DIVA TALK: Chatting With Godspell Star Morgan James

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting With Godspell Star Morgan James
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Morgan James
Morgan James

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.]

Question: Do your parents still act? Is that how they make their living?
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.

Morgan James
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.

Matthew Risch and Morgan James in Guys and Dolls.
photo by Kevin Sprague

Question: How did you segue into musical theatre? How did your first Broadway show come about?
James: I had great agents, and I had a great manager, and I had these great people on my side who were helping me try to troubleshoot and find my path. I was auditioning all the time, and I was getting regional work, which I think is incredibly important because that's where you can go out of town and fall on your face and really learn how to be an eight-show-a-week actor. I think that is really important, so that's where I kind of cut my teeth as a performer—going out of town. And, there were times when I would be in Arizona doing a show, and I would fly back three times for callbacks—you have to kind of commit to those kinds of things… Originally, I booked this production of Godspell in 2008, and that was supposed to be my Broadway debut. And then that fell apart, as it were, for that time. I ended up booking The Addams Family. I had done the original workshop of it, so when it came back around, I ended up booking The Addams Family. I was so thrilled—not only because it was such an exciting project, but I had been really trying to break through that glass ceiling of Broadway for many, many years, and I really wanted to be a part of that community.

Question: Do you remember your first night on Broadway? I'm always curious how that lives up to your expectation of it, or what your dream of it was.
James: Well, you know, because we had gone out of town, and our out-of-town was a little tumultuous, as they are wont to be, by the time we got back in, it was very stressful because we had replaced part of the creative team, and we had a very short amount of time to put up ostensibly a new version, so by the time we got around to our first preview on Broadway, it didn't really feel like I thought it would feel. Just like when I went to Juilliard. It becomes a place you go to work and the place you go to school. Even though I still have such gratitude and admiration, and I'm so thrilled that this is how I make my living and that I've been welcomed into the club, I now realize it's really hard—it's even harder in town than it is out of town. Out of town, you get this kind of vacation feeling. You're in a beautiful place and you're far away from home. Here, it's very, very difficult. I'm trying to remember the first preview. I think there were a lot of us making our Broadway debuts, so that was really exciting, and I remember just being almost relieved because it's one of those dreams—kind of like going to Juilliard was one of those dreams. And, if you get to achieve one of your dreams—some people don't ever get to achieve their dream… I remember feeling really relieved and really grateful. But, the thing about dreams is that then you just want new roles and you want more… You get very, "Oh! Now I want more of these!" [Laughs.]

Question: How did this Godspell come about?
James: Well, I left Addams Family to do Wonderland. I had done Wonderland, and for the closing weekend I went on for Alice four times. And, we were closing… The blessing and the curse of us closing was that the producers were incredibly generous and… pretty much let everyone I knew come to see the show because we were about to close anyway. So everyone I knew—every industry person—got to come see me do this big, giant role. And, Danny Goldstein, the director of Godspell, had come and, I think, was kind of reminded of me, and I was in this new capacity. In the first version of Godspell, I was cast as a swing. And, now I'm in a different place in my life, and I was no longer interested in swinging. So, when Godspell came back around, I was up in the Berkshires doing a production of Guys and Dolls with Leslie Kritzer, and I got a call that they wanted to see me again. I don't know if you heard about any of the shenanigans from the auditions for Godspell, but they were very, very involved… I was in the middle of tech for Guys and Dolls, so I drove—it's a four-hour drive—I drove up during tech, did an audition, and then they wanted me back a couple weeks later, so I drove back up. I was also kind of doing double-duty, which I am known for. I was doing Guys and Dolls at night and driving after the show for four hours, doing the Motown musical during the day. I remember I was in the middle of doing Motown and Guys and Dolls, and I got the message that I had booked Godspell, and I was kind of like, "What is going on?" [Laughs.] It was really great, you know, but I think it's hard. It was a very long audition process for them because there are only ten people [in the cast], and those ten people have to be the quirky exact combination. There really can be no filler. [Laughs.] They really wanted a fresh group, but they wanted some maturity, and they wanted everybody to have really specific things they brought to the table.

Morgan James at Opening Night of Godspell.
photo by Joseph Marzullo

Question: Was it in previews or during rehearsals that you were injured?
James: I got injured during tech like three days before the first preview.

Question: What happened? I know there was jumping between the…?
James: Yeah, the choreography used to be a little different. Actually, the day that I was injured was really the day that we were all exploring what to do with the trampolines. You can't really choreograph for trampolines until you're suddenly on the trampolines. We were trying different things. It was the end of a ten-out-of-twelve [tech rehearsal]. It was like 11:30 at night… We were all exhausted, and we were trying out different things, and having never been injured, I'm very fearless, so I probably was just jumping with abandon. It was probably bound to happen to one of us. It was probably best that we learned to be respectfully afraid of [the trampolines]. [Laughs.] So, yeah, I was out for seven weeks, actually.

Question: When it happened, did you know that you would be out that long?
James: Oh, I had no idea. I had never been injured… I was such a mess because when they told me, "Oh, you're going to have to miss a couple days of work," I was heartbroken because I don't ever miss shows. I'm completely like the picture of health. I'm obsessed with keeping myself in line. For me, it was really the loss of control of that. You don't know really the extent of your injury until you start seeing people about it. So, at first, everybody was like, "Oh, you just twisted it. It's fine. You'll be back in a couple days." And then it turned into, "Oh, it's fine. It's a light sprain. You'll be back in a week." And then we realized that I had sprained it in three places. It was incredibly severe and that I would be out for longer than I anticipated. And, I'm still in physical therapy… I think I'll always have a different kind of awareness of my body now.

