THEATERMANIA: Matthew, I tried to ask this question through a publicist a couple of years ago, but now is my chance to ask you face-to-face: What's up with the rumor that you're John Wayne's grandson?
MATTHEW MORRISON: Oh, God! That is just a rumor, but I would have no shame in perpetuating it. I'll be John Wayne's grandson! You know, his real name was Marion Morrison -- and if you look at pictures of him and me, it's quite uncanny.
TM: Where are you from originally?
MM: A town called Cypress in Orange County, California.
TM: It occurred to me that your two big roles, in Hairspray and The Light in the Piazza, were first played or were supposed to be played by other people. I guess one could say that you got them through a combination of talent and really good luck.
MM: Well, with Hairspray, I was kind of in the right place at the right time. James Carpinello left to do a movie, The Great Raid. I was playing Fender in the show and understudying Link. When James left, they had all these boy-band people come in to audition -- Justin Timberlake, Nick Lachey, Drew Lachey -- but they wound up giving me the part. Seattle was my tryout. I got the out-of-town job but they didn't give me the Broadway contract right away, so the Seattle experience was kind of nerve-wracking.
TM: Did you feel that you were green?
MM: No, but I hadn't proved myself in any capacity. I'd done two Broadway shows [Footloose and The Rocky Horror Show] in the ensemble but I'd never had a starring role. I was hungry for the challenge, though, and Marissa [Jaret Winokur, who played Tracy in Hairspray] was a champion of mine. As for Piazza, it had two previous incarnations: Fabrizio was played by Steven Pasquale in Seattle and by Wayne Wilcox in Chicago. When it came to Broadway, they kind of mixed the whole thing up in terms of the casting. I wasn't too keen on auditioning for the show because I thought it was way out of my league. I was scared of the music. It's hard as hell! Everyone knew that Hairspray was going to be a hit, but Piazza was a little murky. Nobody had done anything like it in a while, so we didn't know what to expect. But it turned out to be the most fulfilling experience I've ever had.
TM: Tell me about A Naked Girl on the Appian Way.
MM: I guess you can say it was sort of the same thing where I wasn't the first person to have the part. They did the play at South Coast Rep earlier this year, and the guy who played my part there is my understudy for the New York production.
TM: According to the press release, the plot concerns a married couple whose lives are upended when two of their children reveal "surprising news that stretches the family beyond the breaking point." What's the news?
MM: There are three children, and they're all adopted. I'm the white boy, then there's a Puerto Rican girl and a Japanese guy. This is my first interview for the show, so I don't know how much I should say about it, but the secret isn't too hard to figure out: My sister and I have just come back from a year in Europe, and we've been having sex. Incest is best!
TM: Is your sister the naked girl on the Appian Way?
MM: No! That's just a line in the script. I don't think it relates to any of the characters.
TM: You've got so many musicals on your résumé. When was the last time you were in a straight play?
MM: This is the first straight play I have ever done in my entire life. I mean, I was a furniture mover in Dangerous Liaisons in high school, but that's it. So I'm really excited for people to see me in this. I've always felt that acting is my forte, and it's nice not having to worry about hitting the high notes every night. While I was in Piazza, I had no social life. I didn't drink, I went to bed early. No partying.
TM: I saw Piazza right after it opened, then again this summer, and I noticed that the audience reaction was much more positive the second time. I'll bet those six Tony Awards had something to do with it.
MM: Yeah, people were told what to think. Sometimes, that's a good thing. It was a hard decision for me to leave Piazza because I became really close with the cast, and I love the show so much.
TM: So, are we really going to see Once Upon a Mattress this fall?
MM: It's going to air some time around Thanksgiving, for sure! I auditioned for it when I went to do Hairspray in L.A. Marissa was originally supposed to play Winnifred, but then they changed producers. We filmed for three months in Vancouver. It's really different from the stage version; "Normandy" is now my song, and I sing "In a Little While" with Zooey Deschanel.
TM: Have you seen the finished product?
MM: I've seen most of it. There are only three people who have copies: [producer] Marc Platt, [director] Kathleen Marshall, and Carol Burnett. Each copy has their initials on it, so if one ever got out, we'd know where it came from! The movie has an over-the-top, musical theater feel about it. Tracey Ullman is a riot, and it was a great experience working with Carol Burnett. We all stayed at the same hotel when we were filming, so we'd have parties; we'd make these great dinners and watch old Carol Burnett shows while she'd comment on what was going on behind the scenes. I didn't grow up on that show but it was so cool to watch it with her in the room, telling those stories.
TM: Hairspray and The Light in the Piazza have little in common, but both are great shows. Once Upon a Mattress is a total delight. I haven't yet seen A Naked Girl on the Appian Way, but Richard Greenberg is a very well respected playwright. Do you think you've been spoiled by the quality of the material you've worked with?
MM: I just got chills when you said that. Dick Latessa was in, like, 19 Broadway shows before Hairspray and he said, "I've never done a show like this one. This never happens." I thought, "Alright, I've hit my peak early!" Then Piazza came along, and that turned out to be another peak. I'm very lucky.