Matthew Morrison will sing with the National Symphony Orchestra and special guest Laura Benanti on Thursday at Wolf Trap, bringing the audience back in time for an old school, high-energy performance of classics and Broadway hits.
Morrison is best known for his role as Will Schuester on the musical television show “Glee,” but got his start on Broadway originating the role of Link in “Hairspray.” When Morrison performs live, he works with Brad Ellis — better known to “Glee” fans simply as Brad the piano guy.
“I play piano and occasionally support Matthew with a little comedy,” Ellis said.
Ellis first joined “Glee” as a musical director and vocal coach, but eventually the casting director told him to start dressing in all black and put him in front of the camera as the mostly silent piano accompaniment for the glee club. Basically, Ellis is just playing himself in the show.
“I look much more like a regular person than a TV person,” Ellis said with a laugh.
Now Ellis and Morrison play shows together all over the world. Morrison does full orchestral shows at large venues like Wolf Trap, as well as more intimate shows with a five piece band at smaller clubs and venues.
“He does something that a lot of performers have lost touch with, a real intimacy with the audience and being the guy who stands in front of the orchestra and really is a star,” Ellis said. “I think he gets that from his Broadway experience.”
In addition to playing piano on stage, Ellis also holds the title of musical director for Morrison’s orchestral concerts.
“I help him get his songs and find his keys and, you know, sort of work out how to put his energy in the song,” Ellis said.
He will go to rehearsals first with the orchestras to make sure everything will run smoothly once Morrison is performing with them. Ellis also does some of the musical arrangements for the show.
“I’m really sort of his support guy, the guy in his corner,” Ellis said.
Morrison usually performs a lot of standards, some of which come from Broadway, as well as hits from the Great American Songbook.
“He is a different singer than most Broadway singers and a different singer than most pop singers,” Ellis said.
Ellis was a fan of Morrison’s work on Broadway before he auditioned for “Glee” and remembers thinking how great he would be for the show. Morrison performed “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Lady is a Tramp” to land the role as Mr. Schuester and now he performs them at his shows.
“He really enjoys doing this. Acting in front of a camera is a different craft, but his nature is a live performer,” Ellis said. “It’s a big orchestra with an even bigger star in front of them.”