Matthew Morrison - Atitude MagazineTuesday, May 31, 2011
via gleehab; In the summer of 2010 I was dispatched by the women’s weekly magazine Grazia to interview the iconic supermodel Kate Moss. In the summer of 2010, just six months after it had first aired terrestrially on E4, the smash-hit, mega-budget America TV song-and-dance bonanza Glee had become one of those pop-cultural touchstones that even Kate Moss openly admitted to loving. So I asked her which member of the Glee cast she fancied.
Matthew Morrison, who plays Spanish and Glee Club teacher Will Schuester in the series, sits in an upper-end Park Lane hotel suite and considers the scenario.
‘And she said Puck, right?’ Puck is the Mohawk-ed student who impregnated a hot virgin Christian cheerleader in season one of Glee and went on to form an odd, brief feeder obsession with a fatty in the second. Puck gets the songs that feature phallocentric guitar posturing. If Glee s the rolling Alt. Disney version of High School Musical – a reading that stands up to some close scrutiny – then Puck is its vanilla Sid Vicious. Of course it was Puck whom Kate Moss fancied.
Matthew Morrison looks unsurprised, if slightly deflated, at this. Within the Take That litmus test of British popularity, Glee fares exceedingly well. Because Glee is what it is – a global phenomenon that produces approximately half a doze minor chart hits a week in most territories that operate within the iTunes facility, not to mention a pandemic TV audience – the modern parlor game of which member of the Glee cast you are hot for has followed in its wake.
From one particular gay perspective, for example, it is gay teenager Kurt’s dad, bald mechanic Burt, who is the hottest. Does Morrison get this? ‘Oh, come on. Of course I do.’
And who is it that likes Finn, the dumb jock American football ace who was introduced with premature ejaculation issues and sings from the drippier end of the Bruno Mars canon? ‘That would be…another type?’ He’s struggling.
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Glee is the gayest show on TV. This we know. It is not only the gayest show on TV because its cast breaks out into tightly choreographed, extravagantly costumed versions of the Great American songbook of the day. It is not only the gayest show on TV because it features a convolutedly plotted teen romance between a wistful, slightly pinched gay-boy who hides his homo-insecurities behind an executive love of high fashion and divas and his posh, private-school counterpart. It is not the gayest show on TV because it has walloped the old traditions of musical theater directly into the 21st century. It is not even because it has episodes dedicated solely to the music and drapes of Lady Gaga, Britney Spears and Madonna.
It is the gayest show on TV because it comes form a gay brain, executive producer Ryan Murphy. It simply could not have come from a straight one. ‘He can be brutal and he can be a saint’ says Morrison of his gay boss, ‘but you always know that he’s coming from a good place. Every single thing that is going on with Glee bears his fingerprints. He looks over every costume and every set and every piece of lighting. Everything goes through Ryan.’
Only a gay man would understand that, to coerce a modern audience into loving something as divisive as musical theater, however much you re-cast its dynamic for the YouTube age, you have to start by making sure that the imaginary audience fancies at least one member of the cast. There are a good five potential gay magazine cover stars in the cast of Glee – probably a record for an US TV show – of which Morrison was simply the first to bite in Britain. The debut Glee cover star in Attitude’s closest US counterpart, Out, was Darren Criss, who plays Kurt’s boyfriend, Blaine. Puck, Finn and of course, Kurt are all welcome to open biddings, Burt for perhaps a more specialist title.
So what do 32 year-old Matthew Morrison’s fans tell us about him? ‘I tend to get the mums, actually’ he says. That wasn’t the question what male fans does he get?
‘Haha, this is great!’ he says, in a manner that translates as, ‘This is so not great’.
‘Yes, I also get a certain type of college-educated, older man.’ And how do they manifest themselves? ‘They’re a little more polite. They are very respectful.’
For almost three years now, Matthew Morrison has been committed to the role of Mr. Scheuster, the earnest Spanish teacher at McKinley High School who enables his largely dysfuctionaly students into an Oprah-ish, high emotional state of positivity and self-worth through the medium of song and dance in their high school glee club. In one of Glee’s many astute plot and character calibrations, Mr. Schuester is the straightforward everyman with a broken American Dream that acts as a conduit for varying degrees of female mental illness.
