InDepth InterView: Matthew Morrison Talks New CD/PBS Special, WHERE IT ALL BEGAN, Plus GLEE, Broadway Memories, Upcoming Gigs & More
Today we are talking to an inordinately talented triple-threat performer who made his name on Broadway in some landmark productions, such as the original multi-Tony Award-winning debuts of HAIRSPRAY and THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, in addition to his peerless work in Lincoln Center's lauded SOUTH PACIFIC revival, who now is best known to audiences around the world for his headlining role on FOX's mega-hit musical dramedy series Glee - the charismatic Matthew Morrison. Sharing stories from his Broadway days as well as looking ahead to the new season of Glee airing in September, Morrison paints a vivid picture of his musical theatre career thus far and touches upon his experiences in the aforementioned musicals on the Great White Way as well as in THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW, A NAKED GIRL ON THE APPIAN WAY and more, detailing his ascent from chorus boy to superstar. Most importantly, Morrison offers us the complete 411 on his new solo album, WHERE IT ALL BEGAN, discussing its conception, recording, production, and, now, its release - as well as elaborates on working with legendary producer Phil Ramone on it and the song selection process itself. Furthermore, Morrison reveals the most influential artists and performers to him and how that inspiration formed the basis for WHERE IT ALL BEGAN, both the album itself as well as his current concert tour in promotion of it - arriving in NYC at 54 Below this weekend, as a matter of fact - and his PBS special, airing throughout June. Additionally, Morrison candidly comments on some characters he would enjoy essaying in the future (hint: a demon barber of Fleet Street), reflects on his favorite Glee moments to date (such as S1 closer "Somewhere Over The Rainbow"), recounts wild ROCKY HORROR backstage antics involving rocker Sebastian Bach - and much, much more!
More information on Matthew Morrison's WHERE IT ALL BEGAN is available at his official site here.
PC: The inaugural production of HAIRSPRAY on Broadway was such a phenomenon at the time - the reception of the show was simply ebullient.
MM: Oh, yeah! You got it. It really was.
PC: Do you look back at that period in your career fondly?
MM: Oh, I do - I absolutely do. I mean, I was like 23 at the time!
PC: So young - and the show was such an unqualified success.
MM: Yeah, really! But, yes - I have very, very fond memories of HAIRSPRAY. And, you know, that's also one of those shows where I've kept in touch with so many people from it, too - the most of any show I've done so far, definitely.
PC: Can you name any names?
MM: Well, Marissa [Jaret Winokur] and I are still very close. Kerry Butler is still a friend, too. We all had the best time together - for all of us, pretty much, it was our first big show, so we all just had a blast doing it. It was just so much fun and a great memory for us all to have.
PC: What was ascending up the ranks in the show out of town like for you? James Carpinello left the show during rehearsals, right?
MM: Right. I was in the show from the beginning, but I was only in the ensemble - I played Fender - and, then, yeah, during rehearsals, James got a movie and he left, so they auditioned some people for a little bit just to see if anyone was right - Justin Timberlake, I guess, and all of these "stars" - just trying to see if anyone was right for the role.
PC: I wasn't aware of that - how interesting. How did you come to be considered, then?
MM: Well, Marissa was actually the reason I got hired, I think - she was my champion from the very beginning. She said all the time, you know, "Matt is my Link!" I remember her specifically saying to them in rehearsals, "This is the guy!" And, so, after that, everyone kind of could see it and saw it, too, I guess, and, so, luckily, it all happened for me after that.
PC: You once again return to some of the crooner sound of Link on WHERE IT ALL BEGAN finally - at long, long last.
MM: I do! I do. Good segueway, Pat! [Laughs.]
PC: Did you at any point consider covering any HAIRSPRAY, THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA or perhaps even more SOUTH PACIFIC material on WHERE IT ALL BEGAN than you did?
MM: Well, I was considering it, actually - we went back and forth on that for a little while. HAIRSPRAY wasn't really the vein or the genre we were looking at for this album, though - plus, I think the songs in that are really specific to the show. Of course, I do "Younger Than Springtime" on the album, but that is the only song that's actually from a show I did.
