Matthew Morrison Gleeful To Be Back On Stage

Matthew Morrison is returning to the stage — kind of.

Although Morrison, who stars as earnest, kind and curly-haired teacher Will Schuester in the popular Fox TV series "Glee," has no time to return to Broadway where he began his career, he is at least making time to perform live in concert, singing show tunes, standards and pop songs that resonate with the actor-singer.

Morrison, 34, shed his TV character's signature sweater-vest for something more crooner-elegant when he performed with a full orchestra Friday, Nov. 16, at the 800-seat Belding Theater at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford.

The show was filmed by Connecticut Public Television and will be broadcast at a later date. It marks the second time this fall that Morrison has stepped out of his TV role to return to the concert stage. In September he gave a concert with the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops.

"I've been itching to get back on stage," he says in a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles. "There's no greater joy for me than performing live."

But he says he's a bit apprehensive with only one previous concert under his belt before the PBS filming in Hartford.

Morrison says he enjoyed going through the musical theater catalog — as well as his pop music collection — to select the material for this concert. "I chose the songs that spoke to me," he says. "I also give the songs a different kind of spin."

He says the songs — many from his new, yet-untitled CD recording due in February — weave a story that's personal to him.

One of the songs in the show is "On the Street Where You Live," which was the tune that Morrison used as his audition number when he was trying out for Broadway shows. But Morrison's version is more upbeat, "kind of like a Sammy Davis Jr. version."

There's also a mash-up of "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Basin Street Blues," a six-minute "West Side Story" medley, "The Lady is a Tramp" and a few songs that are associated with his career, such as "Younger Than Springtime," which he sang in the celebrated revival of "South Pacific" at Lincoln Center.

Morrison says he is able to do a few concerts this fall because, though he is busy shooting the fourth season of "Glee," his character is not in as many episodes. Schuester is on "an arts sabbatical to help arts education in the nation."

Life Changer

Morrison says his course in life was set when he was in the fifth grade when he was visiting his grandparents in Glendale, Ariz. He and his cousin "were deposited at a children's theater program. "I was forever changed. It's so great when you find your passion."

Another turning point when he switched gears from sports to musical theater (like the character of Finn in "Glee") and switched schools to attend Orange County High School of the Performing Arts where he literally found his voice, After graduation from high school, Morrison was off to the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University but an opportunity to be in a professional production — not allowed while in school — made him leave university life in order to start his career sooner rather than later.

In 1998-99 he toured in the national company of "Footloose," followed by a role in the 2000 Broadway company of "The Rocky Horror Show." There was also a stint when he was part of a boy band group, LMNT.

Morrison's big break came when he got a part in the ensemble of the 2002 musical "Hairspray." When the show was in its pre-Broadway engagement in Seattle, the actor playing Link Larkin left for a film role when and Morrison stepped in and landed the part for himself — with the help of booster Marissa Jaret Winokur, who was the lead in the show.

That was followed in 2006 by the romantic lead in another new musical, "The Light in the Piazza," in which he received a Tony Award nomination. In 2008, he then played the romantic heartthrob Lt. Cable in the revival of "South Pacific,' both under the direction of Bartlett Sher (who was an associate artistic director under Mark Lamos in the '80s at Hartford Stage).

"I was in heaven for 'South Pacific'. The whole show, top to bottom, affects you on such a deep level."

Then "Glee" came calling in 2009.

Misses Performing Live

Though there are many musical numbers in "Glee" that involve him — most memorably "Make 'Em Laugh" and "Singing in the Rain" — singing on stage live either in concert or during the "journey of a Broadway show" eight times a week is another experience entirely, one that he says he misses.

But the 16-hours-a day, 10-months a year schedule that "Glee" demands doesn't allow for any opportunities to return to a long-running stage show. Morrison is in the fourth year of his five-year contract with "Glee." He says he is committed to the show beyond the contract and does not know what he will be doing after next year.

This season the television show takes a different turn as some of the long-established characters move beyond high school to New York while a group of students arriving in their stead. "I call it 'Glee 2.0," says Morrison. It's a completely fresh look at the show with a new crop of kids in the choir room — which is great for me."

"In a way, it's my first look at what it means to be a real teacher with this transition [of students graduating and new ones replacing them]. You grow up so much with your kids and getting a new family is strange. It took a little bit of time to get used to. I felt like the original cast and I started the process together. We all got catapulted into this crazy realm of stardom. It was an instant hit and we were all there for each other."

He says he realized how big an impact the show was having when the entire cast appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," followed by a trip to Washington D.C. to meet President Obama. In a way, there's additional pressure for the new kids because they're already arriving in a hit show."

Does he have a teacher's pet in the new class?

"Melissa [Benoist] plays Marley," he says. "She's really great being touted as 'the new Rachel' and she's so sweet and so nice."

Though most of his stage roles are in "good guy" roles, he says he has turned to the dark side on guest roles in television.

"I played a Native American who scalped someone on 'CSI" and a cop who raped in 'Numb3rs.' I'm a nice guy in real life but I enjoy getting my hands dirty [in those roles]. And I love keeping an audience guessing. That's what I liked about doing 'Piazza.' [After 'Hairspray'] no one expected that performance from me.

"I loved the way my career has played out," he says. "I felt honored to be in the chorus and work my way up to lead roles. Now that I'm a bone fide TV star. I just want to keep growing and doing more challenging stuff."

He says his girlfriend Renee Puente and his family and friends — who live close by — help keep him grounded, unless he's sky diving, an activity that he's curtailed for a while.

"I never feel more alive than when I jump out of a plane. I'm not a deeply religious person but I do get spiritual when I'm sky diving. I've never felt closer to God when your life is in someone else's hands."

Does he feel that in his golden career he hasn't suffered enough?

"I've suffered in a different way," he laughs. "It's all been a learning experience. And it does take a little bit away from who you are and what you do. I couldn't imagine getting [the amount of fame] when I was 20."