The heart of all that ‘Glee’

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In early March, the Paley Center held its annual festival saluting notable new TV shows, showcasing the likes of “Modern Family” and “Men of a Certain Age.” The evenings of PaleyFest have a comfortable charm -- an episode screening, cast appearances and polite questions from an attentive audience.

Then there was March 13, and the salute to “Glee.” Lines formed early outside the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, and swelled hours before the doors opened, with fans -- self-described Gleeks -- hanging out, many of them singing and dancing as they waited. The mood inside the packed, 1,900-seat auditorium -- attendance was later announced as biggest in the festival’s 27 years -- was anxious, ebullient.

FOR THE RECORD: An article about “Glee” star Matthew Morrison in Sunday’s Calendar section, which was printed in advance, refers to a friend of his as Brian Barnam. His last name is Barham.

Things quieted during the showing of the first of nine new episodes, which begin airing Tuesday on Fox, but the lights came up, the cast was introduced one by one and enthusiasm grew. Finally, out bounded a smiling Matthew Morrison, “Glee’s” bedrock character, glee club director Will Schuester, and the place blew apart.

Not much was required of Morrison as part of the sizable panel of costars and show runners. But every time his name was mentioned or a question was lobbed his way, the very fact that the chiseled 6-foot actor with the striking blue eyes was present would elicit an involuntary shriek from somewhere in the hall.

For those non-Gleeks who don’t know what the shouting is all about, “Glee” is an hourlong confection set in high school and played out against a background soundtrack of catchy cover tunes popping up about every 10 minutes. The show’s rating successes in the fall -- OK numbers overall, but a dynamic core in the key 18-34 demographic -- earned it an early renewal for a second season. In January, it won a Golden Globe for best TV comedy or musical and come July, there is likelihood of a spate of Emmy nods.

At the core of it, shrieks and all, is Morrison. The 31-year-old actor, raised in Orange County, has a decade of Broadway and a Tony nomination under his belt, but it wasn’t until “Glee” that he catapulted into the public eye as the show’s decent-guy centerpiece, albeit one with a dreamboat-looks twist. Schuester functions as den father to a group of harmonic teens amped on high tones as well as hormones; he’s also the object of dueling affections from a wily wife and winsome co-worker; and, perhaps the highlight of it all, is the victimized combatant in a death-match rivalry with the predatory cheerleading coach, played by the titanic Jane Lynch.

“Glee” costar Lea Michele -- a breakout in her own right -- appraises Morrison’s role on the set to the gaggle of younger cast members as a “big brother type. He’s not overbearing or parental, but someone who, when things get a little chaotic, will settle everyone else down with a ‘hey guys, let’s get on our game.’ ”

On the set, Morrison is nicknamed “Triple Threat,” a non-ironic description of his formidable talents as singer (a stirring, high-range tenor), dancer (he got his first Broadway gig dancing in a line at 19) and actor, where his emotional accessibility and empathy for fellow characters manifests itself with a depth rare in television prime-time comedies.

Audiences, women in particular, respond to him.

“He grounds the show and brings an adult element for those of us outside high school,” said Lindsay Hanks, 27, of Aliso Viejo, who was at the “Glee” tribute. “He seems like he’s not in a negative light,” chimed in her friend Leila Lotfi, 30, also of Aliso Viejo.

In a chat from New York, Bartlett Sher fine-tunes these sentiments. “I think the reason his sincerity connects is because he’s sensitive to other people’s pain and anxiety.” Sher’s not a rhapsodizing Gleek but the veteran theater and opera director who cast and directed Morrison in “The Light in the Piazza” and who then won a Tony for his remounting of “South Pacific,” in which Morrison played the conflicted Lt. Cable.

“He could handle any of the young Shakespeare leads now or [Anton Chekhov’s] ‘Seagull.’ . . . Like the greatest leading men, he makes you look at the girl because he generates care, concern.”

All that attention

A current problem for Morrison, though one he cheerfully contends with, is the attention that has come from his starring turn in a hot series. For an interview the day before the Oscars, he arrives at an outdoor café with a New York Mets baseball cap pulled down low, tamping out of sight his most attention-getting feature, the wavy brown hair that is subject matter in more than 3,000 online entries.

For all of Morrison’s cursory dismissal of fame -- “I’m not famous; the ‘Octomom’ is famous” -- he falls under its sway occasionally. For instance, he is surprised to be suddenly not just recognizable to regular people he meets, but also to the even more famous people he can’t believe he is meeting. In December, he performed at the annual Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C., singing and dancing a spot-on version of “Springtime for Hitler” during the salute to Mel Brooks.

