Broadway’s Jesse Nager on Motown: The Musical and Performing with Mariah Carey
I’m chatting with Jesse Nager on the phone: it’s a week before Christmas and he’s in Minneapolis with Motown: The Musical until after the holidays. When I asked him what that’s like, to be away for Christmas, he quickly responds, “I’ve got my husband with me, and that’s all I need.”
Surely, that isn’t the only thing that has made Nager a success, both on Broadway and across the states. An alumni of the famed LaGuardia Performing Arts High School in New York City and a graduate of University of Michigan, Nager took to heart what one of his former professors at college once told him about show business: “If there’s anything else you can do and you can be happy doing it, do that.” Not very encouraging words, for sure, but Nager has added on a bit of an upbeat aside to those words of advice.
“If you know in your heart that you have to do this, you’ll find your way,” he said. “There are a lot of different sides to this business, and you’ll find a way to make it work.”
Jesse’s made it work; perhaps it was an early sign when, while in high school, he was asked to sing alongside Mariah Carey during her Daydream tour at Madison Square Garden.
“[Carey] was looking for a gospel kids choir,” he said. “She was really just as nice as can be. It was at the height of Mariah Carey, if you get what I mean.”
Since then, Nager has moved on to much bigger things. A Broadway vet, Nager is bringing his interpretation of the iconic musician Smokey Robinson in Motown: The Musical to Philly audiences at the Academy of Music from January 6th through the 18th. Those are some big shoes to fill, and Nager admits the role isn’t just fun and games.
“There’s definitely a responsibility,” he says. “[Smokey’s] not fictitious, so we can’t make things up. He is best friends with the real Berry Gordy, and he’s been to the show so many times. I opened the company in NYC, and Smokey came three or four times. He’s nice and friendly. He’s so forthcoming with information. My voice tends to be high like his, so it’s not an impression. Everything we do in a show is based on reality and truth.”
Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown, is the main subject of the musical, which features dozens of hit songs that everyone has come to know and love. However, this isn’t just a typical jukebox show: Audiences end up learning quite a bit about the early history of the music business, including how Gordy essentially built Motown out of nothing but ideas.
“Gordy started working in an auto factory. He’d see pieces of metal enter the factory and leave as cars. That’s what he wanted to do with artists,” explains Nager. “He’d teach these people how to sing better, how to become better dancers, and there was even a charm school for women. He’d send these artists out into the world as polished products.”
There’s also a social context to the show that is quite relevant to today’s current racial climate in the country, says Nager, which shows how Gordy was able to take a group like the Supremes and sell them to the Copacabana, at a time when such establishments only wanted performers like Frank Sinatra.
“It was how white people were able to make a connection to black culture for the first time,” suggested Nager, who performed with the show in St. Louis while the Ferguson riots were occurring. It was a surreal experience for the cast because it showed how people could still have a “connection through love.”
Speaking of love, another one of Nager’s pet projects is an ensemble called The Broadway Boys; he’s the founder and artistic director of the group of 30 Broadway performers who tour the country performing original arrangements of Broadway songs that infuse funk and gospel elements. The ensemble recently released a holiday album and performed at a wedding at the Kimmel Center several months back.
“I have such talented friends and it makes for such an interesting event,” he said. “This business is so on again, off again, that gives guys a chance to perform all around the country instead of waiting tables or running a coat check.”
You can catch Jesse in Motown: The Musical while it is in Philly by visiting the Kimmel Center here. You can also check out more on the Broadway Boys by scoping out their webpage: there’s plenty of videos, pictures, and audio samples.