Motown the Musical‘s Morgan James on the Art of Songwriting

The singer, who plays Teena Marie in the hit musical, returns to 54 Below this week and is having a “complex” about singing happy songs.

Morgan James isn’t used to singing happy songs. In fact, she says that the prospect of doing so is giving her a complex. But this veteran of Broadway’s Godspell and The Addams Family, currently appearing in Motown the Musical, is gonna suck it up and sing a few cheerful tunes at 54 Below for a series of 9:30pm shows on June 3 and 17, as well as July 15. Following a press preview of her concert, where she performed selections from her Nina Simone tribute album, Morgan James Live, we chatted with rising Broadway star about writing songs, singing songs, and how meeting Stevie Wonder was a checkmark off her bucket list.

Morgan James sings Prince's “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore.”
Morgan James sings Prince’s “How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore.”
(© David Gordon)

Describe your show.
My show is going to be a combo platter, I’m calling it. I’m going to do a few tunes off the record, which is Morgan James Live: A Celebration of Nina Simone. Nina’s one of my idols. The main reason I’m coming back to 54 Below, and why I’m so excited they’ve given me this residency, is that I’m trying out all the new material for my studio record. Every single time I’m here will be a brand new set of original tunes, a few selected covers, with a full rhythm section, a full horn section. So it’s going to be a big soul sound. I’m gonna do pretty much two brand-new sets. That’s the best way for me to test out new songs with an audience. To go “Is this a song?” And they tell you instantly.

How did you first discover Nina Simone?
I don’t know how I first discovered her, but I’ve always felt like a kindred spirit to Nina. We both went to Juilliard. We both have a dark side. We grew up classically trained and found popular music separately. So I started devouring everything she ever recorded and wrote and arranged. I just so admired her as an interpreter. Before I started to write music, I wanted to hone in and become an expert interpreter of music. Just being a good singer doesn’t make you a good interpreter. She spent years and years and years becoming an expert. The record was such a wonderful surprise. We were working on the studio record and Doug Morris at Sony came and saw the show and said “This has to be recorded.”

And you’re working with Doug again on Motown the Musical, which he produces.
Yes, working on Motown the Musical, eight shows a week.

And you’re playing, as you called them, “The White People.”
The White Person! The White Lady! [Laughs]

[Laughs] Just the matter-of-fact way you said that.
[Laughs] I’m in such good company. The cast is forty-five people, with a nineteen-piece orchestra. My last musical had ten people in it, the one before that was huge, it had twenty-two. It’s been such a thrill to listen to that music every day, to sing that music every day.

I’ll never forget that curtain call on opening night, when Berry Gordy and Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson and Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder all climbed up on stage.
I was just retelling that story. That curtain call was — I’ll never forget it for the rest of my life.

Motown has had an illustrious list of celebrity guests backstage. Who was your favorite so far?
Stevie Wonder, hands down. Like, bucket-list major. When I met him I was like, “Well, I don’t need to meet anyone else.” I don’t need to take pictures with everyone I meet. For me, it’s not about being seen with them. I have a few people who…it just really means a lot to shake their hand and say “You’ve changed my life,” and he’s one of them, for sure.

So which comes first, the music or the lyrics?
Oh my gosh. That’s really hard to say. I’m such a new writer. I don’t know who said it, but someone said “You can’t call yourself a writer until you’ve written one hundred songs.” I have not, so I’m very new to it. I can arrange a tune, I can interpret a tune, I can take a script and know what I want to do with it, but…finding your voice, lyrically, too…I look at the songs I’ve written now as opposed to six months ago and how much your voice changes. A lot of the songs I’m attracted to right now are happy, and I’m having a complex about it, because I’m so used to singing sad, dark things. I think that it takes a lot of courage to sing a happy song — you know? So I’m going to do it!

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Motown The Musical

Closed: January 18, 2015