He has a full-on demented (now ex-wife) who fantasized her own pregnancy to full gestation, an on-off girlfriend with a crippling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and a sadist nemesis who only understands how to love via the conduit of her Down’s syndrome sister.
‘It is a comedy at the end of the day and I am the straight man,’ he says, ‘I’m the one with the foot in reality who has to be the normal one so that you believe everything else, however wide and extreme it is around him. It’s all pulled in through him. You get the truth through him.’
Away from his borderline child-catcher smile and neatly buttoned up J. Crew wardrobe, because Mr. Scheuster is the straight man, the actor who plays him never quite catches fire at awards season.
‘Oh, that’s the story of my life, though,’ he deflects. ‘I get nominated for everything and I never win.’
‘I don’t give a shit about awards. Sure, I’d take an Emmy. Am I losing sleep about not having one? No. I always feel like awards are such a funny thing. I don’t know what their purpose is apart from to drive publicity towards a television show or film. How do you really, unless you’re all doing the same part, judge who’s better than who?’
How indeed? Matthew Morrison’s part as Mr. Scheuster is a career-defining role in the same way that the cast list of Friends or Will & Grace were once career-defining roles for the actors who played them. The intermittent worry underneath these roles is that you will be perennially cast as the lesser versions of the same idea. You could probably go on working forever, funneling funds into a ludicrous personal bank balance, but who really wants to do the same thing, over and over again, for the rest of their lives?
Because Morrison is halfway into a relentless day of press commitments, in which he will have to explain the popularity of Glee over and over again, he beings positively when asked about this. ‘I don’t know what the future holds. But in a good way I will always be Mr. Schuester. It’s a great character to be associated with; that inspirational teacher you always wish you had. I love him for that.’
When fans stop him in the street, though, they don’t shout for the actor, they shout for his character. ‘Yes, they say, “Hey Mr. Schue!” or “Wow, it’s the guy from Glee!”’ he explains. When the subsequent pictures turn up on fans’ Facebook pages, they are of ‘Cindy and Mr. Schue’ not of ‘Cindy and Matthew Morrison.’ ‘I think it’s important that my career moves on after this in what I chose to do. Coming out with this album is good for people to me away a little.’
We are supposed to be talking about Matthew Morrison’s debut artist’s album, a perky collection of songs that are cut close enough to the Glee model to forge buyers out of his vast TV audience yet feature a couple of stardust cameos (Elton John and his Glee co-star Gwyneth Paltrow) that hint at Morrison’s longer-term desire to eclipse the role of Mr. Scheuster in terms of his personal fame. To stop him from turning into another Matt LeBlanc.
Matthew Morrison is a strange juxtaposition of a character: If at first he appears to be glacially PR-driven, wending most subjects directly back to his album, underneath the limits and necessities of landing a massive career boost from a role in a TV show aimed predominantly at teenagers there is something a little uncomfortable about his interview technique.
So I bite a bullet and say, ‘I’m not being funny, here, but you are the first actor I’ve ever interviewed where I am actually more interested in your acting work than I am in you.’
He retorts quickly and sharply. ‘I should take that as a complement?’
After 20 minutes of hard-fought professionalism, the interview takes on a new lease of life. He lets the human beneath the sales pitch tentatively slip out for the remaining 40 minutes. ‘When I do my next film role I do want to be doing something…you know, give me a drug dealer doing coke off a chick’s ass.’
Clearly, Morrison is proud of Glee. But what he is proudest of is that it isn’t another cookie-cutter US teen drama in the High School Musical mould. It pecks at the glorious mania of what it is to be a teenager. ‘Before it came out of the blocks it had been pegged in with High School Musical. We definitely thought of that as a negative. It was so different. The thing that makes Glee what it is is the adult storylines.’
In one throwaway sentence he sums up the show brilliantly. ‘Glee is radical in a vanilla way.’
Matthew Morrison grew up in the unfancy world of Southern California suburbia without a showbiz bone in his extended family. His parents worked in medical supplies. As a very young child he showed promising aptitude for football, and his parents imagined a career in it might follow.
Then the jazz hands struck.
