“I hope he can dance,” Matthew Morrison says when asked what advice he has for Garrett Clayton in Hairspray Live! “I think that’s such a big thing I brought to the role; he’s got to be a real triple threat.”
Morrison was only 23 years old when he bowed as teen heartthrob Link Larkin in Hairspray. It was his first major role on Broadway.
Fourteen years later, and Morrison is a Tony nominee (for The Light in the Piazza) and a major television star thanks to Fox’s Glee.
And although Morrison was absent from the stage for a few years, Glee—and by default, Morrison—arguably wound up shepherding us into a new world where musical theatre is cool and one-night-only live television musical events are the highlight of holiday programming on network TV.
Still, no one ever expected Glee to be the success that it was. “We did the first 13 episodes in a bubble before anyone had seen the show,” explains Morrison. “We were doing this show about a bunch of high school kids singing and dancing. We all thought it was cool, but I don’t think anyone expected the kind of pandemonium, or this great trajectory, that the show ended up having.”
What initially attracted Morrison to Glee and his character, teacher and choir director Will Schuester, was the show’s goal not only to entertain but educate. “As an actor you are kind of just hired to perform and do a role,” he says. “You look at a lot of these procedural shows like Law and Order, the cop shows, the lawyer shows, they’re kind of the same thing. They’re great entertainment—I love watching them—but it never really hits home to people. It was so special to be part of something that actually made a difference in people’s lives and … touched on so many social issues.”
Morrison found inspiration in a series with a deeper message, but also loved introducing audiences to new sounds. “Glee not only brought musical theatre into people’s lives who didn’t know it, but I think reversely it brought pop music to an older generation that doesn’t really know songs that are out now—it exposed them to that,” he says.
Glee awakened an appetite for musicals that TV execs didn’t know America had and, arguably, set the stage for a resurgence of musicals on the small screen, including, coincidentally, Hairspray Live!
The actor clearly adores the show that was his first big break (he performs an eight-minute Hairspray medley in his solo act), and he “can’t wait to see it” on December 7.
“I think the great thing about Hairspray—and why I think it’s going to work so well in this format—is that so much of this show is done in a television studio. So it kind of makes sense that we are watching it on TV,” he says. “I hope they really play up that aspect of the whole thing.”
Despite his excitement to tune in and his small part in paving the way for musicals on television, Morrison isn’t fully convinced of the live television musical event. “I don’t think it’s the ideal way to present one of these—a musical that we all know and love—because it’s hard, and you’re rushed, and I feel like it’s such a crazy atmosphere,” he says. “In a sense, that is kind of what doing a Broadway show is, but at the same time you don’t have to worry about a whole crew of camera men and lighting…”
Still, he confesses that every one he sees “just keeps getting better.”
So could Morrison be convinced to join one? “I never want to say never, but for me it’s so hard to pull off. Right now, at this point, I would have to say no,” he says. “But who knows?”
Where there’s a Will, there’s a way.
Hairspray Live! airs December 7 8/7c on NBC, starring Harvey Fierstein, Maddie Baillio, Kristin Chenoweth, Jennifer Hudson, Dove Cameron, Garrett Clayton, Ariana Grande, Martin Short, Sean Hayes, Derek Hough, Ephraim Sykes, Andrea Martin, Billy Eichner, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and Rosie O’Donnell.
Update: November 7, 2016
An inside source confirms that Matthew Morrison has approached NBC about starring in 2017’s Bye Bye Birdie Live! alongside the previously announced Jennifer Lopez.