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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.

Nager devoted much of the five years between Scandalous and his prior Broadway show, Mary Poppins, to the Broadway Boys. He also appeared in a number of productions outside New York during that time. From late 2009 into 2010, he was on the first national tour of Xanadu. In 2007, he was in Being Alive, a revue that recontextualized Stephen Sondheim songs within the African-American experience. Being Alive, which ran at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut and the Philadelphia Theatre Company, was created by Billy Porter--a good friend and frequent collaborator of Nager's, and currently a Tony front-runner for his performance in Kinky Boots. Nager and Porter met singing in the Broadway Inspirational Voices (a gospel choir composed of theater folk), and Porter has directed a Broadway Boys show as well as two regional productions Nager was in a few years ago: Once on This Island at L.A.'s Reprise Theatre Company and Five Guys Named Moe at Casa Mañana in Fort Worth, Texas. (A castmate in both those shows and Being Alive was Bryan Terrell Clark, now costarring in Motown as Marvin Gaye; Clark is also a member of the Broadway Boys.)

Earlier regional work of Nager's includes Andrew Lippa's A Little Princess in northern California in 2004 and the '05 world premiere in New Jersey of Waiting for the Moon, a Frank Wildhorn musical about F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nager played one of the fairies, Cobweb, in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream directed by Tina Landau and presented at McCarter Theatre in Princeton and the Paper Mill Playhouse in 2006. "I learned probably 60 percent of what I know about theater from that production," he says. "It opened my mind to anything that can be done on stage. Tina is such a genius at exploring everything that can be explored. She had aerialist stuff, she had GrooveLily music...movement that was shaped through Viewpoints [an improvisational movement technique Landau adapted for theater from a choreographer]. It was one of the most amazing productions I've ever been a part of."

Thinking about Landau's Midsummer leads Nager to reflect: "I've been really fortunate to have worked with these great creative people who aren't just interested in putting a show up; they're interested in helping you as an artist." He cites not only Porter and Andy Blankenbuehler--who choreographed both Little Princess and Waiting for the Moon and is Tony-nominated this year for Bring It On--but also Broadway Inspirational Voices founder (and past Tony nominee) Michael McElroy. "Michael McElroy is another mentor, and really, hero of mine," Nager states. "Anytime he speaks, I'm literally just...[he leans forward with head on hands and eyes wide] engaged. He's a brilliant artist that can get stuff out of you that you never knew existed."

Nager expects to perform in the Broadway Inspirational Voices' annual spring concert this weekend at First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem. He's belonged to the group since 2005, though gospel was not part of his life growing up. Nager's biological father is black, but he was raised by his white mother and stepfather. "When I went to LaGuardia High School for voice, I was expected to sing 'black,'" he explains. "I didn't really know what that meant. All these people grew up singing in church, so I had to throw myself into that world. I had to quickly learn gospel, and I fell in love with it."

Nager's religious upbringing was Jewish. He did all the Torah study in preparation for a bar mitzvah, but ended up not going through with the ceremony because it was the same day as a performance of West Side Story he was in. Born in Boston, Nager lived in suburban Somerville, Mass., until he was 10. He started dancing at age 5 after lobbying his mother to put him in dance class. The first song he ever danced to at Mary Flynn Murphy Dance Studio in Somerville was "Step in Time," the Mary Poppins tune he would perform decades later on Broadway.

When he was 10, Nager's family moved to New York City, where he attended LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts as a voice major. He spent four summers at the French Woods arts and sports camp upstate. Nager originally planned to concentrate on dance and soccer at French Woods, but the first year there he decided to join his theater-major bunkmates at auditions for the camp's musicals. He sang the only showtune he knew at the time, "Where Is Love?" from Oliver--and was cast as Tobias in Sweeney Todd, a role he'd later play again in a high school production.

Part of the NYC public school system, Nager's alma mater LaGuardia is, of course, the school that Fame made famous. And coincidentally, Fame on 42nd Street--a stage adaptation of the 1980s movie--would be Nager's first professional job in New York. He earned an audition for Fame from his University of Michigan senior showcase and was in the off-Broadway musical for the first few months of its 2003-04 run.

A 2003 Michigan graduate, Nager was in the acclaimed U-M musical theater program at the same time as future Broadway veterans Celia Keenan-Bolger, Brynn O'Malley, Daniel Reichard, Lauren Molina and Megan Reinking (the August 2008 Gypsy of the Month and Nager's roommate during their first years in NYC). In summer during college he worked at such regional houses as North Shore Music Theatre (in The Little Prince), St. Louis Muny (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Peter Pan), Pittsburgh CLO, Kansas City Starlight and Atlanta's Theater of the Stars (all three in 2001 when the U.S. premiere of the comic-strip adaptation Casper the Musical, starring Chita Rivera, had a mini-tour). The summer following his college graduation, Nager played the featured role of Mary Sunshine in Chicago at Music Theatre of Wichita.

From his senior showcase in New York, Nager also got an audition for Mamma Mia, and he made his Broadway debut in that show less than a year after graduation. His first original Broadway cast would be Good Vibrations, which closed in under three months in early 2005. The following year he was in the original Broadway cast of Mary Poppins and stayed in that show for a year.

