Glee’s “Mr. Schuester” came to town on Saturday night, cocked a black fedora over one eye, grabbed the microphone, sang his heart out, and finished the performance with a nice glass of Jameson. The glass of Irish whisky was a nod to both actor Matthew Morrison’s thirst and the occasion: the annual Washington Performing Arts Society spring gala, where the theme was Ireland and the Irish ambassador was among those in the audience, many of whom jumped to their feet and danced while Morrison performed a dozen songs. Later he said he planned to do only eight numbers, but the crowd was so enthusiastic he just kept going. He loves Washington, after all, and Washington—at this gala, at least—loved him right back.
Because the evening raised money for education, Morrison proclaimed, “I am the proud product of a first-rate public arts education,” and noted his role as a teacher in Fox’s Glee. In the show his character, Will Schuester, oversees the high school glee club. “I wanted Mr. Schuester to convey the teacher we all want,” Morrison said. “I am a celebrity, but teachers are the real celebrities in our society.” He also gave a little of his bio, including his earlier pre-Glee career, starring on Broadway. His song list included several showtunes, including a medley from West Side Story. He closed with Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” for which he brought out three members of the Society’s Children of the Gospel Choir to sing backup. The full choir performed earlier.
The evening also served as a debut for the WPAS’s new president and CEO, Jenny Bilfield, who arrived in DC just weeks ago from San Francisco, where she was artistic director at Stanford University’s arts program, Stanford Live. Her date for the evening was her daughter, Hallie, who admitted to being more than a little thrilled to get some face time with Morrison at the VIP reception before dinner.
Bilfield, during the black-tie dinner at the Ritz-Carlton West End, introduced herself to the approximately 640 guests while they were served the evening’s Irish-themed entree, Guinness-braised lamb. She talked about what attracted her to the job: “the broader DC community, the unique DNA that has contributed both to the existing vision, and the board’s vision for the future,” she said. “That was very appealing to me. Very unusual. My goal is to develop this connectivity, to get to know the audience here, and to build programs that showcase the city and the assets of the region and the wider arts community in the world.”
Though the dinner itself was huge, the evening began and ended with much smaller receptions, at which Morrison was the center of attention. First came the VIP reception in the hotel’s Guarisco Gallery, where he obligingly posed with each person who wanted a photo and took time to talk about his delight in being in Washington. For the past few years he’s been a regular at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner but said he won’t be able to make it this year due to a professional commitment. He lit up at the mention of it, though, and said he was disappointed, “because I love the dinner and being here.”
After the show, he pulled off his tie, handed his hat to his manager, and gathered with friends in a private room adjacent to the ballroom. He posed for more photos, sipped his Jameson, which he brought with him from the stage, and crooned one more song: a surprise round of “Happy Birthday” for Daren Thomas, who has been with WPAS for years as its principal fundraiser.