If you had followed Matthew Morrison’s career on the musical stage, you would have seen him grow from a lanky, loose-limbed teenager (Footloose, Hairspray) to an effortlessly masculine, Tony-nominated leading man (The Light in the Piazza, South Pacific) with the looks, charisma, and triple-threat chops to become that rare bird—a bona fide Broadway star. But then along came a TV show about a high-drama, high-decibel high school glee club, and when Morrison was cast as the school’s hunky Spanish teacher with an unexpected gift for staging high-octane production numbers, it kept him in Los Angeles for the next six years. Now, withGlee’s final season in the can, Morrison is returning to the New York stage as the star of Finding Neverland, a new Harvey Weinstein–produced musical based on the Harvey Weinstein–produced film of the same name. “I’m at a turning point in my life,” Morrison says. “I’m coming off a hugely successful television show, I’m newly married”—to the actress Renee Puente—“and I’m coming back to New York with a lot to prove. I’ve never been the outright lead of a show before, so it’s mine to carry, and—I’m not going to lie—I’m nervous about it.”
It’s a perfect place to be to portray an unsure-of-himself playwright who finds a new lease on life as both an artist and a man. That playwright, of course, is J. M. Barrie (played in the film by Johnny Depp), a sort of Edwardian Neil Simon trapped in a loveless marriage and stuck in a career rut (Kelsey Grammer plays his increasingly exasperated producer and, in several fantasy sequences, his subconscious shadow, Captain Hook) who, through the chaste love of a young widow (Laura Michelle Kelly) and the friendship of her four sons, to whom he becomes a surrogate father, overcomes self-doubt, writer’s block, and a series of demons both real and imagined to create the immortal Peter Pan.
The production features a script by the rising young English playwright James Graham (his 2012 drama This House, about backroom doings in the House of Commons during the tumultuous 1970s, was a hit at the National Theatre), an infectious pop score byX Factor judge and Take That frontman Gary Barlow and producer-songwriter Eliot Kennedy, and hallucinatory sets by Scott Pask (It’s Only a Play). Diane Paulus, whose recent circus-themed revival of Pippin showed her gift for exploring the intersection of showbiz razzle-dazzle and psychological realism, directs. “It’s a love letter to the theater that depicts the ups and downs—and all the hair that gets pulled out—in the creation of something remarkable,” Paulus says. “When J. M. Barrie wrote Peter Pan, it was avant-garde; Finding Neverland asks, ‘How far do you have to go—and how much faith do you have to rely on—to support something risky and different?’ ”
The answer, based on the show’s history: a lot. If it’s about the power of imagination and belief, no one has shown more of both—along with steamroller-like tenacity—than its producer, without whom Finding Neverland would never have found its way to Broadway. Weinstein commissioned a blue-chip creative team—Allan Knee, who wrote the play that the movie was based on; the songwriting team of Scott Frankel and Michael Korie (Grey Gardens); and the director/choreographer Rob Ashford (How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying)—for what became a 2012 production at the Curve Theatre in Leicester, England, with Julian Ovenden as Barrie. Despite the show’s inventive stagecraft and soaring music, Weinstein scrapped it from top to bottom and brought in a new creative team when critics found it simply too earthbound. This updated version, starring Jeremy Jordan (Smash) as Barrie, played to mixed reviews (and record-breaking audiences) at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, last summer. Its current Broadway incarnation, meanwhile, features a new opening number, new songs, a revamped script, more lavish sets, and, in Morrison, a new leading man. Paulus’s description of steering the ship toward New York captures the central theme of both Peter Pan andFinding Neverland: “You start from this infinite sense of time and dreams,” she says, “and then pretty quickly the clock starts ticking, and every step of the journey you’re battling time.”
Morrison is looking forward not just to letting his song-and-dance flag fly but to delving into the character of Barrie, a complex man who first came up with the idea of Neverland at age six after the death of his beloved older brother. “That was when he lost his boyhood—he had to grow up at that moment—and it’s so inspiring to see him, as an adult, discovering the spark of creation and imagination and play that he never got to experience growing up,” Morrison says. “It’s funny—he writes a play about a boy who won’t grow up, and grows up himself in the process.”
As he gets set to return to Broadway, Morrison is reconnecting with his own inner child—one who fell in love with singing and dancing onstage at age ten when he starred in a show at summer camp. Of course, after six seasons in the groves of television, getting his voice in shape for eight shows a week requires more than just make-believe, and so he’s spent the past year taking singing lessons, doing daily vocal exercises, and giving a series of concerts around the country with various symphony orchestras—most recently at Carnegie Hall with his Light in the Piazza and South Pacific costar Kelli O’Hara. And while Broadway may not be Neverland and the stage may only give the illusion of stopping time, as Morrison says, “It’s the place where I feel most at home, and I don’t think I realized that until I went off and did a TV show. The chance to deepen your performance night after night, and the connection that you can make with a live audience—I’ve missed it so much, and I can’t wait to get that rush again. Honestly, I find no greater joy in my life.”