, www.thebroadstage.com

Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.

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UPDATES:

For the Record

An earlier version of this article said Morrison attended Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana. Although the school is in Santa Ana, Morrison attended when it was in Los Alamitos and called Orange County High School of the Arts.

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