PC: Too bad you never got to do WEST SIDE STORY!
MM: I know! I know.
PC: What was the impetus for including Sondheim's "Send In The Clowns"? Also, did you intentionally include the Barbra Streisand version with the extra verse for any reason in particular?
MM: Ugh, it's so funny you say that because now I feel like such an idiot - I didn't know that it was a special version! I guess, now, thinking about it, though, you are definitely right. But, you know, now that we're talking about it, I think that the last line we do - "Well, maybe next year," - is somehow more hopeful in some way. At the same time, the song is so heartfelt and there is so much suffering in it, as well - I mean, these are two people holding onto hope, but, at the same time, they know that they are not really going to get anywhere, either.
PC: An insightful observation.
MM: Yeah, I don't know, I just love that sentiment - that's what makes the song, for me; that line. "Maybe next year" - wow. It's like, not "maybe tomorrow" or "next month" whatever - "Maybe next year;" that's it.
PC: The other Sondheim song on the album is also a stand-out track - the WEST SIDE STORY medley. You killed your live performance of it at the Oliviers, as well, I might add.
MM: Oh, thank you so much! That's so nice of you to say that - yeah, that was a lot of fun to do.
PC: Who choreographed that routine? It was quite dazzling.
MM: Arlene Phillips. She's amazing.
PC: Of STARLIGHT EXPRESS fame.
MM: Yes - exactly, I think so. She did SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, as well, I believe.
PC: Was that a thrill for you to work with her on that, particularly as a dancer?
MM: Oh, yeah - it was; it totally was. You know, I've worked with a lot of other choreographers over the years and one in particular who I've worked with a lot is Rob Ashford and I think she may have taken a look at maybe my Tony Awards performance that he choreographed for me, and, also, a Kennedy Center Honors that she thought I did particularly well and got inspired a little by those. So, it was really interesting how we did it, because she sent the video to me of her assistant doing the number - she sent it to me in LA because I was shooting Glee at the time, so I had to kind of learn it through the video.
PC: Which is becoming more and more common these days, no doubt.
MM: It is pretty new to me, though - thank goodness I had my buddy, Spencer Liff, though, who worked with me on it and stuff. He's so talented. So, then, when I got over to London, we worked on it there, and, you know, she told me all of the things I was doing wrong and everything and then we worked on it more and we kind of threw it all together with the dancers and everything - more than you might think - but, I think it turned out quite beautifully.
PC: Indeed. Is it true you see yourself as a dancer first? Do you have to get yourself warmed-up and in particular shape or are you always prepared to dance full-out, more or less?
MM: That's an interesting question. You know, it's hard with the singing, because you have to give yourself space to come back in and sing again when you are doing something like that [with dance breaks]. So, I feel like I was a little hard on myself on that number in particular because I had to come in with one of the hardest songs to sing, "Maria", and I actually asked them for a background chorus to help me out. [Laughs.]
PC: No way!
MM: I did - I asked for them. You know, like in the movie - when Tony sings, [Sings.] "The most beautiful sound I ever heard / Maria, Maria, Maria, Maria," and the chorus goes, [Sings With Reverb.] "Maria-Maria-Maria-Maria-Maria"?
PC: Of course.
MM: That's what I wanted - so, I asked, you know, "Could we have some offstage singers help me out with that?" So, then, after we did that, I didn't have to worry so much about catching my breath. But, yes, to answer your question, I do prefer to dance full-out and I guess I do see myself as a dancer, but, in my show, I try to be really careful - you have to. I mean, you want to dance full-out, but, at the same time, you want to dance under yourself a little bit and give yourself room to actually finish the song strong, too. That's very important.
PC: Are you more aware of your physicality with voice-heavy roles like you had in PIAZZA and SOUTH PACIFIC or in the more dance-oriented roles you have played? Do you approach your routine and the physical maintenance differently on each?
