Editor's Note: This interview with Matthew Morrison was conducted prior to the death of his Glee co-star Cory Monteith.
"Is this Zack Morris?" the affable Matthew Morrison asked me when he picked up the phone. No one has referred to me as Mark-Paul Gosselaar's character from Saved by the Bell in at least a decade, but it seemed appropriate that the man playing America's favorite high school teacher would be the one to break the ice.
Beloved in the Broadway community for his performances in The Light in the Piazza and Hairspray, Morrison catapulted to international stardom playing Mr. Schuester on the hit TV show Glee. He'll go into production for season five later this month, but before that, he'll squeeze in a week of shows at midtown cabaret venue 54 Below.
I spoke to Morrison about his upcoming show, Up Close and Personal with Matthew Morrison (July 13-17), his new album of American standards, and his recently announced engagement to model Renee Puente.
Congratulations on your engagement. Is it too early to start setting a date for the wedding?
We plan on having a nice long engagement, because we really want to plan it and not have to stress about anything on that day.
How did it happen?
We got engaged a month prior to this big Elton John Party where it became public. That was the biggest surprise, when Elton announced it. He sang a duet with Chris Martin from Coldplay and they dedicated it to us. That's fairytale stuff. You can only ever imagine that stuff happening...until it happens. They both sang "Your Song" and it was absolutely incredible. I couldn't pick my jaw up off the floor.
You just performed at 54 Below last month. What made you come back so soon?
I'm heading back to Glee next week. I've had a great summer of touring around and doing different shows. My favorite was at 54 Below. I love that space. I'd never been there before. It's so intimate and amazing. It was sold out every night. So I wanted to come back and give people who hadn't seen the first show an opportunity to check it out.
What do you like about cabaret?
I love the intimacy and interaction with the audience. I grew up listening to Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra. I've always appreciated that kind of off-the-cuff banter with the audience. Whatever they give you, you give back. I love doing that. I do a lot of symphony dates and that's a totally different feel. You're in a bowtie and tux and you follow the program. With this show I have my five-piece band. I don't really have a song order. It's whatever I'm feeling from the audience and the band is right there to back me up.
How long to do rehearse?
A solid week. We've been doing the shows for a month and a half. If an audience is feeling upbeat, I'll throw away some of the ballads and keep it upbeat. If they're feeling a little melancholy, I'll go with more ballads.
I imagine your whole album is on the set list. What else do you plan to sing?
The uke solo is a classic cabaret move. How long have you been doing this?
Hahaha. Since this summer. 54 Below was my first show.
Who were your favorite guests from that show in June?
Jane Lynch came, which was awesome. She was so funny. I brought her on stage and I gave her a massage because I feel like she's earned it from dealing with those kids for the past month. Unfortunately, most of my friends are in shows, so it's hard for them to come. I think there's one show that doesn't coincide with a normal theater performance schedule.
You mentioned that you're going into production for season five of Glee. That premieres September 19. You must have a very demanding schedule to get all of that done in time.
Yeah: once we hit the ground, it's off.
What is your typical day like?
There's no such thing as a typical day there. It's usually filming a twelve-hour day — minimum. If you have a little break, they'll send you to the recording studio or a dance studio to work on a number. It's all over the place. Each day is completely different.
Your album, Where It All Began, is mostly classic American standards. How did you choose what was going to be on the track list?
It was a little difficult. I'm hoping to make more albums with this music. In my first album I ventured into the pop world. This is the album I wanted to make even before that one. This is where I feel most at home. That's why I called it "Where It All Began." This is the music that I grew up with and started with on Broadway. I went back to the classics: Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, everything. This is the genre I connect with the most.
This was the popular music of the USA for a long time. Do you think Broadway can ever have that position again?
Yes, I do. Especially because of a show like Glee, the arts are cool again. I think that more people are seeing Broadway shows now. A lot of people picked up the Book of Mormon cast album. I feel like there's going to be a show that's not too far away that's just going to blow everyone's socks off.
When are you coming back to Broadway?
As soon as I can. There's a lot of people coming to see the show this week that might be able to connect me to possible projects.
Is there a show that you'd particularly like to do?
One of my favorite shows is Assassins. I love that darkness. I've always wanted to do a Sondheim show.