Question: How disappointing was that to miss the opening of the show?
James: I'm not going to even mince words. I was totally heartbroken. [Laughs.] It's life or death when you're in it; of course, when you get a little ways away, you realize it's just a show—it's just one day. But, at the moment, my God, I was putting on a three-act play of sadness. [Laughs.] This is my first Broadway show as a principal and now I kind of felt like I wasn't included. Because I was—for all of these different reasons—I was home for a lot of it. A production can't really afford to keep you on at rehearsal for seven weeks, so I was home on worker's comp. So, in a lot of ways, I missed some of the bonding that I'm just now catching up on. And, it was a very difficult time. It's one of the reasons why I'm very glad that I've been writing and singing, and I have my own band because that was the way that I was able to express a lot when I was not at work.

Question: What's it like now being a part of that show and being part of that group of performers?
James: Well, you know, it's a fantastic group, and we're very, very close. It took a little getting used to again, even though nobody wanted to admit that it did, it did. I had to get used to my role there, and I had to find my own niche and my own way to do certain things that have been re-choreographed or re-directed, and now it just feels like home. In some ways, it's funny, because the show is so hard on all of our bodies, but sometimes I'm like, "Wow, those weeks of rest—that was nice!" [Laughs.] But it's really great to be back, and you learn a lot. I look back and I'm like, "In the whole scheme of things, it's just a few weeks." But I think that when I was going through it, I would say to people, "Who would I be if I was not upset about this? Who would I be if it didn't matter to me?"… And now I'm more grateful because I know what it's like to not have it. Question: Do you have a favorite moment in the show? Is there something you look forward to every night?
James: There are a lot of moments actually… I love "Prodigal Son" getting through to "Light of the World" because I know we've finished the gigantic marathon that is the first act. And, I have a lot of fun in "Prodigal Son" and "Light of the World," and then my number is right after intermission. So, that whole kind of period in the middle is fun for me. Second act is significantly less challenging on our bodies and our minds and our spirits than the first act, so I always feel like, "Okay, we made it!"

Question: What do you think of all of the audience interaction? Does anything crazy stick out for you?
James: [Laughs.] My number starts and the people are still kind of gathering themselves together because it's right after intermission, and there was a woman fully in a coat, hat, gloves, scarf—just kind of making her way through my spotlight. [Laughs.] And, it was hilarious! I always joke now that it was a homeless woman. Of course, it wasn't, but it was like, "There was a bag lady in the middle of my number!"

Question: You mentioned before performing with your band. Do you have plans to record?
James: I do, actually. I'm going to be recording my EP in March, and I'm kind of making plans for that every single day. It's a lot of going back and forth with collaborators and producers and figuring out exactly what it should be. I'm singing about six concerts between now and then, and I'm going to try out [material]. I have a residency at Rockwood—four nights at Rockwood where I sing a lot. I'll be there trying things out… I'll be singing at Julia Mattison's concert and a Broadway Spotted concert at the end of the month and gaining momentum and then recording in March.

Morgan James

Question: Do you mostly do original songs or do you do covers?
James: I do about half and half… I have a lot of talented songwriter friends, so sometimes people give me songs or they write songs for me. And, sometimes I write songs with other collaborators. I never do the same set twice, so I always try out new things, and then I have a lot of covers that I do, kind of my style arrangements for. I have a very kind of distinctive style that I arrange in.

Question: How would you describe the type of music you and your band perform?
James: I consider myself a soul singer. And, it ranges—it depends on the venue. I really somewhat cater it to the venue. When I was at Dizzy's in Time Warner, that was a real straight-up jazz and blues set, and when I'm down in the Lower East Side, sometimes I'll bring in more funk and R&B. It kind of depends on where I am, but it always sounds like me. Sometimes, I do more straight-ahead rock sets. I was at Joe's Pub last night with Jeremy Schonfeld, and he's such a fantastic writer of these epic rock songs, so that was so much fun. It really depends on where I am. I have these different facets of my voice. My idol is Nina Simone, and so I kind of look to her… She would sing songs of so many different genres, but they always sounded like Nina, and I think that's my inspiration for what I do.

Question: Where would you like to see your career go? Would you like to be more of a solo artist or musical theatre or both? How do you envision it?
James: Well, you know, I would love it if I could do both. I would be very grateful if both of those worlds accepted me and allowed me to be in them. I would love to be a solo artist. I want to record and tour and continue to cultivate that. I think I still have some things that I would like to accomplish on Broadway, and I think the amount of community it provides is invaluable. You have, instantly, this whole world at your fingertips of people who are like-minded and who… these great causes and great benefits and all these things. But, I hope that the Motown project comes into town because that's the next thing I would like to work on… I think that's a combination of [both] worlds because it's so entrenched in the music business, obviously, because of various stories, and it also still is theatre, so it's kind of a combination of the two things that I've been really focusing on.

[Tickets for Godspell are available by calling Telecharge.com at (212) 239-6200 or by visiting www.telecharge.com/godspell.  Circle in the Square Theater is located at 1633 Broadway at 50th Street. Visit www.godspell.com for more information.]

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

Hunter Parrish, Morgan James and the cast of <i>Godspell</i>
Hunter Parrish, Morgan James and the cast of Godspell Photo by Jeremy Daniel
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