GYPSY OF THE MONTH: Jesse Nager of 'Motown: The Musical'
Two new musicals, one opened early in the 2012-13 season, the other toward the end of it. Both based on true stories, and both shepherded by famous people. And Jesse Nager had a part in both.
Those two musicals, Scandalous and Motown, have had divergent fates, however. Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson received pretty bad reviews, and despite being talked about regularly on national TV--thanks to Today cohost Kathie Lee Gifford, who wrote the book and lyrics--it closed after three weeks. Motown: The Musical, written and co-produced by Motown founder Berry Gordy, didn't get very good reviews either but has become a phenomenon, playing to packed houses and averaging over $1 million weekly in ticket sales ever since previews started in early March.
Asked how it feels to go from one of the season's biggest flops to one of its biggest hits, Nager quickly replies: "Well, it wasn't a flop for me." To begin with, Scandalous was Nager's return to Broadway after more than five years away. He loved working with Gifford and says the show, like Motown, was "fun to do." And it was interesting to do back-to-back shows with "the writer of the piece being in charge," Nager says. "Both Kathie Lee and Mr. Gordy were really motivated about these projects."
But whereas Nager knew nothing about the Scandalous subject before he was cast in that show (though evangelist Semple McPherson was a huge celebrity in the 1920s), he--like most Americans with ears--is very familiar with Motown artists. "I was obsessed with the Jackson 5 and Michael Jackson all through my youth," Nager says. "Motown is a genre of music. It's everywhere! You don't even know you know all the words, but a song will come on and you'll start singing along."
Motown audiences find themselves doing that frequently, starting with the "I Can't Help Myself"/"Ain't Too Proud to Beg" medley that opens the show. As one of the Temptations, Nager is among the first in Motown's cast of 35 to experience the crowd's enthusiasm. "Every night the curtain goes up and the audience goes bonkers," he says. "They're in it from the beginning. Even before a note's been sung--the Four Tops walk downstage, the Temptations enter, and the audience goes crazy. I've had opening nights that haven't been as vibrant as some of our Wednesday matinees."
This is not the first time Nager has sung chart-toppers of the 1960s and '70s on a Broadway stage. His previous shows include the jukebox musicals Mamma Mia (Abba) and Good Vibrations (The Beach Boys). He's also shared the stage with real-life pop stars, singing backup for Mariah Carey, Shania Twain and Jason Mraz in concerts. In addition, Nager has his own pop-music enterprise: the Broadway Boys, a group he founded nearly a decade ago that performs around the country and has recorded an album.
The Broadway Boys do contemporary arrangements of showtunes--some with a touch of soul, others with a funk or rock or gospel sound. Nager started the group when he was invited to do a cabaret at the old Chelsea nightclub XL back in 2004, during the approximately six months he was in Mamma Mia. "I've always been more excited about harmonies than solo stuff," he explains, so he gathered some friends also working on Broadway at the time to join him at XL. "The fans of all the different shows we were in came to support us, so we sold out," Nager recounts. After that first gig, the Broadway Boys continued to perform around NYC and eventually booked their first out-of-town show--at Vermont's Weston Playhouse (to which they've returned a couple of times over the years). They've now performed on an R Family cruise, been regulars at the Orlando Cabaret Festival and, in just the past month, headlined at the relaunched XL in its new 42nd Street location and at the performing arts center of Connecticut's Fairfield University (which has already rebooked them for September). The Boys have concerts scheduled in at least 10 different states in 2013.