MM: I do look at the differently, actually - very differently, I think. I feel like when I have a role that has a lot of dancing-dancing in it, I am more at ease physically because I know I can do that stuff - I feel like I am a very physical performer; I really love movement. But, when that movement is not given to me - like, say, in PIAZZA or SOUTH PACIFIC - I create a dance myself and it is expressed through my body language. Everything I do in every show is always pretty much entirely choreographed - or, at least it is in my mind.
PC: You work from a mental map.
MM: I do. Everything I do in every scene - every movement I make - is for a specific reason. It may not be as flashy or as dance-y so that people notice it, but every movement I make is for a reason when I am playing a role. Always.
PC: Motivated by your motivation, as it were.
MM: And, I love singing, too - don't get me wrong. But, everything always has a reason in every movement I make, though, whether or not I am singing at the time. And, also, I think you are right - it is hard to balance the two things. I mean, I have to say, singing is one of the hardest things in the world...
PC: Why do you say that?
MM: Well, like, when I was shooting Glee - I mean, I don't really sing that much on the show anymore, so I am kind of just hanging out a lot and doing whatever I want. So, you know, I'm eating a lot of cheese and doing all the things I'm not supposed to do... [Laughs.]
PC: Indulging a bit.
MM: Right. But, now, I am gearing up to do all this album stuff and all these concert dates, so it completely changes everything about the way I live - what you eat; what you drink; the way you work out to make sure you are not too strenuous on yourself; keeping track of how much you talk on the phone; it changes everything. Everything.
PC: Do you feel any pressure to stay in top shape given the demands of appearing on TV on a weekly basis, especially with this pretty of a cast?
MM: Well, I mean, not really - you know, Mr. Schuester really doesn't take his shirt off that much. [Laughs.] So, you know, if there is a scene or a part or a photoshoot that calls for that, then I will be a little more careful with what I eat and what work-outs I do or whatever. But, I am a pretty active guy in general - I run about forty miles a week, usually, so I really love to stay active and that helps me out a lot. I never get to a place that is too far to get back from, I don't think.
PC: Do you listen to an iPod while you run?
MM: No, I don't listen to anything, actually - you know, I love nature and I love just kind of being present in my surroundings. So, when I am running, that is the time of my day I have to myself - sometimes the only time of the day I have to myself. When I am running, I can think about things and formulate things - you know, like, "what I am going to say to Pat today when he asks me about this or that," or whatever I am doing in a particular day, you know?
PC: In speaking of your somewhat reduced vocal role on Glee this year, why didn't you sing a song in the finale as you have every other season until now? Was it intentional or what?
MM: Well, Will got married, so he didn't feel like singing! [Laughs.]
PC: That's a good reason.
MM: You pay a lot more attention than I do, Pat! [Laughs.]
PC: Are there any songs in particular that you yearn to do on the show someday soon?
MM: Well, "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" is a really special song to me, so I feel really honored that I got to do that.
PC: A highlight of the series, for sure - particularly that evocative Hawaiian arrangement.
MM: That's right - I love that arrangement, too. So, besides that, honestly, I feel like I could have ended my career on Glee after the big number I did near the end of the season this year - the Fred Astaire "You're All The World To Me". You know, Fred Astaire and also Gene Kelly are both so influential to me.
PC: It was easily one of the best moments of the season.
MM: Dancing on the ceiling and everything... [Pause. Sighs.] That was such a highlight to me. I was like, "It's not gonna get any better than this!" And Jayma [Mays] was so great, too. I don't know - it was just amazing. I loved doing it.
PC: Us gleeks desperately miss the Mr. Schue/Rachel duets. Do you hope to share a song or at least a scene this coming season with Lea Michele?
MM: Oh, with Lea?! I know! Of course! Of course I do. I have to say, though, I was really happy with this season and I really like the whole New York thing they're doing - it's really freed up a lot of time for us all as actors, too. I mean, for me, personally, it's been the first time that I have been able to really enjoy LA and go out a little bit because before I was basically locked in a soundstage all day.