“After, there was a party, and suddenly, there’s Robert De Niro.” Morrison’s eyes widen a bit, remembering the encounter with Brooks’ fellow honoree. “He comes up and says,” Morrison’s voice ratchets down into a credible take on the De Niro growl, circa the 12th round in “Raging Bull,” “ ‘Hey, you da guy, you da guy that was funny. Ha, ha. Good, kid.’

“And then Bruce Springsteen [another honoree] is in front of me, and he’s like, apologetic: ‘I don’t mean to bother you, but would you come over and meet my kids?’ ”

Morrison’s eyes are now big as saucers. “I mean, you’re the Boss! You can ask me to do anything you want!”

Morrison pauses, reflecting on the evening’s encounters and his career: “I don’t really believe in reincarnation, but I feel like I’m living my next life right now.”

Morrison’s first life began at Ft. Ord, near Monterey, Calif. His parents were Army nurses. Then his father, Tom, enrolled in USC to study midwifery. Jobs being more plentiful in Southern California, Matthew and his mother, Mary, joined Tom here when Matthew was about 10.

He caught the theater bug after spending a summer with relatives and performing in a kids’ play called “The Herdmans Go to Camp.” Subsequent youth theater experience followed; it led Morrison to the Orange County High School of the Arts (OCHSA), then in Los Alamitos.

“I learned more there than I ever have the rest of my life,” said Morrison. “I went east to NYU, and that’s an elite theater program, a great place for me, but sometimes I felt I was relearning stuff that I got in high school.”

“Matt, oh wow, even then, the talent, you could see it! He had the voice, he looked good, he could act,” said Ralph Opacic, OCHSA’s passionate founder and leader, who adds, “He was also class president his senior year.”

At this juncture, introducing Brian Barham as a counterweight might be useful. One of Morrison’s closest friends, Barham, who is not in the arts, has been a bud stretching back to high school and then through the years when both were in New York.

“Look, Matt was class president, good looking, up-and-coming actor, all that. But he was not exactly a saint, OK?” There’s a tell-all chuckle as he proceeds to recount pranks of license plate thefts, “knucklehead competitions” that in one instance landed loser Morrison in an East Village tattoo parlor (for the record, the actor has four tats) and avid pursuit of the opposite sex on both coasts.

“To me, this shows the different parts of Matt’s character,” said Barham, transitioning from pal to psychologist. “He’s an extroverted introvert, but if you want to go have fun, maybe get into a little trouble, he’s there without a second thought. It would be wrong to see the guy as a wimp.”

A side project

Late on a Saturday afternoon in March, at a home recording studio in Silver Lake, after hitting six letter-perfect readings, Morrison bungles the first passage of Amos Lee’s plaintive ballad “Arms of a Woman.” A brief stream of invective bursts forth from behind the studio glass, then a sigh, then Morrison’s voice resumes its normal aplomb, “Let me try it again.”

Morrison is taking a day away from the 16-hour “Glee” taping sessions to focus on the first project of his career that is just about him -- no Broadway costars, no TV ensemble. Off the “Glee” heat, Mercury Records signed him to do a solo album. This is just a demo session; work begins for real later this month. The plan is for original songs and a few covers. Tony, Grammy and Emmy winner Marc Shaiman is on board to write material. An orchestra is envisioned. Morrison can see a tour if the album hits.

“But it won’t be lightweight pop,” he says, during a break. “It’s gotta be . . . meaningful.”

The pursuit of “meaningful” is key to understanding Morrison today. He’s well aware that the Hollywood road to success is littered with breakout TV stars who never could quite leave their small screen personas behind. The savvy Morrison will pursue a project only if he can see his own reflection and feel good about the performer looking back at him.

“Personally, the important thing about ‘Glee’ hitting is that now I can say, ‘No,’ ” he says. “Before, I had to at least look at every project that was out there, but now I can be selective. And I intend to be.”

Among his Broadway successes, there were missteps: a soap opera for a couple months, a stint in a pre-fab boy band that brings a grimace to his face. But with earnings from the show, he has commissioned a musical on the short life, meteoric career and early death of James Dean. Less firm, there have also been conversations with “High School Musical” czar Kenny Ortega about a biopic of Hollywood’s original “Triple Threat,” Gene Kelly.

Even though he has a new house in the Hollywood Hills to pay for, commercials don’t fit into this picture at present. In fact, in a playful mood, he cynically responded to the concept of a hypothetical commercial to capitalize on his hair -- “No cheap product, no way . . . wait, wait, that’s a biiiiiig check!” But his focus quickly returned to work of substance and significance versus short-term payouts.

“Here’s the thing,” Morrison says, leaning forward in his chair during the lunch interview. His eyes narrow with a focused, almost chilly look of intensity, no more nice Will Schuester on display. “I get it that ‘hot’ fades. But I intend to be around for awhile.” Michelle Stern contributed to this report.

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