In early March, the Paley Center held its annual festival saluting notable new TV shows, showcasing the likes of "Modern Family" and "Men of a Certain Age." The evenings of PaleyFest have a comfortable charm -- an episode screening, cast appearances and polite questions from an attentive audience.
Then there was March 13, and the salute to "Glee." Lines formed early outside the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, and swelled hours before the doors opened, with fans -- self-described Gleeks -- hanging out, many of them singing and dancing as they waited. The mood inside the packed, 1,900-seat auditorium -- attendance was later announced as biggest in the festival's 27 years -- was anxious, ebullient.
FOR THE RECORD:
An article about "Glee" star Matthew Morrison in Sunday's Calendar section, which was printed in advance, refers to a friend of his as Brian Barnam. His last name is Barham.
Things quieted during the showing of the first of nine new episodes, which begin airing Tuesday on Fox, but the lights came up, the cast was introduced one by one and enthusiasm grew. Finally, out bounded a smiling Matthew Morrison, "Glee's" bedrock character, glee club director Will Schuester, and the place blew apart.
Not much was required of Morrison as part of the sizable panel of costars and show runners. But every time his name was mentioned or a question was lobbed his way, the very fact that the chiseled 6-foot actor with the striking blue eyes was present would elicit an involuntary shriek from somewhere in the hall.
For those non-Gleeks who don't know what the shouting is all about, "Glee" is an hourlong confection set in high school and played out against a background soundtrack of catchy cover tunes popping up about every 10 minutes. The show's rating successes in the fall -- OK numbers overall, but a dynamic core in the key 18-34 demographic -- earned it an early renewal for a second season. In January, it won a Golden Globe for best TV comedy or musical and come July, there is likelihood of a spate of Emmy nods.
At the core of it, shrieks and all, is Morrison. The 31-year-old actor, raised in Orange County, has a decade of Broadway and a Tony nomination under his belt, but it wasn't until "Glee" that he catapulted into the public eye as the show's decent-guy centerpiece, albeit one with a dreamboat-looks twist. Schuester functions as den father to a group of harmonic teens amped on high tones as well as hormones; he's also the object of dueling affections from a wily wife and winsome co-worker; and, perhaps the highlight of it all, is the victimized combatant in a death-match rivalry with the predatory cheerleading coach, played by the titanic Jane Lynch.
"Glee" costar Lea Michele -- a breakout in her own right -- appraises Morrison's role on the set to the gaggle of younger cast members as a "big brother type. He's not overbearing or parental, but someone who, when things get a little chaotic, will settle everyone else down with a 'hey guys, let's get on our game.' "
On the set, Morrison is nicknamed "Triple Threat," a non-ironic description of his formidable talents as singer (a stirring, high-range tenor), dancer (he got his first Broadway gig dancing in a line at 19) and actor, where his emotional accessibility and empathy for fellow characters manifests itself with a depth rare in television prime-time comedies.
Audiences, women in particular, respond to him.
"He grounds the show and brings an adult element for those of us outside high school," said Lindsay Hanks, 27, of Aliso Viejo, who was at the "Glee" tribute. "He seems like he's not in a negative light," chimed in her friend Leila Lotfi, 30, also of Aliso Viejo.
In a chat from New York, Bartlett Sher fine-tunes these sentiments. "I think the reason his sincerity connects is because he's sensitive to other people's pain and anxiety." Sher's not a rhapsodizing Gleek but the veteran theater and opera director who cast and directed Morrison in "The Light in the Piazza" and who then won a Tony for his remounting of "South Pacific," in which Morrison played the conflicted Lt. Cable.
"He could handle any of the young Shakespeare leads now or [Anton Chekhov's] 'Seagull.' . . . Like the greatest leading men, he makes you look at the girl because he generates care, concern."
All that attention
A current problem for Morrison, though one he cheerfully contends with, is the attention that has come from his starring turn in a hot series. For an interview the day before the Oscars, he arrives at an outdoor café with a New York Mets baseball cap pulled down low, tamping out of sight his most attention-getting feature, the wavy brown hair that is subject matter in more than 3,000 online entries.