News Column

'Glee' star Matthew Morrison making records, giving concerts when he's not at McKinley High

November 1, 2013


Nov. 01--The hit Fox TV show "Glee" has brought actor Matthew Morrison a lot of attention in its five years, but never as much as in recent months, with the overdose death of star Cory Monteith in July, the Oct. 10 episode tribute to him, and co-creator Ryan Murphy's revelation two weeks ago that next season will be the show's last.

But Morrison is just as happy these days to focus on his burgeoning singing career, which includes the release of an album of show tunes and standards in June, an EP of Christmas songs due out Nov. 19, and a PBS concert that is being reworked as a holiday concert and begins airing Nov. 30.

On Saturday Nov. 2, Morrison comes to Bethlehem as the headliner for Zoellner Arts Center's annual fundraising gala concert. He'll perform Broadway and American songbook tunes, backed by an orchestra.

"I'm on the show all the time, so I love to get out when I can and do live concert, in front of a live audience, because that's more of my thing," Morrison says in a phone call from Los Angeles during a brief break in shooting the current season of "Glee," which was delayed by Monteith's death.

"Glee" has been on hiatus since the tribute episode and is scheduled to return Nov. 7.

"You know, my idol is Gene Kelly, so I kind of come from that idea of a classic song-and-dance man. So that's very much what my live show entails. That's where I get my thrills from. So this is my little opportunity to get away from 'Glee' for a little bit and do some singing and dancing."

Morrison has played the role of McKinley High School teacher and glee club director Will Schuester since the pilot episode in May 2009.

In five seasons since, the show has become a cultural phenomenon, picking up 38 Emmy Award nominations -- 19 in its first year alone -- including one for Morrison as Best Actor in a Comedy Series. He also has had two Golden Globe nominations for the role and won a Screen Actors Guild Award.

Morrison, 35, started his career on Broadway, in the musical version of "Footloose" in the late 1990s. His big break came in the Broadway production of "Hairspray" in 2002. He received a Tony Award nomination as Best Featured Actor in a Musical for "The Light in the Piazza" in 2009.

He says that background is what led him to release his first album, a self-titled pop record, in 2011. It contained duets with Elton John, Sting and Gwyneth Paltrow, and broke Billboard's Top 25. But Morrison says "it wasn't, at the heart of it, totally me."

"It was the first time I released an album and I really wanted to be part of the creative process," he says. "I really wanted to go into it and write a lot of songs. [He co-wrote four of the disc's 10 songs]. You know, I never really had much formal experience doing that before.

"But I was lucky enough to work with a lot of really, really renowned, amazing songwriters. So that really helped the process for me. I learned so much from it, and it was a great record. It was a fun record to make."

He says the new disc, "Where It All Began," is "the album I knew I wanted to make, even before that [first] album. ... This one is just a little more authentic to myself."

"I kind of grew up with standards and show tunes, and these are the songs I've been singing my whole life," he says. "So I have a real connection and an affinity for these songs, and I love performing them."

Some are obvious choices: "Singin' in the Rain," made famous by Gene Kelly; "The Lady is a Tramp"; "Send in the Clowns," and a medley from "West Side Story." Morrison also sings another duet, "Ease on Down the Road," with Smokey Robinson.

Making the album even more special is the fact that it was produced by legendary producer Phil Ramone, who worked with Burt Bacharach, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Elton John, Paul McCartney and others. Ramone died in March, just after the album was finished.

"He was on the top of my list from the get-go for this album. And luckily, he said yes," Morrison says.

"That was kind of all I needed to hear ... just because of his incredible resume and the people he's worked with. And it was such a great experience. It turned out to be a crazy experience, because he passed, making this his last living work that he did. So that album even means that much more to me."

The disc also was the first released on Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine's 222 Records label. Morrison says he and Levine are friends. "We would get together to talk about music, and I told him about the idea of what I want to do next, and he's like, 'I want to do that record for you.'

"And I thought he was joking, but then he kind of put his team in place, and we just ... He's like, 'Let's do this.' And I was like, 'OK, buddy.' He's an artist, so he knows how an artist should be treated, and he really was just in the studio a couple times but he was really hands off and let me just be in the studio with Phil and let me just create the album that we wanted to create."

Morrison says he also always wanted to do a Christmas album, and so he recorded the EP "A Classic Christmas" at the same time. "We just put big, huge arrangements around these songs," he says. "It was weird doing Christmas songs in March, but, you know ..."

Morrison says his albums are simply the means to get out and perform live.

"I miss performing live, so doing these albums is kind of my way to get music out there so I can go and perform it," he says. "That's my drive, and that's where I feel the most natural and the most authentic to myself."

Despite his music and a budding movie career -- he starred in the 2012 Cameron Diaz comedy "What to Expect When You're Expecting" -- Morrison say he expects to always be known for "Glee."

"It has touched a lot of people," he says. He says he thinks the main reason the show is successful is because of the music. "I think it's such a great international show. It's done so well internationally because music is kind of the language that we all speak."

But also, he says "the writers don't shy away from difficult subjects. You know, we've hit some big issues, kind of head-on on the show. We talk about being gay in high school, teen pregnancy, being bullied, school shootings.

"I'm really proud of the writing team. It's great to go to work and be challenged with different situations like that. We covered a lot of really tough subjects, and I think that's what's kind of upped our game and made it not just a show about a bunch of singing, dancing high school kids."

Perhaps the toughest of those subjects was dealing with the death of Monteith at age 31 from an overdose of heroin and alcohol.

The episode never said how Monteith's character, Finn Hudson, died. It focused metaphorically on what would become of his letterman jacket, with each of the main characters over the show's history mourning. It closed with Morrison crying.

"They just wanted to not make it about anything except his passing," Morrison says. "I think just for my character, he preached in the episode it's about the memories you have with those people. But at the end of the day, sometimes you want a physical, tangible object from that person, and I think ... because he was like a son to Mr. Schuster, he just needed to have a piece of him."

"Honestly, for me, it was a very therapeutic experience," Morrison says. "I don't think any of us were really looking forward to the actual filming of it because we all kind of mourned Cory and now had to sort of go through that whole process again. So it was a little like picking at old wounds.

"But it was something that was actually very therapeutic for everyone, and I feel like it just brought us all close as a cast."

Several actors who had graduated from McKinley High returned for the episode, "so it was a reconnecting experience for all of us," Morrison says. "Just being together as a family ... because that's what you do when someone passes. You kind of get together with your family and mourn that person.

"It was beautiful. I thought the episode was really strong, and I think he would have been proud of it."


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-- What: Star of TV series "Glee" performs Broadway songs and hits of the Great American Songbook, with a 65-piece orchestra, for Zoellner Arts Center's Gala fundraiser.

-- When: 8 p.m. Saturday Nov. 2

-- Where: Zoellner Arts Center, Lehigh University, 420 E. Packer Ave., Bethlehem.

-- How much: $75, $55 students, includes post-performance dessert reception

-- What else: More than a dozen members of Lehigh faculty and staff perform in the orchestra.


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