Matthew Morrison had to find Neverland before he could find himself.
The 36-year-old actor, singer and dancer may have made his first big splash on Broadway when he created the role of Link Larkin in Hairspray and then became internationally famous as Will Schuester on Glee, but it’s his current job as J.M. Barrie in the hit musical Finding Neverland that helped him unlock doors in his personal life that he didn’t even know were locked.
“All my life, I’ve always felt the need to be part of a group, part of a family, and I never really knew why until I got into this show and started digging into myself.”
Based on the 2004 film that starred Johnny Depp, Finding Neverland tells the true story behind the creation of Peter Pan, one of the most iconic works in modern literature.
It looks inside author Barrie’s own empty marriage and explains how he found emotional and artistic fulfilment with the neighbouring Llewelyn Davies family, a unit consisting of four young boys and their ailing, widowed mother.
By bonding with the children and stepping into their world of imagination and fantasy, Barrie was able to not only forge a lasting relationship with them, but to break the creative logjam in his professional life and write the greatest hit of his career.
“Once I started working on the role and (director) Diane Paulus started helping me really get into it, I came to realize I’ve been doing just what Barrie did here: becoming part of someone else’s family, someone’s else’s group, so I could feel I really belonged to something,” says Morrison over the phone from Manhattan.
The eternal nice guy who never wants to offend anyone, Morrison is quick to add, “Don’t get me wrong, my parents were wonderful people. But I was an only child and they both worked in the medical field and were very involved with their jobs. They would arrange their work schedules so that one of them would usually be there with me, but I often felt like I just had a single parent.
“And when I got to high school, my friends’ families became my families. I’d have to go over to their houses for the usual family experiences.”
He was born in Fort Ord, Calif., in 1978, but “We moved around a lot when I was growing up. And even then, we weren’t ever really home that much. I guess my childhood prepared me to be in the theatre. You know what it’s like. You come into a show and create tight bonds, and then you leave.”
Strangely enough, Morrison didn’t begin with any inclination toward show business. “I was into sports more than anything else. I was a big soccer player and I saved all my performing for on the field,” he laughs.
Then one summer, “My parents sent me to Arizona to be with my cousins and my aunt sent me to a theatre camp. I still remember the name of the show we did to this day:The Herdsmen Go to Camp. It was a made-up show and I played all of the herdsmen! I still remember the energy I felt doing that. It was unreal. Unlike anything I had ever felt in my life.”
Morrison came home and “told my parents that I wanted to do children’s theatre.” He entered the Orange County High School of the Arts and never looked back, going from there to the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, which he attended for two years before dropping out to join the cast of Footloose on Broadway.
That introduced him to Canadian Jeremy Kushnier, then playing the lead role, who remains a close friend.
“When I left Tisch to go into Footloose, they told me I’d have to give up my room in the dorms as well. Luckily, the guy I was replacing in the show had been Jeremy’s roommate, so I just moved in.”
Roles in The Rocky Horror Show and Hairspray followed, and then he was cast as Fabrizio in The Light in the Piazza, which earned him a Tony nomination and introduced him to the Lincoln Centre Theatre and director Bartlett Sher, who next cast him as Lieutenant Joe Cable in the immensely successful revival of South Pacific.
“I have been so lucky in my stage career. I wouldn’t have had it go any other way.”
But after nearly a decade of non-stop stage work, Morrison admits that “I was looking for a change, something different. They offered me a TV show about a bunch of kids in a choir. I didn’t really think it would have much of a life, but it sounded like fun. Shows you how much I knew.”
The show turned out to be Glee and from the minute it hit the airwaves in May 2009, it was giant news.
Morrison was cast as Will Schuester (a.k.a. “Mr. Schue”), the Spanish teacher who restored a once great school choir to its former glory by teaching the kids how to really connect with the songs they were singing and instructing them in the basic rules of showbiz pizzazz.
Although the show was a hit from the start, Morrison took a while to catch on, with some critics finding him a little bland in the role. He now admits it was a deliberate choice.
“I went into the show wanting to keep my distance from the kids a bit so I could be their teacher figure, but the show took off so quickly, we connected whether we wanted to or not and from then on it was just great.
“Going through that experience together, we had to grow up fast. We had many happy moment and some tragic ones.”
It goes without saying that the sudden death of Cory Monteith from a 2013 drug overdose was the saddest of all.
Morrison’s voice changes when he talks about Monteith.
“We all thought he had been clean for so long that it was just devastating to us. I was doing a concert that night and when I got off the stage, there was a phone call from (series creator) Ryan Murphy telling me about Cory.
“I had two more concerts the next day and I thought of cancelling them, but I said, ‘No, I’ll think of Cory and incorporate my feelings into what I’m singing.’”
Glee finally came to the end of its road and, during the last season, producer Harvey Weinstein phoned Morrison to pitch the idea of him playing Barrie in the Broadway musical he was planning.
“I went home that night, watched the movie again and thought, ‘Yeah, there’s something there for me.’ And you don’t say no to Harvey Weinstein.”
Morrison admits that the creative process was “frantic” getting the show to New York and there were so many rewrites that “we killed a lot of trees in the process, but I totally love it.”
Despite being scorned by most of the critics and snubbed by the Tony Awards, the show is playing to capacity houses and grossing well over a million dollars a week.
Morrison happily admits, “Every night right before the curtain opens, I have this incredible feeling of excitement at having the opportunity to do this.
“And many nights, at the end of the show, when (the mother) Sylvia dies, yes, I think about Cory.”
FIVE FAVE ROLES
“That was so much fun and such a crazy ride. I loved being in it every step of the way.”
LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA
“Everybody involved in that show knew we were working on something special, something once in a lifetime.”
“When you get to sing a song like ‘Younger than Springtime’ every night, you get to know what lucky means.”
“I never thought it would become such a success, but boy, am I glad it did! Anything that gives people that much joy is worth it.”
“This has put me in touch with my Scottish roots. It’s a shame my grandma has just passed. She would have loved this.”