To sir, with love: How 'Glee' turned Matthew Morrison from Broadway stalwart to international star
He made his name on Broadway but became an international superstar on 'Glee'. Craig McLean learns a thing or two from Matthew 'Mr Schuester' Morrison
Sunday 10 April 2011
June 2010, and the cast of Glee have come to town. In the bowels of The Hospital, actors are being shuttled in pairs from room to windowless room. Outside this central London private members' club and arts venue, young fans of the hit American musical dramedy – Gleeks – have gathered with notepads and cameras. Inside, a phalanx of US publicists from the Fox TV network usher their young charges hither and thither. Fruit plates and cookies are lobbed at the actors to pep up their energy levels as they face the UK's showbiz media.
"Ah, I could live in London," sighs Chris Colfer, who plays gay boy-diva Kurt. "I'd love to be knighted, but I think I can't."
"The Glee live tour was like being back on Broadway," says Jenna Ushkowitz ("Asian vampire" Tina), a young veteran of New York musicals such as Spring Awakening, as she recalls the Glee cast's recent, sell-out US concert tour.
"Acting is much better fun than music!" grins Kevin McHale (wheelchair-bound Artie). Before being cast in Glee, he was in a boyband, NLT (Not Like Them). They enjoyed fleeting success with a song produced by Timbaland, who also worked with Justin Timberlake. "Glee is the best of both worlds – we get to kinda be secret music artists, but we don't have to worry cos it's the characters singing and not you."
"Yeah, Kevin and I have swapped war stories," smiles Matthew Morrison. The 32-year-old actor, who plays dreamboat teacher Will Schuester, also has a background in boy bands. "Kevin's scarred, too," he jokes, "but I think he had a more positive experience. My band were called LMNT [pronounced "Element"] – I call them Lament. It was the worst year of my life. I've been in five different boy bands. A lot of them were jokes, spoofs. But that one, that was interesting... You know as a performer when you're on stage and you're embarrassed to be up there cos you know you're doing something wrong?"
Morrison is Glee's break-out male star, and not just because he gets to share screen time and vicious dialogue with the best female character, comedy nasty cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester (played by Jane Lynch). On the set he's known as "Triple Threat": he can sing, he can dance, he can act. So, after rigorous training, can most of the other cast members. But not with the natural-born – and professionally honed – savvy of Morrison.
Prior to Glee, he was a Broadway stalwart with a decade of well-regarded, award-winning performances behind him, in shows including Hairspray, The Light in the Piazza and South Pacific – he was the male lead in the latter when Glee creator Ryan Murphy cast him in the show. He went from earning "something like 10 grand a week" to a figure he can describe only with a cat-that-got-the-cream smile.
With seven to 10 years' age on most of his castmates, he is also a little more sanguine about the hoopla surrounding what has become one of the biggest TV shows in the world. "I'm so happy I got to live out my twenties in New York and be free to do whatever I wanted to do, not under that public eye and that scrutiny," he says. "I feel bad for the rest of the guys that they'll never experience that."
On this summer's day, in the midst of this brief promotional stopover in London to mark the end of the UK broadcast of Glee season one, Morrison has other things on his mind. He's off to meet Elton John at the latter's White Tie & Tiara Ball, held annually at his Windsor estate. The Rocket Man invited the Glee man after outing himself – at his 2010 Oscars party in Los Angeles, to which Morrison was also invited – as a huge fan of the show.
He also has an appointment with Eg White, the Ivor Novello-winning writer for the likes of Will Young and Adele. Because Morrison is ahead of the Glee pack in another way. The show's cast, courtesy of their digital singles and soundtrack albums, may have sold 30 million records and beaten US chart records held by Elvis and the Beatles, but Morrison is the first cast member to sign a solo record deal.
Right now he envisages his debut album, which he's working on while he's in London, as falling between Michael Bublé and Timberlake. "I do have that kind of throwback, bigger voice like Bublé. And then I want to make it a little more contemporary, like Timberlake."
November 2010, and the cast and crew of Glee are in a studio at the Paramount lot in Los Angeles. As ever, they're hard at it. On a show that features up to five musical performances per 40-minute episode, that's a lot of rehearsals, recording (the songs are released on iTunes ahead of each week's broadcast), choreography and costume changes. Plus there's some of that acting stuff, too.
"The hours are insane," Morrison tells me. "We're doing 16- and 17-hour days." Even for someone used to doing eight Broadway shows a week for 10 years, it's a heavy workload.
