By Andrew Gans
10 Feb 2012
It's been an eventful few months for singer, actress and rocker Morgan James, who can currently be seen in the acclaimed Daniel Goldstein-directed Broadway revival of Stephen Schwartz's Godspell at Circle in the Square Theatre. During a tech rehearsal for the aforementioned production, the rock musical that relates parables of Jesus, the multitalented young artist severely sprained her ankle, which forced her to miss several weeks of performances, including opening night. James, who has also been seen on Broadway in Wonderland and The Addams Family, is thankfully back in the production, where she gets to belt out Schwartz's "Turn Back, O Man" eight times a week. James also enjoys a thriving solo career, performing at numerous venues around the city with her rock-and-soul band, which often includes Chris Fenwick (piano), Mark Vanderpoel (bass), Paul McGilloway (guitar) and Joe Abba (drums). Earlier this week, I had the chance to chat with James, who spoke about her road to Godspell; that interview follows.
Question: Since we've never spoken before, why don't we go back to the beginning. Can you tell me where you were born and raised?
Morgan James: Yes. I was born in Boise, Idaho, actually. I can't believe it that I made it out. [Laughs.] And, my family moved around a lot, so we lived in Tennessee, we lived in Utah, Idaho, and then we lived in California. I lived in California for my teen years, and that's where I went to high school.
Question: At what age did you start performing?
James: I started performing in about junior high. I joined a choir. My parents were actors, so I was always around it. Nobody else in my family is musical, so [when] I started singing, I remember my grandmother got me a karaoke machine for Christmas one year, and the rest is history. She kind of agreed to pay for voice lessons until I went to college, which she did. And, in high school I really became obsessed. [Laughs.]
James: They haven't done that in quite a while, but my dad teaches drama. He was my high school drama teacher. And, my mom teaches speech. They both teach literature at the college level. It's great because they still have such an appreciation and knowledge about it, so they can really kind of appreciate it more than some parents, I think.
|photo by Jeremy Daniel|
Question: When did performing change from being a hobby to when you knew it was going to be your career?
James: Well, when I was applying for college and auditioning for colleges—there were some great schools in California—so I was applying to UCLA, USC, UOP and PCPA, and, as a pipe dream, I applied to Juilliard. So, when I got into Juilliard, I had to say yes to that. [Laughs.] I moved across the country, and I was really committing to a life in it.
Question: Which department of Juilliard were you in?
James: I was in the voice department, and got a music degree and studied opera. [Laughs.]
Question: Did you want to be an opera singer?
James: Maybe only for a hot second. [Laughs.] I very quickly realized that I don't have a gift for language. I don't think you have any business doing opera if you don't, and I didn't fit in as much in that world. I think the older I get, the more I may find myself coming back to it, especially because a woman's voice matures so much later, but I really was missing theatre when I was at school. I was missing being on stage in that way and studying acting, and, so, I knew pretty quickly that when I graduated I wanted to pursue musical theatre.
Question: When you were in high school or even college, were there any actors or singers that you particularly admired or inspired you?
James: When I was in high school, that's when Audra McDonald was really taking off, and she was from northern California and she went to Juilliard. She was one of the big reasons why I wanted to go to Juilliard. She was definitely an idol for me when I was younger. I grew up on Barbara Cook… I got to do a master class, actually, with Barbara Cook in college, and she was a big idol for me. I grew up on Barbra Streisand, Marin Mazzie; these are all people that I looked up to theatre-wise, and I had kind of looked at them as people who were very virtuosic and very studied in their craft, so that's kind of what I really admired about them.
Question: What was it like taking the master class with Barbara Cook?
James: Well, I was really young, so I was green, but she's amazing. She's such a gifted interpreter of song. She's great with young singers. She remembers where she came from, especially because she started out with this pristine, classical voice and managed to find a niche in theatre.
Question: What was your first professional job after college?
James: Well, depends on how you look at it. [Laughs.] I started doing summer stock in between my years, where you work slave labor for $75 a week for the whole summer. I did a couple summers of those… I think the first one was I got a job doing The Tragedy of Carmen—the Peter Brook version of Carmen. I started getting jobs that were combinations—they were kind of operetta or classical crossover-type things—using my classical training… I taught myself to belt when I was like 25… There were some years where I was having real trouble finding my niche because I had this ingénue voice, but I had the soul of like a 65-year-old black woman. [Laughs.] And, I kind of looked like an ingénue, and I had this really big soprano voice, and I didn't know what to do with it. And, so much in theatre is finding where you fit, and it's really knowing what you're selling, and I really didn't know that for many years. And, so, I would say to myself, "Why can't I get jobs? Why can't I get jobs?" And, it's because I really didn't know who I was yet or where I fit in.