“At the end of the day, I’m a song and dance man,” says Matthew Morrison. Not that there was ever any doubt.
The Emmy, Tony, and Golden Globe-nominated star may have come to national prominence through his role as the perpetually optimistic high school teacher Will Schuester on Fox TV’s “Glee,” but the Southern California native was turning heads years earlier on the Great White Way.
So it seems only appropriate that Morrison’s latest album is a collection of standards, many first made famous in Broadway musicals.
After studying musical theater, vocal performance and dance at Tisch School of The Arts in New York, Morrison made his debut on Broadway in “Footloose,” followed by “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” However, it was his role as Link Larkin in the original cast of the Broadway production of “Hairspray” that served as his breakthrough and led to Morrison being cast in the critically acclaimed “The Light In The Piazza.” His portrayal of young lover Fabrizio Naccarelli garnered him a Tony nomination for best performance by a featured actor in a musical. He subsequently received a Drama Desk nomination for outstanding actor in the off-Broadway musical “10 Million Miles” and reprised the role of Lieutenant Cable in Lincoln Center’s Tony-nominated production of “South Pacific.”
Morrison was the first artist signed to 222 Records, the label started by Adam Levine, the leader of multi-platinum group Maroon 5. Following a stint on Mercury Records, Morrison is happy to be part of a label that is run by a fellow artist. “Adam’s been part of whole big label system and he knows completely what works and doesn’t,” Morrison says. “He wanted to make an artist-friendly label and he’s completely backed my vision 100%. He trusts what we’re doing.”
Though Morrison enjoys making records, they are a means to an end. The stage is where Morrison comes alive. “Performing live, I can’t even say it’s in my heart or in my soul. It’s so far down below that...It’s almost a spiritual relationship you have with an audience and how you can get them invested. It’s a beautiful partnership. It’s my oxygen, my food. It’s my water. I love it more than anything.”
Morrison’s album of standards is a salute to the music that means the most to him. In 2011, Morrison released his first album, a pop collection of mainly originals featuring such guests as Elton John, Sting and Gwyneth Paltrow. He remains proud of that set, but admits part of the goal was to separate himself from his “Glee” character. “‘This new album is the album I’ve always wanted to make,” he says. “This is my love, the songs I grew up listening to. These songs are so timeless and it’s something everyone can appreciate. I felt a responsibility to breathe new life into them.”
It was also vitally important to Morrison to welcome fans beyond Broadway aficionados to the project. “I wanted to make this first and foremost for my Broadway audience because I feel like I’ve neglected them for the last few years. But I knew a lot of people would be listening to it besides them so I didn’t want to make it so strict in that big Broadway voice. I wanted to make it more general.”
Morrison turned to legendary producer Phil Ramone, along with Grammy Award-winning producer Gregg Field, to create the collection. For Morrison, it was paramount that he put his own stamp on the songs, either by coming up with new tempos and arrangements or by recreating the song in a way it had never been imagined before. For example, he even shifts his take on “South Pacific’s” gorgeous “Younger Than Springtime” from how he performed it at Lincoln Center. “That one is very Broadway and very big. This one I wanted to bring is down and make it very quiet and intimate.” His “West Side Story” medley pops with energy and poignancy.
“Phil has quite a nice shelf of Grammy Awards. There were only a few people I was thinking about working with. Phil was the dream one,” Morrison says. “I didn’t think it would ever happen. He was the first one I approached.”
Together, they re-envisioned the standards, while still embracing what made the songs classic in the first place. Morrison even recorded “Guys And Dolls’” “Luck Be A Lady,” first made famous by Frank Sinatra, at Capitol Studios, where old Blue Eyes recorded many of his songs. “I definitely felt his presence in the room,” Morrison says. “Everyone knows that song. Gregg came up with the beat, he slowed it down and made it a little more funky.”
Regardless of where his multi-dimensional professional life takes him, Morrison knows he will always return to his roots. He sees this album as a stepping stone that sets up whatever comes next. “This is the kind of thing I want to do for the rest of my life” he says. No matter where my career takes me, singing these songs is something I will always be able to do.”