They're in the choir room, filming the final scene of season two, episode nine: "Special Education". The kids of New Directions, the glee club at Ohio's McKinley High, have had a trying week. They have scraped to victory in the sectionals round of the national show-choir competition, and Mr Schuester is giving his weary students another pep talk. He suggests they celebrate "the only way we know how". That's right, it's time for another gleeful Glee song: a shouty take on Florence & the Machine's "Dog Days are Over".
Morrison says he has now completed recording of his song with Eg White. It's called "My Name". "It's one of my favourite songs on the album. It's very personal to me. It's kind of about the duality of being myself and being Mr Schuester. And talking about how I kinda go through this life and this new-found life that I have – I walk down the street and people are like, 'Hey, it's Mr Schuester, hey, the guy from Glee' – but no one really knows my name."
As existential identity torments go, it sounds more on a par with Mike Yarwood going "And this is me..." than it does Charlie Chaplin forever trapped as the tramp. But Eg White knows how to write a hit song, and Morrison knows how to sing one. "It's kinda what I was going through at the time, and I was really struggling with... kinda being put on a pedestal. And I don't feel like I'm worthy, I guess! I never wanted that."
March 2011, and I'm stroking Matthew Morrison's head. He's buffer in the flesh than he is on telly, and is let's-have-a-beer friendly, but seems tired. He has flown into the UK during a brief pause in Glee's full-on filming schedule. Already this morning he's been on Radio 1 and Radio 2, and has filmed a TV sketch. Now he's in another hotel, and we've just had a mild disagreement about his hair, which is the subject of some of Sue Sylvester's best jokes.
After we'd ordered lunch, he'd said heavily that he could barely walk down the street – born and raised in California, he now lives in the Hollywood Hills in LA – without anyone hassling him for a photograph. But a baseball cap was his best friend.
"Cos my hair is so synonymous with me now." I said it was "iconic", and he winced. Then I said I'd seen a whole range of Schuester-shaped products – gels, mousses, more gels – in the hair and make-up trailer on the Glee set.
"No you didn't."
"That's not true! They're not for me! I use Lubriderm. I use body lotion. That's all I use."
"Doesn't that make it all greasy?"
"No. Feel it."
So I do.
I sniff my fingers.
His self-titled album is finished now. He admits it feels like the end of a long, sometimes tricky process.
"Initially, when we all signed up with Glee, when no one knew what it was gonna be, there was an element of signing a record deal as well, with Sony [who release the Glee soundtracks]. And I refused to do it. I'd had a record deal before, with LMNT, so I knew..."
Thinking back, he considers it a bold decision. "They could have said, 'OK, we'll get someone else.' But I knew I had some clout on Broadway, and a little bit of leverage. So I said no, and they were like, 'Yeah, sure, fine...'
"And it ended up being the best decision I think I ever would have made. Cos I don't have to go on tour with them – I don't have to do a lot of things. But it also gave me the chance to meet with several different record labels and do my own thing and get my own deal." Meanwhile the rest of the cast "are kinda tied to a... a..."
He grimaces and gestures his thumb downwards. "To a not so advantageous deal?" I suggest.
"Yeah, exactly! So I have a really great deal, and one with a company [Mercury] where I felt like I could do what I wanted to do. And they really have let me do that. To be honest, I made this record pretty much on my own."
He no longer likes the Bublé/Timberlake reference points. "I don't know how to explain it, because the album is very eclectic, and it's a little..." He stops. "I think there's something in there for everyone. There's a pop-rock song here, a more singer-songwriter song, there's something dedicated to my Broadway crowd. But it is a full..." He stops again. "I don't know!"
I don't know either, because I've only heard four songs. "Summer Rain", the first single, is jaunty, sweet – almost sickly so – and brazenly commercial. "Still Got It" is great, like a Gary Barlow/Robbie Williams pop anthem. The third track is "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters"/"Rocket Man", a two-song "mash-up" in the manner popularised by Glee, with Elton John duetting on these covers of his songs. The final song is the twinkly, ukelele version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" that Morrison sang on the show with bad-boy Puck. But on the album, the Puck character is replaced by Gwyneth Paltrow, who has a recurring – and singing – cameo role in Glee.
"The best thing about Gwyneth is that she is who she is," he coos. "This Oscar-winning, totally famous woman – but she's so... normal. And so sweet and so kind. I asked her a lot about that, just how you maintain that [demeanour]. Cos this business can be a little crazy sometimes."
