Brian Bowen Smith
“I’m just trying to emulate my idol, Gene Kelly,” he says. “I’m trying to bring back the modern song-and-dance man to our generation.”
Morrison, 38, is touring the country backed by a jazz band for an evening of standards and favorites, including a performance Saturday at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. With his smooth tenor, the “versatile, hard-driving musical frontiersman,” as the New York Times pegs him, pulls from all the different work he’s done over the years.
The “retrospective show” includes an eight-minute medley of songs from the Broadway production of “Hairspray,” during which he runs through the entire story and some “Glee” moments, as well.
“Today’s music is all about coming up with a cool beat,” says Morrison, who splits his time between Los Angeles and New York. “With standards, the classic songwriters of the day would take music and lyrics and tell a story. That’s why I love these songs, because I get to put myself into different characters and really put on a show.”
As the only child of Army nurses, Morrison — who was born at Fort Ord, which closed in 1994 and reopened as Cal State Monterey Bay — discovered musical theater at age 10.
He was living in Orange County when his parents sent him to family in Arizona for the summer.
According to Morrison, “they didn’t really want to deal with me and my cousin so they threw us in a play.”
He was hooked.
After nearly a decade of children’s theater, Orange County High School of the Arts and New York University, he made his Broadway debut in “Footloose.” But his big break came when we was cast as heartthrob Link Larkin in the original Broadway production of “Hairspray.”
More recently he starred in the Broadway musical “Finding Neverland” and workshopped Stephen Sondheim’s next musical with the working title “Buñuel” after the Spanish director Luis Buñuel.
Though he’s most comfortable performing for a live audience, Morrison says he likes putting in time in front of the camera.
“These shows and concerts have really allowed me time to read a lot of scripts and go after what I want to do,” he says. “I don’t have to go and jump into a TV show that I don’t want to do because I need the money. It’s such a blessing on so many different levels.”
Look for him as a philandering drunkard in Tom Stoppard’s “Tulip Fever,” a period piece set in Amsterdam during the so-called “Tulip mania” of 1636, when the market for trading tulip bulbs soared to such large sums of money that it inevitably led to a spectacular crash of the Dutch economy.
The film’s star-studded cast includes Oscar winners Alicia Vikander, Christoph Waltz and Judi Dench. It arrives in theaters Feb. 24.