In a practice room, sweat-drenched girls in cutoffs and gawky guys in baggy shorts nervously beat the floor with their tap shoes and greet Morrison with applause when their instructor introduces him. They look much younger than the twentysomethings in the cast of Glee. A teacher calls one girl, a middle-schooler barely five feet tall, up to do a solo. She stands close to Morrison, staring straight at him. Her eyes are brimming with determination, her body shaking with excitement.
"I'm enjoying your show a lot," she says. He laughs awkwardly, his eyes flitting around anxiously. "Fantastic! I'm about to enjoy yours," he says. She cues up Natalie Cole's 1977 disco hit "Party Lights" and suddenly the girl is transformed. The voice of a woman 200 pounds heavier booms from her diminutive frame, her shoulders do a spicy back-and-forth, her jazz hands move in front of Morrison's face, beckoning. She's full of the energy, the drive she needs to get Mr. Schuester's approval. Morrison politely taps his toe, trying to ignore that her chest is inching closer and closer to him.
As polite and well-intentioned as Morrison is, he's not Mr. Schuester. When we first met, after a recording session, Morrison was holding a sheet of yellow lined paper on which he'd scrawled notes about what he wanted to mention during our interview. "It's pretty amazing being me," he said breezily. "Write that down." I have a feeling that wasn't on the list, and also that he's wrestling with whether he actually wants anything at all written about him.
For years there were rumors that Morrison was the grandson of John Wayne (né Marion Morrison), and beyond the resemblance (thick nose, hard-set jaw, and cleft chin) there's only a hardscrabble connection between the two. Morrison was raised in one middle-class neighborhood after another, both in Northern California and in the suburban sprawl south of Los Angeles. Money was tight; his father was a midwife and his mother was a nurse. "I grew up as an only child," he says. "My parents weren't great conversationalists. We had a quiet house. I'm not very verbal." When Morrison was 10, he spent the summer in Arizona with his grandmother, and she sent him off to children's theater camp. It was there that he began to find his voice.
By the time he entered high school, he was spending most of his days away from home—he played soccer and started break-dancing. He got into tagging. And Rollerblading. He joined a gang. And served as class president. But all the while he kept doing theater, the more musical, the better. He spent half the day at the 3,000-student Los Alamitos High and the other half at Orange County High School of the Arts, then in Los Alamitos, now in Santa Ana. Morrison's confidence and charisma propelled him to popularity. He dated the homecoming queen, and—just like on Glee—once, when things got too hot and heavy, she suggested they pray. "It was sweet," Morrison says. "It was innocent."
Encouraged by his then girlfriend, Morrison applied to NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. "If I hadn't gotten in, my life probably would've been a lot more like Mr. Schue's," he says thoughtfully. His backup plan was to go to Chico State and then maybe teach at his old high school. Instead, at 19, he landed a role in the chorus line of the Broadway adaptation of Footloose. By his sophomore year he had dropped out of NYU and become a regular performer on Broadway. As a young heterosexual in a scene dominated by women and gay men, he was bathed in attention. "There was so much opportunity," he says. "There were all these beautiful, beautiful dancers. As a straight guy I had some room. There were the shared interests in singing and dancing, and I always find dancing with someone very evocative and sexual. I definitely hooked up with a lot of girls when I was a young guy on Broadway. It was exciting. Very joyous and free."
But Morrison didn't shed his inhibitions entirely. He joined a Bible-study group in college, and he didn't lose his virginity until he was 21. Being perceived as a sex object confused him (and still does). "I'm not comfortable with the idea of my sex appeal, but I know in my job I have to use it. I wish I could say I got to this point in my career based on my talent, but I don't think that's true."