One Broadway musical Nager has never gotten to do--somewhat to his surprise--is The Lion King. He was offered a part on the Lion King tour after auditioning in an open call during a spring-break trip to New York his junior year, but he decided to stay in school. That summer he was again offered a role, but with just one year left in college he again turned it down. "As soon as I'm done, I'm all yours," he told the Lion King team. And to be ready to go upon graduation, during his senior year he flew to New York six weeks in a row for the enrichment/orientation classes that new Lion King cast members take on African culture and other relevant topics. Yet once Nager moved to New York following his graduation, he went to a Lion King audition and was bluntly told they had "no further interest," he says, adding: "To this day, I don't know what happened."

That gnawed at him for a while, but Nager says learning not to dwell on disappointments is essential to survival--and sanity--in this business. "I think the first rule of theater as a performer is to trust what you do," he elaborates. "It's so easy to get caught up in what you think other people are thinking about you. But in auditions it's almost never just about talent; it's if you're right for a specific part. They may love you, but if you don't fit the costumes, or if you're not the right height, or you're two shades too light or too dark... You never know--you may have had on a color shirt that the director hated. So go in and trust what you do. And if you don't get it, it's not any judgment on you, just on whether or not you were right for that specific thing.

"The other thing, which I have to practice," he continues, "is: Once you go to an audition, let it go. There's nothing you can do about it once you leave the room, so thinking 'I should have done this, I could have done this...' doesn't help, because it's over. It's all about trusting yourself and loving what you do above anything else."

Nager has a lot to love about his career at this time. On top of being in a megahit--besides a Temptation, his roles in Motown include one of the Commodores and a 1960s radio DJ who promotes the record label--Nager has gotten to meet some of the legends portrayed in the show, such as Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross. He performed with the Motown cast on Good Morning America last month, and his image is hanging all over New York's JFK Airport on posters for American Airlines, a sponsor of Motown: The Musical. Both Motown and Scandalous have recorded cast albums, and Nager also sang on a number of tracks on Smash, among them "At Your Feet" (one of Bernadette Peters' numbers in Bombshell), "Cut, Print...Moving On," Hit List's "The Goodbye Song" and the season 1 cover of "Stand," featured during the Bombshell cast's visit to a Boston gospel church. As a postmortem on Smash, Nager offers this: "Anything that can promote Broadway is such a benefit for our entire industry. Maybe there are people that have watched Smash that never would have seen a Broadway show, but now when they come to New York they'll check it out."

Creating new fans for musical theater is one of the Broadway Boys' purposes too. "We love that theater audiences can hear this music in a new way, but what we love even more is introducing theater music to groups that would never listen to it," Nager says. "When we tour out of town, the moms that love theater get to bring their kids and say, 'This is a way for you to enjoy theater.' I have younger sisters that listen to Britney and Beyoncé and they love my arrangements. They would never put on a Finian's Rainbow CD, but my sister loves my 'Old Devil Moon'." (Care to hear for yourself? Watch Broadway Boys clips here.)

There are about 30 members of the Broadway Boys, though just six perform in any given show. Along with Nager, Titus Burgess and Danny Calvert have been in the Boys since the beginning; current members also include Telly Leung, David Larsen, Josh Strickland, Lucas Steele, Christian Dante White, Daniel Torres and Motown's Julius Thomas III. Broadway Boys performances are accompanied by a four-person band led by keyboardist Justin Paul, a Michigan alum who's up for a Tony this year for Best Score for A Christmas Story.

The Broadway Boys also have an operations manager, Jacob Warren, who happens to be Nager's husband of three years. Warren was living in Florida when he met Nager after a Boys performance there. He was taken to the show by a friend with an extra ticket and at first thought they were going to see the Backstreet Boys, whom he wasn't particularly interested in. When Warren was told it was the Broadway Boys, "he was like, 'What? That sounds even worse!' He thought it was a bunch of 8-year-olds singing Broadway," Nager relates. Warren didn't know musicals at that time but thoroughly enjoyed the show--and after a couple of years of a long-distance relationship with Nager, he moved to New York. "It's one of my favorite success stories of the group," Nager says with a big smile.

Photos of Jesse, from top: left, with (from left) Donald Webber Jr., Julius Thomas III, Ephraim M. Sykes and Jawan M. Jackson as the Temptations of Motown; left, in Scandalous, with Carolee Carmello (right) as Aimee Semple McPherson; right, performing in a Broadway Boys concert with (from left) Tyler Maynard, Michael Kadin Craig and Justin Paul on piano; after a 2006 performance of Being Alive with castmate Patina Miller; center, dressed for "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" with fellow Mary Poppins ensemble members (clockwise from top left) Case Dillard, Tony Mansker, Catherine Walker, Brian Letendre, Rommy Sandhu, Tyler Maynard and Kevin Samuel Yee; in the cast of Fame, at left in striped top; in his headshot; second from right, with Diana Ross and Motown castmates Ephraim M. Sykes (left) and Donald Webber Jr. [Scandalous photo by Jeremy Daniel; Motown photo by Joan Marcus]

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