PC: Understandably so.
MM: But, yeah, to answer your question - I do miss the original crew. We formed such a strong bond and we all kind of came up with the craziness that is Glee - the rollercoaster ride that it has been - and I miss them a lot. I miss my old crew.
PC: I'd love to know a little bit about working with the late Jill Clayburgh on A NAKED GIRL ON THE APPIAN WAY. Is it true you are good friends with her daughter, Lily Rabe, too?
MM: Yes, I did do A NAKED GIRL ON THE APPIAN WAY with Jill Clayburgh - who was amazing - and that is where I first met Lily. And, yes, Lily is a good friend of mine. But, Jill... [Sighs.] you know, she played my mother in the show and she really became my mother for those five months or so that we did that show.
PC: How so?
MM: Well, it was when I was kind of going through a lot of stuff in my personal life and she was just so nurturing and such a beautiful spirit - and, she really brought me into her family in a really special way and that is how I first got to know Lily so well; and David [Rabe, Jill's widower]; the whole family. I was really a part of it for a while - that family. I mean, she really became my mom in a lot of ways - I even called her mom!
PC: That's a sure sign of intimacy, certainly.
MM: I really did. Right before she passed, whenever I would talk to her on the phone I would always say, "Hey, mom!" and she would say, [Jill Clayburgh Impression.] "Hey, son!" [Laughs.]
PC: What a vivid memory.
MM: Oh, yeah - she was the best; the best. And, what a talent! What an unbelievable talent - and, what a beautiful spirit. [Pause.] I miss her a lot.
PC: A rich early experience to have in your career, was it not?
MM: Oh, it was - it really, really was. You know, I've been so lucky - like, with HAIRSPRAY, too. I sort of tend to cling to the older people in a cast, I think...
PC: Why do you think that is?
MM: Well, I want to know what they know! I want to hear their stories and learn from them. So, Dick Latessa was kind of my go-to guy like that on HAIRSPRAY and he used to tell me the best stories...
PC: He was in the original cast of FOLLIES, to cite but one example!
MM: Oh, yeah - oh, yeah, man! You know your stuff - I've heard all the stories! He really got me to appreciate HAIRSPRAY for what it was, though - he would say, [Gruff Voice.] "I've done a lot of shows, kid, and this doesn't happen very often, a show like this!" And, in saying that, he really made me realize what a special experience it was to be a part of - and what a special show it was.
PC: It was lighting in a bottle - the preview audiences were totally out of control.
MM: It was craziness - total craziness.
PC: Speaking of which, Alice Ripley, Tom Hewitt and Raul Esparza all have told me insane ROCKY HORROR SHOW stories, so what's the best and bawdiest one you have for me?
MM: [Big Laugh.] You know, I feel like I am going to get people in trouble for even saying this, but the smell backstage after the show ended... [Pause. Laughs.]
PC: What was it like?
MM: When Sebastian Bach was in the show, backstage it smelled like weed and beer at all times. [Laughs.] I'll never forget it - I remember going in his dressing room and he would just be hot-boxing it and we'd sit and drink some Molson beers; they'd always be Molson because he was from Canada. He was such a trip! Oh, God, I have some really fond memories of ROCKY HORROR and just how crazy that guy was. I mean, he was the total epitome of a rock star in every way and I just loved every minute I got to be around him.
PC: Was the ROCKY HORROR Glee SHOW and your "Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me" appearance with Jayma Mays a wink to your time in the show onstage or was that all purely coincidental?
MM: I don't know for sure, but I think it was probably just coincidental. Since you asked, though, I will tell you one other ROCKY HORROR story: I was originally offered the role of Rocky, actually, believe it or not.
PC: Really?! What happened?
MM: Well, I was in a boy-band at the time and that's when I first met Jerry Mitchell - at that audition - and that's where I really started to cultivate that relationship with him. It was amazing. So, then, when my boy-band kind of went defunct, Jerry called me and he said, "We've already cast Rocky, but we'd love for you to be in the ensemble," and, so, I said, "Heck, yeah!" I mean, hey, I needed a job!