During a summer stay with his grandparents in Arizona at the age of 10, Morrison and his cousin were co-opted into a local theater show and his ebullience on the football field was quickly trounced by a hungry and prodigious necessity to command the stage. His performance instinct is not learnt, he says, it is innate.
‘I just loved it. There was something so freeing about it. I found my passion at a very early age.’ He mentions that a close friend of his, after seeing Morrison perform for the first time on Broadway, commented that watching him sing and dance was like watching all-American sports hero Kobe Bryant play basketball. ‘I came back to southern California and said I wanted to go into theatre. I ended up going to a performing arts high school.’
He says his parents were not alarmed that their young son was the ‘wanna sing, wanna dance!’ type. ‘I think they thought it was kind of fun and cute when I was at high school. Then I got into NYU, which is a very elite school but also a very expensive one. I think everyone was perfectly aware that that was a big investment that might not pay off. To come out of college $100,000 in debt as an actor is a tough, tough position to be put in.’
Morrison arrived in New York at 18 with high ambitions. Even though he is Californian born and bred, he says it had to be New York. ‘I just did not see myself as an LA actor.’ He admired the old-school New York actors – Dean and Brando – and of the current crop of elder acting statesmen he mentions Alec Baldwin and Stanley Tucci being of a breed that ooze the skewed Manhattan charm afforded by an East Coast apprenticeship.
He flunked college at 19 when offered a chorus role in Footloose on Broadway and proceeded to live a giddy New York life, with all that implies for a 19 year-old with starry ambitions. He shared a sensational apartment on the Upper West Side with the show’s lead and developed a taste for the limelight, on and off the stage.
‘It was great. I couldn’t get into any bars, I was 19, but being in the show I was part of a community that got me into certain places. It was the time of my life. I feel like I’ve been really lucky. A lot of the kids on Glee I feel might get a false sense of what this industry is because of the success of the show. I feel like they might think that everything’s going to be like this. I love that I’ve been around. I really got to live out my twenties and fuck up.’
One of the earliest supporters of Morrison during his first and only college year was the esteemed Broadway choreographer Jerry Mitchell. ‘I was very masculine as a dancer. Jerry choreographed me in Hairspray and The Rocky Horror Show. He got it. He’s an openly gay man and he just got it straight away with me.’
That’s the stuff that gay men do get. The clue is in the ‘gay’ bit.
‘I know, totally. People think of ballet as being effeminate but if you think about the technical ability and the discipline? Oh my God. Of course there are beautifully effeminate dancers, too. But I got turned on to dancing watching Patrick Swayze. I was scared of it. But after I saw him I saw a man dancing. I got turned on by Gene Kelly. He became my idol. I thought Fred Astaire was the aristocrat dancer, very light on his feet. Gene Kelly was the proletariat. That’s what I liked.’
Ryan Murphy spotted the same thing at Morrison’s first Glee auditions. ‘What Ryan says is that when you see me sing and dance you see a man sing and dance. There’s nothing frilly about me. Actually, Ryan also loved my boots. He’s such a fashionista, he was like, “They’re perfect”. He says the boots got me the job.’
For his drama school audition at NYU, Matthew Morrison sang Elton John’s Rocket Man. His theatrical set pieces were the balcony scene from Romeo And Juliet and a monologue from Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. He thinks for a moment about how much Williams might have approved of Glee if he had got to see a semi-liberated America in which a TV drama has made a starring role of a teenage gay boy involved in the kind of riveting, open and central gay storyline he was never allowed to put on stage or film.
‘Oh boy. Absolutely.’ Kurt’s dad has a touch of another Williams’ anti-hero, Stanley Kowalski, about him too. ‘Gee, that is so not the sort of thing I’ve been talking about today. I like a little learned interpretation of Glee, you know? I think it stands up to it.’
When he first read a Glee script, he was aware that other actors in the Broadway show he was in at the time, South Pacific, were chasing the role. Nonetheless, he claims not to have been convinced by its potential success. ‘It was just another script that came across the desk. It was during pilot season when you get three or four scripts a week.’ He had been burnt by pilot season before, for the previous six years. ‘I always felt like, “Oh, this one’s great, this show is definitely going to go” and when I saw Glee I thought, “Kids singing and dancing on TV? This doesn’t have a shot.”’
