January 18, 2023

A Conversation with Morgan James

By Zandra Wolfgram 

Morgan James is a classical trained vocalist, Broadway veteran and recording artist. She also is no stranger to the Sinfonia Gulf Coast Stage having wowed audiences with her sultry and soulful delivery of Broadway hits, American Songbook standards and even some of her own tunes. We caught up with the performer the New York Times describes as “a phenomenal talent” to talk about her return to the Emerald Coast to appear in the U.S. Southeast premier of Get Happy: A Judy Garland Centennial Celebration.

You are a classically trained opera singer who earned a bachelor’s degree in Voice at The Juilliard School. Was performing always a given for you? 

MJ: I found choir and theater when I was around 12 or 13 and I was hooked. The exact direction I was going was kind of a mystery, but I wanted to be on Broadway. That was one of my big dreams. I knew the first time I stepped foot in New York, it was my place. 

What was the first show that you did on Broadway? 

MJ: The Addams Family with Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth. I did all of the original workshops and tour. It was an incredible experience. Then I did Wonderland, Godspell, Motown: The Musical and Kristin Chenoweth’s show For the Girls.

You have performed on Broadway, appeared with symphonies, released your own albums. What aspect of your talent do you identify with most?

MJ: Absolutely a singer first. I love acting and comedy and being on stage in lots of different ways. A lot of people ask me if I miss being on Broadway. I miss the people. I miss certain aspects of it, but I love doing something different every single night. I love writing music and I get to perform so many different styles of music. I'm just so lucky. I get to travel the world singing every single night so it's an incredible gift that I've been given. 

You have such vocal range. Do you have a particular niche or genre of music that that you prefer? 

MJ: I come from the tradition that you always listen to the greats. And that's how you formulate your musical language and your musical ideas and then you find your own style. Whether it was R&B, soul music or jazz, I listened to the best singers and I tried to constantly fill my ears with really pure ingredients. I love singing soul music and listening to R&B, but frankly I sing a ton of American Songbook and jazz and blues. The fact that I get to sing them all at certain points in time is amazing.

Knowing hundreds of songs, is it possible to have a favorite?

MJ: I have some favorites that just always touch my heart. Like songs like the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows or songs like Ain’t No Way by Aretha Franklin. There are songs that make me happy and make me smile, but it’s hard to pick one single favorite.

As a singer, what is your perspective of Judy Garland?

MJ: Growing up I was always trying to emulate some of the greats like Judy, Barbara, Nancy Wilson, and Ella Fitzgerald. Judy being so iconic in both the American Songbook and in the theatrical realm — she was just so present. Being able to do this show is so special. When this show first came out, I was really hoping that I could take it on because the music fits me like a glove. 

How do you take on a legend like Judy?

It’s not my duty to do an impersonation, but there's no way to sing her songs and her keys without taking on some of that spirit. And I'm so obsessed with vintage clothing and having everything be true to the era that I think that is also what makes it authentic. I'm trying to match the styles, the hats, the gloves, the dresses, and so that I can really step in her shoes for an evening.

Do you have a Judy Garland favorite?

MJ: I do! It's Man That Got Away. 100 percent.

What about it?

MJ: It’s very rarely you hear a song that no one else ever does better. This is a song everyone's covered, everyone sung it and no one does it better. A close second favorite is kind of a deep cut from her Carnegie Hall concert in 1961. And it's You’re Nearer, which not as many people know. It's got this heartbreaking aching fragility and beauty. Judy is the epitome of strength and fragility in the same moment. And that’s what made her so unique. She didn't get to live on this earth very long and to hear that much pain and vulnerability and her voice I think is what why she's so compelling to this day.

What do you do to approach a role or a performance? 

Everyone already knows the songs. They know the story. All I have to do is remind people of how great she is and try to get them to feel it for a moment so they can say ‘I felt like I was there with her again just for a moment.’

We are so happy you are returning to the Sinfonia stage in Get Happy. What can audiences expect?

I love being back because obviously Demetrius Fuller is one of my favorite people on this planet. He's such a big supporter of mine and truly supports development and in music in a profound way. Finding him as a friend and a collaborator was a really lucky day for me. As for the show, the arrangement is amazing, and Nicholas Rodriguez is joining me. He's talented, gorgeous, and charming. The show is such a seamless, beautiful production that combines, the past and the present. This is really a beautiful way to remember Judy for her 100th birthday and all people have to do is show up. We're gonna make it classy, we're gonna make it sexy and we're gonna have fun! 

Get Happy: A Judy Garland Centennial Celebration is Saturday, Jan. 21 at 7:30 p.m. at the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Convention Center. Purchase tickets at SinfoniaGulfCoast.org

Join our email list

4608 Opa-Locka Lane, Suite 100, Destin, FL 32541
(850) 460-8800
© 2022 - Sinfonia Gulf Coast. Website by Frances Roy Agency.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram