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Matthew Morrison, Honestly

With his new album of songs from musicals, the actor returns to his first love, the stage

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School’s out for much of the country, to the great joy of students and—let us not forget—their teachers. Among the newly-freed faculty is Will Schuester, one-time Spanish instructor and glee club mentor at McKinley High, and a character on Fox’s Glee. Schuester is played by actor Matthew Morrison, who has chosen to spend his hard-earned hiatus…at work.

But that’s not how Morrison—who’s right now on the road supporting Where It All Began, his new album of standards and songs from musicals—sees it. Instead, what he’s doing is a labor of love. While many people know Morrison from the small screen, he got his start on Broadway in Hairspray, followed by leading roles in The Light in the Piazza and South Pacific. “I made this album for my theater fans, because I feel like I’ve neglected them for the past four years, ” Morrison said in a recent interview with DuJour, “and I wanted to give them something.”

In terms of his album, that “something” features his revamped versions of “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “Send in the Clowns,” a medley from West Side Story, “Ease on Down the Road” (done as a duet with Smokey Robinson) and other favorites. Morrison’s recent live shows are a mix of song and dance, kind of like what his idol Gene Kelly used to do. “From a young age, I looked up to him and aspired to be like him,” Morrison said. “I don’t think there are many people that do that anymore.”

Until now. DuJour chatted with Morrison, who opened up—quite honestly—about the future of Glee, LGBT equality, his own relationship and having the chance to be the show-and-dance man he’s always wanted to be. Read the interview below, and catch him on the road or watch him in a PBS special airing this month.

Your album is the first release from 222 Records, Adam Levine’s label. How did that happen?

It was the easiest thing. I’ve been in L.A. for four years now and Adam lives there, and we’ve become friendly over time. We got to talking one day since he has such an affinity for this style of music.

Really? Mr. “Moves Like Jagger” likes show tunes?

I know; you wouldn’t think it. He’s a pop rock guy, but he’s actually recorded a few standards himself. When I told him I’ve always wanted to make an album like this, he said, “Well, let’s make it.” He’s been so amazing because he’s an artist, and he knows how artists should be treated. He was really kind of hands off in letting me do my own process. It’s been a ball. He checked in a few times and loved everything he’s heard.

Was it daunting at all to take on songs like “Lady and the Tramp” that have been covered by legendary vocalists like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald?

Not really. These are well-worn classic songs that have been done by some of the greatest vocalists of all time, including Frank. I feel like every now and then there has to be an artist who comes along and kicks the classic bones of these songs and drapes their own tapestry over them. That’s what I tried to do with these songs. And, to be perfectly honest, I love Frank Sinatra and listen to all his stuff, but I tried not to listen too closely when I was going to the studio and doing it myself. I’ve changed a lot of the songs. I wanted to stick to the classic-ness of them; I didn’t want to stray too far from that but a lot of the stuff I’ve sped up and made it a little more dance-y.

Why?

Because a big part of my show is the dance aspect so it was important to me to get that feel in some of these songs. “On the Street Where You Live” is typically a ballad, and it’s one of my favorites to perform because there’s a nice dance break in there. I feel like the quicker pace just makes it move and I love it.

You’ve been touring to promote your album. You’ve also performed on Broadway for years. What is it like going to work when your job is to perform live? Do you get nervous?

Honestly, it’s probably the same thing as you going to work every day. When you first start your job, you’re probably a little nervous because it’s a new atmosphere and you don’t know what to expect and you’re meeting new people. I feel like it’s the same thing with a show. When it first goes up, there are nerves and not knowing what to expect and trying to work the audience into where the joke lands. You need to pick your moments. Then, as you get into your 50th show, your 100th show, your nerves go away and it becomes your day-to-day life.

But in an office job, you can phone it on days if you feel like it. On stage, you can’t do that.

Well, I’ve seen some performances that were phoning it in. [Laughs] I’m not saying that I would ever, but I have definitely seen it. Instead I feel like you have to pace yourself. Especially on days [when you have to two performances] because if you give everything you have in that matinee, you won’t have anything left for that evening show.

In your current show, you perform only songs from your new album, so it’s all standards and Broadway songs. Are you worried that some of your Glee fans will see you and be disappointed that you don’t do something like “Golddigger”?

No. One of the great things about the last four years on Glee is that I got to perform some spectacular show tunes. These were specifically written for the theater, and we performed them on global television and hopefully that has opened up that world to people. Hopefully, a new audience will gravitate towards this music.

Speaking of Glee, how much longer are you committed to doing it?

We just got picked up for two more seasons. I was surprised we got picked up for two in a row. That will take us to year six, and after that I don’t know; I have no idea.

In this season’s finale, I was so pleased to see your character, Will, finally marry Emma.

I know. It seems like this prolonged joke that they were going to keep playing on the audience. We almost had that moment earlier in this season and then she ran away, and I feel like we’ve been hinting at it since the show started. For me and Jayma [Mays], who plays Emma, we were just like “Ah, it’s about time.” We were really excited.

What happened with your role this season? Mr. Schuester disappeared for a while because he went off to Washington to be on a panel. Was that because you were working on another project?

To be perfectly honest, I think they had so many characters with all the new kids and [Rachel and Kurt in] New York City. I feel like they did that so they can really focus on that group. I mean, there are so many people on that show.

What’s it been like having all those new characters on the show?

It’s been good. I don’t think it will ever be like it was with the original crew, because we came up together, we went through the craziness of this show together as a family, and we’ll always have that bond. The great thing is, I’ve gotten used to hearing the same voices so hearing new voices and new talent, I was like, ” Oh, wow.” A lot of times, you’re in a scene with someone and you kind of know what you’re going to get because you’ve been in a scene a million times with that person. It was fun to be genuinely surprised and reacting honestly, because I honestly didn’t know what these kids were going to bring. It was refreshing.

When it comes to performing live, what are your pre-show rituals?

I have one that I can’t really talk about. And I just drink a lot of Throat Coat tea. Before a show, I like to be hydrated. I’ll probably have four or five cups.

During a performance, do you try to look at one person in the audience and sing to them?

I try to. Each song is a different story to me. The great thing about this music in particular is that it allows for so much acting. I take each song as a monologue, and I try to act through it. I will connect with certain people, but the connection is a way of telling the story for me. In my dance sections, I like to have a little fun and be free. If I’m playing with the symphony, I will have a structured set list, but if I’m playing with my five-piece band, I like to not have set list and go with depending on what the crowd is feeling.

You’ve been singing with a symphony orchestra backing you up. How’s that?

I love those days because there’s nothing better than standing in front of a 60-piece orchestra and delivering a song. I feel like the general of an army.

I read that part of the proceeds from your album are going to support LGBT equality.

It’s something that comes from my theater days. and I’ve also had incredibly amazing gay and lesbian friends. It’s a human rights issue. I feel like they should have the same human rights that we have as straight people. I see no reason why, if you’re in a loving committed relationship, you shouldn’t be able to marry the person that you love. It doesn’t make sense to me. I’ve been trying to do a lot of work with the HRC  [Human Rights Campaign], and I recently got the “Ally of the Year award.” It’s a cause that I love and that I love fighting for. I think we need more straight allies.

What do you mean?

When I was accepting my award in Atlanta about a month ago, there were these two brothers. The younger brother was gay, and the older brother was straight and married. Just hearing the older brother talk about his gay younger brother was so beautiful. He was getting choked up and saying how it’s wrong he can’t have the same rights that he has, and it was just a beautiful thing. I know a lot of straight friends who feel that way. I wish they would be more vocal about it.

Some article I read about you online referred to you as “the gayest straight man” they knew. How does that make you feel?

It doesn’t bother me. I think it used to get under my skin when I was younger. But I have so many gay friends whom I love, and I need to support them in any way I can. If that word is thrown around towards me, I’m fine with that because I know my own truth. I’m in an amazing relationship with a beautiful woman, and I’m totally comfortable with me, and that’s all that matters at the end of the day.

How long have you been together?

Two-and-a-half years. Her name is Renée [Puente], and she’s a singer/songwriter.

How did you meet?

We met at a Grammy party a little bit over two years ago. I was singing “Over the Rainbow” on my ukulele, and I met her at an after party. She was speaking to a friend of hers in pidgin, which is Hawaiian slang. I spent a lot of time in Hawaii; I used to sing backup for Don Ho.

What? You sang for Don Ho?!

Yeah, when I was in high school I used to go there in the summers and sing backup for him. It was my first job. I spent a lot of time in Hawaii and I heard her speaking, so I went up and started speaking it too, and we just instantly connected and it was great.

Okay, random question time. Let’s say you’re in front of an execution squad. In order to save your life, you can either sing or dance. Which would you do? You can only do one. 

I would dance. My voice would probably be too shaky because I would be too nervous to sing and I’m a very physical person, especially when I perform. I can pull on my dance thing anytime, and I think it would be fine. I could start break-dancing. I could do any type of dance they want.

Okay, second and final random question. Let’s say you had all the money in the world and could stage any Broadway show you wanted and also star in it. What would it be?

They’re about to do a production of this in London, and it’s something I always felt would be such a great musical; Sam Mendes is directing it. It’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I would love to play Willy Wonka. Gene Wilder’s performance in that movie is so iconic, and I’m such a fan of his. The show has so much heart, the music is beautiful. It’s actually by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman who wrote “Hairspray.” I think it’s such a clever idea. I’m so hoping it’s going to be great.

Where do see yourself in 10 years—personally? professionally?

I’d like to be married with at least one kid, maybe two. Professionally, I love what I’m doing now. I’ve had such a great, well-rounded career so far and I’ve gotten my hands in the theater world, the music world, television, film and honestly, I just want to keep doing what I’m doing. I’m so happy with this. I feel so fulfilled, because I get to do so many different things. I think if I were to do anything different, I would like to try directing for the theater.

Directing what?

Probably a musical because that’s kind of more my world. I’ve worked with some of the best directors, and I’ve learned so much from those guys. It was such a collaboration—that was the best part. We found a way to mesh our ideas together. I love that.

DuJour extends a special thanks to Miller’s Near & Far restaurant in New York City, where Morrison was photographed. 

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