More songs performed by cast members of “Glee” charted than those of the Beatles.
During their six seasons on the Fox TV series that ended last year, “Glee” cast members generated 207 entries on the Billboard Hot 100.
“It’s crazy to think about that,” says Matthew Morrison, who portrayed glee club director Will Schuester. “I think we had more than Elvis, too. But the Beatles didn’t put a new song out every week. That’s where the chart discord comes from. And with the Beatles and Elvis, people are still playing their music today. I don’t know how often people are playing ‘Glee’ songs.”
Regardless, the careers of many of those involved in “Glee” keep going strong. And instead of matching chart successes with the Fab Four or the King, Morrison now pursues a solo career that is drawing a whole different set of comparisons. The performer evokes the spirit of timeless song-and-dance men such as Gene Kelly and Sammy Davis Jr. He’s putting those skills on display at the Kauffman Center this weekend during a one-time collaboration with the Kansas City Symphony.
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“It’s exciting for me to get back on the stage and navigate where I am,” says Morrison, who’s been nominated for an Emmy, a Tony and a Golden Globe. “I love performing with an orchestra. You feel like you’re the general of an army.”
Morrison renders what he calls standards from the American songbook. Many of these can be found on his most recent solo album, “Where It All Began,” which features renditions of Truman-era classics such as “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Luck Be a Lady” and “Younger Than Springtime.”
Rehearsal with the symphony remains limited for Morrison, who flies in Friday and only nets a Saturday afternoon soundcheck with the group. Conversely, the symphony players are provided the charts a few weeks in advance.
“I love playing ‘pops’ shows, especially if I’m a big fan of the artist,” says violist Jenifer Richison, a member of the symphony since 2007.
Richison never watched “Glee” but knew Morrison from his esteemed Broadway career and a 2011 duet with Elton John.
She says preparation for this program isn’t much different than traditional classical concerts.
“Usually the pieces given to us to prepare for a pops show are either very technically difficult or very easy,” Richison says. “It’s fun to play both: technically demanding things and also pieces where I can enjoy the artist singing or playing their instrument. Secretly, the absolute best thing in the world for me is to have a favorite song where the strings do not play — called a tacet — so I can enjoy the concert as an audience member.”
Morrison also enjoys his own secrets during these symphonic collaborations.
“I do move around the stage a lot — which actually surprises many of the players in the symphony,” he says. “They’re so used to someone standing on the stage with a microphone and just singing. I play around with the orchestra, too. Some of them are really into it; some of them are taken aback. ‘What is this guy doing? Why is he on my lap?’ ”
Even with such movement, the 37-year-old feels like he’s standing still compared with the schedule he endured during the 2009-2015 run of “Glee.”
“Every show I do now is a cakewalk,” says Morrison, calling from Fresno while visiting his in-laws (he recently married actress Renee Puente) during a break from shooting “The Good Wife.” “ ‘Glee’ was television boot camp that I don’t think anyone else gets to experience.”
He says the cast typically worked a grueling 16-hour day.
“If I wasn’t filming, then we had dance rehearsal or were in the recording studio. It was really tough being on that show. I have a little PTSD from it,” says Morrison, who just completed a year playing the lead role of J.M. Barrie in the Broadway production of “Finding Neverland.”
“I’m so proud of what the show did for arts education and bringing music into people’s living rooms every week. But, personally, it’s going to take a little while to come down off it.”
Morrison grew up in Orange County, Calif., where his parents introduced him to a wide musical world early on.
“Where it really began was Peter, Paul and Mary. ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ was a big highlight of my 2-year-old self. My parents also listened to a lot of Rat Pack. They loved Dean and Sammy and Frank,” he says.
Those artists influenced him significantly, particularly when it came to the compositions they crooned.
“A lot of the songs you hear in my show are nods to them,” he says. “That was when songwriting was best. I hear a song these days, and I don’t follow what it’s about. Sometimes it’s just about shaking your ass. Now I get to sing these beautiful standards that are so moving and heartfelt. It’s a pleasure to be a conduit to the storytelling on that stage each night.”
During a time when his high school classmates were more into Green Day than “Hairspray,” Morrison got interested in musical theater. This led him to a stint at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He dropped out after two years to join the Broadway adaptation of “Footloose.”
This turned into a steady paycheck as he won parts in the Broadway revival of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and John Waters’ “Hairspray.” He also started earning small roles on TV and in films.
Then came a speed bump. A very well-coiffed one.
In 2001, Morrison ended up in the boy band LMNT. (The band’s name — pronounced Element — was selected from contest entries sent to Teen People magazine.)
He considers this the worst year of his life.
“It was soulless,” he recalls. “We were singing about nothing. We didn’t stand for anything. We were on the coattails of NSync and Backstreet Boys. They were these guys I had to live with, work with and hang out with every single day. It was a weird experience. When you’re onstage and you’re embarrassed to be there, you know you’re doing something wrong.”
Morrison confesses he’s felt onstage embarrassment since then, but nothing compared with that level.
He’s also felt a tinge of anger lately. Some of which is directly aimed at Kansas City.
“I’m a big New York Mets fan,” he says. “I first became a Mets fan in 1986. My dad’s a fan — that’s why I became one. It was so exciting. Then after that it’s been a big drought for years. Only one appearance in the World Series. So just being in the World Series (in 2015) was an achievement in itself. Watching those games was thrilling. And my dad was in town, so we got to watch them together. It brought back a lot of memories. … Actually, I wasn’t that angry.”
As for bringing this up while onstage in Kansas City, well …
“I can guarantee I won’t be wearing a Mets hat,” Morrison says. “Although, if I did, the joke would be on me.”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Saturday, March 19
Matthew Morrison performs with the Kansas City Symphony at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Kauffman Center. Tickets (availability was limited at press time) are $45-$85 through kcsymphony.org.