Preview: Matthew Morrison launches PSO Pops season with some of his favorite tunes
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Matthew Morrison has a little more time on his hands these days, just enough to squeeze in a weekend as the opening act for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra Pops season.
"Come on, I'm only one guy," he joked when asked what else he was up to along with shooting the fourth season of the Fox musical TV series "Glee," recording his second solo album and flying to Pittsburgh for four concerts Saturday and Sunday.
Mr. Morrison was already a Broadway knockout in "South Pacific" and "Hairspray" and a Tony nominee for "The Light in the Piazza" when he broke out in Hollywood as Mr. Shuster in "Glee." His second solo album is due next year, with title as yet unknown. What we do know is that we'll get the first preview at Heinz Hall this weekend, which also marks the first time in 17 years that the PSO Pops will perform without Marvin Hamlisch at the helm. The charismatic composer and conductor died Aug. 6.
"I was really excited because I've always been such a huge fan of Mr. Hamlisch and I was really looking forward to the opportunity of having him conduct me. I'm not going to give it away, but I'm going to do a dedication to him and sing a song that he composed and do a little tribute to him," Mr. Morrison said by phone in a timeout from shooting the latest season of "Glee."
Lucas Richman, who served as assistant and resident conductor for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra from 1998 to 2004, will stand in for Mr. Hamlisch as conductor. He also will honor his late colleague at the piano.
The PSO is in the planning stages of a tribute to Mr. Hamlisch that will take place later in the 2012-13 season, a PSO spokesman said.
Mr. Hamlisch was working on the HBO film "Behind the Candelabra," the Liberace biopic starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, when he fell ill. Mr. Richman was visiting Los Angeles from his home with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, when he got a call saying that Mr. Hamlisch had been hospitalized and could he step in to conduct the music the composer had been prepared to record.
"It was the Thursday before Marvin passed," Mr. Richman said. "All we knew, he had entered the hospital the night before. So I ended up conducting the entire session, and we left just wishing Marvin the best and hoping he would have a speedy recovery. So it was all the more shocking when I got back to Knoxville and got the call from Bob Moyer informing me of Marvin's passing and in the same conversation Bob asked me to step in for Marvin in these concerts. So really, that HBO project was the last project he had been working on, and it's especially moving to me that I'm going to be conducting the concerts that launch the season."
The conductor will first meet Mr. Morrison during a quick rehearsal process, but Mr. Richman has worked with arranger Chris Walden on the program of Broadway and jazz standards.
"I suspect he'll be wonderful to work with," Mr. Richman said of his soloist. "He has a great voice and a wonderful charm to him, so I'm looking forward to it."
Mr. Morrison chose works that he feels a personal connection with, songs that help the 33-year-old performer relate his personal journey. He's always loved Sammy Davis Jr.'s version of "The Lady Is a Tramp," and now you'll get the Matthew Morrison take on it.
"As an artist you want to put your own stamp on things. It's as simple as, I do this song that I've always auditioned with for almost every Broadway show, 'On The Street Where You Live' [from 'My Fair Lady'] and I just sped it up a bit. It's a beautiful ballad, but it really swings when you speed it up, and I incorporate this fun, athletic dance number into the middle of it, so you'll see stuff like that."
Before "Glee" beamed the song-and-dance man into our living rooms, Mr. Morrison had made waves as a Tony nominee for "Light in the Piazza" (2005) and portrayed the sexy, tragic Lieutenant Joe Cable in the acclaimed revival of "South Pacific" (2008).
He is most at home in the theater realm, and that's where he went looking for songs to fill a second solo album.
"Doing this album, it was important for me to go through evvvery single song, and I went back and found obscure Irving Berlin songs; I went through the gamut of trying to find the best songs that I love to sing but at the same time that I have a personal connection with, that help me tell my story. And also, I'm a dancer first, so I want to have a great aspect of dance [in the songs], and you're going to see it all in the show."
In concert, Mr. Morrison has played big rooms and small, crowds sparse and huge, including at Radio City Music Hall for the Tony Awards show in 2009 and as part of arena tours with the cast of "Glee" and as a lead-in act for the New Kids on the Block/Backstreet Boys tour last year.
Performing for three people or 50,000, L.A.'s Nokia Theatre or Heinz Hall, it doesn't matter. "That's kind of the person I am," he said, laughing. "I don't think the dynamics of the theater change anything; it's just going to be an energetic show and I'm probably going to sweat a lot."
Performing solo with an orchestra only adds to the energy level, he said.
"I've done it a few times in different settings throughout my career. You feel really powerful out there. It's like you are onstage with an army behind you. You're going to battle well trooped-up -- that's not really a word, but you know."
Mr. Morrison has been performing all of his adult life. He grew up near Monterey, Calif., and first hit Broadway in the ensemble of "Footloose" in 1998. He left New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in 2002 to originate the role of heartthrob Link Larkin in "Hairspray," and never looked back.
His celebrity skyrocketed as the sensitive high school teacher and glee club leader Will Shuster on "Glee," where Mr. Shu can move and groove with the best of his talented TV students and go toe-to-toe with guest stars such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Kristin Chenoweth.
Season No. 4, which got under way Sept. 12, splits the shows between two graduating students (Rachel and Kurt, played by Lea Michele and Chris Colfer) making their way in New York and the old and new students back at fictional McKinley High in Ohio. You'll likely see less of Mr. Shu in the new season, which Mr. Morrison has dubbed "Glee 2.0."
"It's so amazing to see what they did. There's the whole New York contingency and there's us in Ohio, but it's not the same Ohio, because there's a whole new cast of characters in there. It just comes alive and it's a completely different show, which is so exciting," he said.
He noted that when he would prepare for, say, a choir room scene before this season, he would know exactly what to expect from the other actors. "And now it's so fresh, you don't know what they're going to do, and it keeps you on your toes. I think everyone is having a good time this season, especially because we have a little bit of a life outside of 'Glee.' "
Which brings us back to his appearance in Pittsburgh this weekend.
There's obviously some danger to being thrown into a situation with a short getting-to-know-you time. "Yeah, especially because it's my first time doing this material, but I'm putting in the work here, and you know, I've been doing this for a long time. So if things go wrong, I'll just go with it," Mr. Morrison said.
Mr. Richman has no such worries coming back to the city and orchestra where he spent six years and was able to introduce dozens of his own compositions and arrangements.
"It's always nice to come back to an orchestra and be able to give hugs and smiles and make music," Mr. Richman said. "The Pittsburgh Symphony has always been one of the warmest, friendliest groups, besides the fact that it is one of the best orchestras on the planet, if not the best."
Mr. Morrison called it an honor to be asked to perform with an orchestra the caliber of the PSO.
"Doing 'Glee' has been such an amazing part of my life, but as terrific as that is, my favorite thing is to be able to share an evening with a live audience," he said. "That's what I live for."
First Published September 27, 2012 12:00 am