He claims never to have seen an episode of The Kids From Fame, the 80s phenomenon that is largely attributed as Glee’s emotional predecessor. ‘I didn’t even see the TV show of Fame. I saw the movie, of course. But the last couple of TV shows that tried to mix music and drama really did not work. I think the last one was called Cop Rock. It bombed. Hugh Jackman did one that was produced called Viva Laughlin. You know it? Exactly. And so no one could figure it out.’
The problem, it seems was not in the execution of the show. ‘We shot the first 13 episodes in a bubble, before they were seen by anyone. No one really knew what it would be. Everyone from the studio thought it was good. The problem was locating its audience. The question at the network was always “who is going to watch this?” What was the audience we were trying to attract?’
Surely because of American Idol the idea of a TV show where ordinary kids break out into the popular songs of the day wasn’t a great leap of the imagination? ‘Yeah, I think American Idol has brought music to TV again. But it’s different. WE do absolutely break out into song. So there’s the cheesiness element to it too.’
He is still not entirely sure what it is that works about the show. ‘You could ask any different person involved in our show what makes Glee and you’d get a different answer from every one of them.’ But then Matthew Morrison is not gay.
The strangest juxtaposition at the heart of his life is, of course, that he worked through his twenties in one of the only professional fields, musical theater (air-stewarding and styling being the possible other two), in which it is necessary to come out as straight. He has found his starring turn on the world stage in the gayest show on Earth.
Perhaps because of this, he understands transparently the relevance of the Kurt storyline in Glee. He thinks the It Gets Better campaign would probably not have happened without Ryan Murphy, Kurt and Chris Colfer, the actor who plays him so expertly.
‘Oh, I mean he has my favorite storylines on the entire show. Damn. For Americans? I don’t know how it is in the UK, but there he is loved just for doing this. It’s beautiful to watch. It makes me totally emotional to watch it being played out. His journey, man. I can’t say what is coming up but there is some crazy shit. I love the Burt and Kurt story. The relationship between the gay teenager and his dad I think comes a lot from the relationship that Ryan Murphy wanted to have with his own dad. There’s an amazing scene where Burt has to tell him about the birds and the bees.’
The bees and the bees?
‘Right. And how a lot of gay men probably missed that talk because their parents just didn’t know how to have it. It is really touching. It sends out a really, deeply positive message to people watching.’
It is actually incredible to think that that is happening on a mainstream, primetime American TV show.
‘I know, right?’
It makes you think of Glee as being really quite a momentous show.
‘That’s because it is a momentous show.’
It is tempting to think of Matthew Morrison of having just jumped out of a box, pre-packed and delivered to our screens box-fresh as Mr. Schuester. This is far from the case. For 12 years he had been a successful Broadway actor on a successful Broadway actor’s salary. He opened the first Broadway cast of the phenomenally successful, world-conquering movie adaptation, Hairspray, as the romantic lead, Link Larkin. He calls Hairspray ‘another beautiful story about the triumph of an underdog.’
Because of this role, Matthew Morrison still gets and annual Christmas card from the genius film writer and director John Waters. ‘It’s always the one you look forward to. Every year it’s a personalized thing from him. This last year he had gold teeth, grillz that spelt out Merry Xmas. One year, oh God, it was this car wash with these dead people laying on the ground. You wonder what the fuck is next?’
I tell Morrison that my friend once visited John Waters’ upstate home and told me he has a fridge full of vintage poppers there. He looks temporarily confused.
‘What are poppers?’
You know, amyl nitrite?
My God, you worked for over a decade in musical theater, and then for three years on Glee, and you don’t know what poppers are? You really need to do your LGBT homework. It’s the stuff gays sniff to dilate…
‘Oh, gotcha! I see! Right!’
For a moment, Matthew Morrison looks slightly embarrassed and quickly changes the subject.
‘John Waters has a place upstate here?’
No, in New York. I’m sorry the poppers thing was lost on you.
‘No, no. Mi Dispiace.’
Ask your educated gentleman admirers about them.
‘I’m going to.’