PC: What a gift.
MM: A total gift. So, yeah, Jerry has really been my savior over the years - and not just because of that - and I owe my career to that man.
PC: Shortly thereafter you two worked together on MARCI X, correct?
MM: We sure did! We sure did.
PC: You were part of a boy-band in MARCI X, too, correct?
MM: Boyz R Us - you're right. It was me, Adam Fleming, Michael Seelbach and Manley Pope - the four of us. That was a fun shoot, too.
PC: Given your originating roles in HAIRSPRAY and PIAZZA, I assume you would ideally have your Broadway return be in an original role?
MM: You assume correctly. As you said, HAIRSPRAY and PIAZZA had never really been done before we did them and I really love that feeling of originating a role because there will always be comparisons otherwise - you know, in SOUTH PACIFIC or whatever [revival]. I just love that feeling. But, at the same time, SOUTH PACIFIC was the first revival of the show in fifty years and that was a beautiful experience, too. I mean, I will work for Bart [Sher] any day of the week, anywhere - he is a genius. So, have I thought about what kind of show I want to come back to Broadway in? I'd say that it would probably be something original. I mean, I can't think of a revival I would want to do off the top of my head...
PC: What about Bobby in COMPANY?
MM: Eh... [Laughs.] I shouldn't say that. [Pause.] Yeah, I guess. [Laughs.]
PC: Any Sondheim roles you'd actually seriously consider?
MM: Oh, I'd love to play the demon barber of Fleet Street, Sweeney Todd, someday. That would be really cool. That's a revival I'd definitely like to do.
PC: Have you ever considered an Andrew Lloyd Webber show? You would be a fantastic Phantom in LOVE NEVER DIES, no doubt. Were you under consideration for that show at any point, actually?
MM: No, I wasn't. It's very interesting you ask that, though, because my very first big audition was for this show that Andrew Lloyd Webber was doing and I actually auditioned in New York for Andrew Lloyd Webber and everything and then he flew me and an American girl over to London to do like a week of intensive training and work on this show he was working on at the time called THE BEAUTIFUL GAME.
PC: A very daring score.
MM: Ugh, it was gorgeous - and the music was great! I was so excited to get to work on it. You know, I'm a soccer player and the show is all about soccer and stuff, but it eventually went to this guy who was actually from Ireland - it was all set in Ireland. But, yeah, it was the only time I got to work on an Andrew Lloyd Webber show and I actually got to work with him pretty closely, so that was really exciting and interesting.
PC: A true rock score, too, at many points - very contemporary. And, you had a chance to do some comedy - "The First Time", in particular.
MM: Oh, my God! You really do know the show - it's all kind of coming back to me now that we are talking about it. You know, it was just basically a weeklong audition, but we got to work on a lot of material and it's so funny that you are bringing that up - that song; "The First Time" - because it was really funny! And, also, there were a beautiful, beautiful moments in the show and really funny moments, too - and some heavy rock moments, like you said. I remember there was a beautiful ballad that one of the girls had, too - "Our Kind Of Love".
PC: Which is now the melody for the title song in LOVE NEVER DIES, incidentally. It was originally written for a PHANTOM sequel, anyway, according to the Lord.
MM: [Laughs.] Hey, you know, if it doesn't work in one show, put it in the next one! See if it sticks!
PC: Your Glee co-star Idina Menzel will be returning to Broadway in IF/THEN by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. Were you a fan of NEXT TO NORMAL?
MM: Oh, yeah - I was a big fan of NEXT TO NORMAL. I thought it was great.
PC: Would you consider stepping into ONCE someday? What about taking on a rock-based score in general?
MM: Well, I saw the show ONCE once - ha ha - and Steve Kazee is actually a buddy of mine, so I feel like I couldn't improve on what he did with it - I thought it was really beautiful, though. I guess my favorite contemporary score is probably THE LAST FIVE YEARS, so I would probably want to do something like that, I think.
