“Glee” made Matthew Morrison (and his unruly curls) a star, but his success started long before his role as do-gooder teacher Will Schuester. Morrison originated the studly Link Larkin during the Broadway run of “Hairspray,” and then he went on to earn a Tony nomination for his stint in “The Light in the Piazza.”
The “Glee” star goes back to his Broadway roots for “Where It All Began,” a collection of show-tune covers. For Morrison, though, it goes back even further. All the way to elementary school, in fact.
Where did it all begin for you? When did you first start singing?
I first started singing in fifth grade. I grew up in Southern California and my parents took me to Arizona for the summer – I have a lot of family there: aunts, uncles, cousins – and my grandma put my cousin and I in a children’s theater production of this show called “The Herdmans Go to Camp.” I’m sure you’ve heard of it. (Laughs)
Yeah, it was big on Broadway, right?
(Sarcastically) Yeah, exactly. It had a great run. (Laughs) So, it was this little made-up show and I was so lucky to have found my passion at such a young age in doing that show. I came back to Southern California after the summer and told my parents that I wanted to be in children’s theater and that started the whole thing.
This album is being released on Adam Levine’s label, 222 Records. How well did you get to know Adam? Did you guys have a beer after recording?
(Laughs) We’ve had a few drinks in our day. We both live in Los Angeles, and he’s such a big fan of this kind of music. I wouldn’t think that personally – you think of him as this pop-rock kind of guy – but he’s such a fan of the standards. When I got to know that, and we started talking about that, I told him this was the record I always wanted to make and he’s like, “Let’s make it.” He’s been a big champion of mine through this whole process, but at the same time he’s really given me my space. He’s an artist himself and he knows how an artist should be treated, and he really gave me space and respect. He checked in probably three times during the process just to hear stuff and hang out in the studio. He didn’t have much to say because he was really loving everything.
Did you two ever settle the question that’s been on everyone’s mind: Who has the bigger gay following?
Wow. I don’t think we answered that question. Do you know the answer to that? I have no idea.
You’re supposed to say yourself.
Well, you said it for me then. (Laughs) I would give myself the advantage coming from the theater world and stuff, but he’s younger and more attractive than I am, so I give him the advantage that way. It depends on what gay genre you’re looking at. If you like the tattoo kind of thing, he’s your guy. If you like the clean-cut kind of guy, that’s me.
You say this is the album you always wanted to make. Why didn’t you make it the first time around with your self-titled debut, when you were on Mercury Records?
You know, that’s a good question. (Pauses) I kind of felt like it was the height of “Glee” and that’s the kind of music that we were doing on the show and … I liked that album. It was a really interesting process for me, just because I had never done songwriting before, so I got to work with some world-renowned songwriters – some people who wrote songs with Adele – so that was a really great opportunity to kind of work a muscle that I’d never really worked before. It was great, but it just … it didn’t feel authentic. It didn’t feel totally authentic to me, whereas this is rooted in the music I grew up singing and I know so well. This music is in my bones, so I feel very confident.
We don’t have song-and-dance people anymore. A lot of performers can go up on stage now and dance, but they’re probably not singing most of the time. Then there’s the singers who go up there and plant their feet on the stage and sing. I really wanted to go back to Sammy Davis Jr. – to that kind of era – and really do it all.
You look good in that top hat on the cover of the album. Are you much of a hat man?
I do like hats … especially because I’m so synonymous with my crazy curly hair now. I can cover it up. It’s good to have a little disguise.
Is there a song on this album that most inspired your musical-theater career?
Yeah, actually there is. “On the Street Where You Live,” which is from “My Fair Lady,” is a song that I found really early on in my life. I first sang it when I was maybe 13 at a talent show or something. It’s typically done as a ballad, and that’s actually the song I’ve sung for every single audition I’ve ever had in my entire life, including “Glee.” That song has kind of made my career, I guess. (Laughs) But for this version on the album, I really wanted to kind of give it a little more pep, speed it up a bit, make it a little more danceable. So that’s what we did!
When you were recording these songs, did it dawn on you how outdated the vernacular is? And how much the word “gay,” which once just meant happy and carefree, has changed?
It’s funny you say that, because every time I sing “Younger than Springtime” with the “gayer than laughter” line – I think I sing it maybe three or four times within the song – it does pop in my mind. You’re right, it doesn’t mean that … well, it does mean that, but it has changed, absolutely. That song in particular, to me, is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. I love that song. I love the sentiment of the song. And when I originally was hearing it I was thinking of (the “gay” reference), but it’s not like I really care. (Laughs)
Of all people, I didn’t think you did.
(Sarcastically) Damn those gay people!
How did you get involved in the Human Rights Campaign video for marriage equality?
From my friends. I have so many friends who are involved with HRC – my friends from the theater community – and it’s a cause that I absolutely support. It just comes down to human rights. Forty years ago, if you saw a black man walking down the street with a white woman it was like “oh my god,” but now you don’t even blink. I’m hoping that’s the same thing that’s gonna happen with this, and hopefully gay and lesbian couples can marry. That you can’t marry the person that you love in today’s society is just wrong. I think a loving and committed gay and lesbian relationship deserves the same rights as anyone else’s.
I was honored recently with the Ally for Equality Award at the HRC Atlanta dinner, and there were these brothers from New Hampshire. The younger brother is gay, and the older brother is straight and married to his wife, and hearing the straight brother talk about his brother and what he’s gone through and the person that he is, he got so choked up. It was the most beautiful thing to see him talk about his brother, (saying) that he deserved the same rights that he has. I was blown away by these two guys. It was pretty incredible.
Have you performed at a gay wedding before?
I have performed at a gay wedding. And my massage therapist and his partner are planning a wedding in the next year or so and I plan on singing at their wedding too.
What will you be singing?
I’m gonna leave it up to them. But I’m taking requests!
What’s your future on “Glee”?
It’s been renewed for a couple of seasons, but I don’t know the answer to that question.
What do you see for yourself when “Glee” does end? A break?
I don’t think “Glee” is ever going to end. (Laughs) No, I don’t want a break. I have two months off from the show right now and I’m putting out an album and doing some touring. I love working. I always wanna work. I think for me – now that I’ve done everything, and I’ve been on stage for 10 years and done film and television – my heart is in the theater, and that’s where I feel the most alive and connected to the audience. I love being on stage. That’s something that I know I will definitely go back to. I feel like I’ve had a really well-rounded career so far, and I want to keep trying to put my hand in a lot of different things.
I take it you won’t be bringing “The Herdmans Go to Camp” to Broadway?
My career would probably be over.
It’s that bad?
I don’t remember it. That’s saying a lot.