Morrison grew up in Orange County, where both his parents were army nurses, and his love of performing was forged at an early age. Aged 11, during a summer-holiday stay with his grandma in Arizona, he and his cousin were forced to take part in a local children's theatre production. Initially, "I was opposed to it – I was like, 'This is lame, I wanna play soccer.'"
But he got stuck in, and was hooked. The LA Galaxy's loss was the Orange County High School for the Arts' gain. Briefly, he admits he considered a career in midwifery, in which his father had retrained. "Then in my senior year at high school it was take-a-kid-to-work day. I saw him deliver a couple of babies. And I was like, 'OK, think I'm gonna keep singing and dancing...' The blood and the screaming – not for me."
He enjoyed school, but admits he wasn't quite as vanilla as his on-screen counterpart – there was the odd bit of high jinks. "I was senior class president, and people thought I was a good guy. I actually was pretty good – my girlfriend in school was like [queen cheerleader] Quinn Fabray on Glee – very religious. But we... I dunno... we got into a little bit of trouble."
With the law?
"Everyone else did, but I always got out of it."
With one friend in particular, Brian Barham, he would do "stupid stuff. I actually have his initials tattooed on my ankle – BB. Why? I lost a bet."
It wasn't even a drunken bet. After a dream about a pub-oriented heptathlon, Barham challenged his buddy, "and the loser had to get the winner's initials tattooed. He knew I was the only person crazy enough to do it."
Now, "I'm branded" – one of four tattoos Morrison has. The others are spurs on the outside of each ankle, "like a cowboy". He looks sheepish. "I have this fascination with John Wayne," he shrugs. "And then another one that I'm actually in the process of getting removed right now."
It's not a girl's name, but he got it with an ex. They're inked with matching Chinese symbols on their backs. "Oh my God, it's so stupid. I hate it. I hate it," he repeats with a shake of the head, perhaps anticipating another of the 10 "very painful" laser sessions, spread over 20 months.
He's single at the moment. Happily so?
"Um, I don't really have any choice right now."
Is nobody interested?
"There's great interest," he smiles knowingly, "but I know how hard a relationship is. And how much work goes into one and I would not be good [boyfriend material] right now."
Mr Schuester's love life, meanwhile, is ticking along just nicely. He's in the foothills of a relationship with supply teacher Holly Holliday, played by Paltrow. Yes, he confirms, they have kissed on screen.
"I was actually sick when we were filming it, and we were trying to think of different ways to do it without kissing. And she's like, 'Come on, let's go for it.' I was like, 'All right... like your dedication to the work, Gwyneth.'"
He won't – can't – be drawn on where things might be heading for the characters after the end of season two, filming on which ends in the first week of May, a few weeks before the release of his album. But can he at least reveal how many seasons he is signed on for?
"I don't know. We're actually all renegotiating after this season. So I think a lot of that will be determined then."
Will they be heading into Friends-level paychecks?
"I don't think quite that much," he smiles. "But the thing is, we're all wondering what it's gonna be like. Because this is the biggest show on TV, and they make the most money of probably any TV show in history."
Certainly, Glee merchandise and spin-offs – there's another cast tour this summer, which this time visits the UK – are ubiquitous. I tell him that for her birthday, my nine-year-old daughter received Glee shower gel, branded with "Don't Stop Believin'", the title of the 30-year-old soft-rock anthem by Journey that is Glee's signature song.
"Are you serious?" he says, mouth agape. "The worst I saw was for Valentine's Day – people were sending me a card with my face on it – 'I'm hot for teacher' or something like that."
No, he receives no financial benefit from such uses of his likeness. What about appearing on all those record-breaking Glee downloads and soundtrack albums – surely the cast accrue financial benefits from those?
"No, none of us do, actually. We don't make any money on the music."
Nothing at all?
"No. They'll make something on the tour. But we'll see what happens with the renegotiations."
More pressingly, Morrison wants to get back to what he knows, and loves, best. The "hiatus" between filming seasons on Glee is two months, so while "there isn't time to go and do a Broadway show or a show in the West End", as soon as filming wraps on the Paramount lot in LA in May, he is heading out on a two-month world tour.
"Being someone who's a performer by nature, I can't wait to actually do these songs live. Glee has been a great, great thing, but I'm a live performer at the end of the day. It's been hard to be on a show [where] sometimes it doesn't feel completely creative or artistic because they cut, they stop, there's so much downtime. I'm like, 'Aaaah, I just wanna go and perform.'"
Spoken like a true Gleek.
'Matthew Morrison', by Matthew Morrison, is out on 30 May on Mercury Records. His UK tour begins on 7 June (aeglive.co.uk/artists/matthew-morrison)
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