PC: Have you ever done it?
MM: No, I've never done it - not yet!
PC: In getting back to WHERE IT ALL BEGAN for a moment, I was curious if you had worked with producer Phil Ramone at any point prior to the album - maybe on a cast recording?
MM: No, I didn't - I actually didn't even know his cast recording history, really, until I started working with him; you know, I knew him from his recordings of Aretha Franklin and Billy Joel and Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. He was my number one choice - and he was the guy we never thought we'd get.
PC: How did you come to be involved with him on this album?
MM: Well, we approached him. I remember just talking to him on the phone and he was just so into it. So, we just started working away on it from there.
PC: What was that process like, specifically?
MM: Oh, well, we'd look at lots and lots of songs. In terms of how the process worked, I really wanted to do my homework and look at lots and lots of songs; Cole Porter and Irving Berlin and really try to get a full grasp of the theatre song catalogue. So, I listened to, God, almost every musical cast album - and, it was a totally amazing experience! It's too bad even more songs couldn't have ended up on the album, but, all of them that did end up on it have a very, very special place in my heart.
PC: Such as?
MM: Well, for example, "On The Street Where You Live" was my audition song for every single audition I ever went on in my entire life - every one! So, I really love that song and we wanted to have it be a song on the album and we sped it up a little bit and made it a little peppier. I really love dancing to that song, as well.
PC: Other favorites on the album?
MM: "As Long As She Needs Me". Of course, in OLIVER!, it is "As Long As He Needs Me", but I changed it to "she," obviously. I've always loved that song - especially Sammy Davis Jr.'s version of it. So, I am so glad we got to do that, too. They are all really special to me, though. It's hard to pick.
PC: What was the first song you recorded for WHERE IT ALL BEGAN?
MM: I think that the first song I recorded was "Hey There" - another beautiful song I love; from THE PAJAMA GAME.
PC: What didn't make the final cut?
MM: Well, we pretty much had the song list down by the time we started recording, but we were debating what the duet was going to be. I was thinking about doing "Sun & Moon" from MISS SAIGON just because I love that song and I think it is so beautiful, but, because of the vein of this album - sort of big band and swingin' - we didn't think that one would really fit. So, that's why that song didn't make the cut. We'll do it next time!
PC: On that note, would you be open to playing Chris in MISS SAIGON someday? A revival and a potential film are on the Horizon and you certainly have all the right attributes for that part, I would say - and then some.
MM: Oh, my God! That would be incredible - totally incredible! That would be a dream. I'd love it.
PC: So, can we expect any special guests at your 54 Below shows and upcoming gigs in support of WHERE IT ALL BEGAN?
MM: Yes, there will be different special guests at 54 Below depending on the night, but I can't tell you who they are going to be and give it all away! All I'll say is they are some friends that I am throwing in there and we are just going to play it by ear and have some fun. It's going to be a really good time.
PC: What additional songs can we expect from your live shows that do not appear on the album?
MM: Hmm. Let me see - well, we do "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" at the live shows, too. There are a few others, depending on the night and the venue and everything else. We'll see.
PC: You will confirm that we can count on a reprise of your incomparable "Younger Than Springtime", though, yes?
MM: Oh, yeah - absolutely! Absolutely, we will be doing that.
PC: Lastly: will there be any Glee material in your live shows coming up?
MM: No, no - not this time. We are really just trying to keep it legit and as swingin' as possible. [Laughs.]
PC: Looking ahead, when do you go back to shoot Glee Season Five?
MM: Let's see... we go back to shoot Glee at the end of July.
PC: Will you be in the New York storyline at all this year as far as you know at this early stage?
MM: Oh, I don't think they have even touched an episode yet, Pat! [Laughs.] I hope so, though! I love those guys.
PC: Congratulations on the new album, PBS special, tour, Glee and everything else - may you continue to be one of the most popular Broadway crossover stars for many years to come!
MM: Thank you so much, Pat. Congratulations to you on everything, too - this was so much fun and I had a blast. Bye bye.