Morgan James has a lot to say – well, sing.
The Johansen High grad and Broadway veteran returns to Modesto for a homecoming show Thursday, June 8, and celebration of her new release, “Reckless Abandon.” This is the now New York-based performer’s first album of all original material she either wrote or co-wrote, something the founder of Motown himself encouraged her to do several years ago. She met Berry Gordy Jr. as part of the original cast of “Motown: The Musical” in 2013, one of four original casts she has on her Broadway résumé (the others were “Godspell,” “Wonderland” and “The Addams Family”).
“He said singing great songs is important, but he encouraged me to have a hand in everything I did,” James said from the road in Alabama as she tours behind her record. “It became apparent to me in order for people to have a stake in it what you do, it has to have a piece of you in it – your mind, your heart. There’s nothing more exhilarating and fulfilling than singing your own words to an audience.”
The result is the 12-track “Reckless Abandon,” which James – who went by the last name Grunerud while growing up in Modesto – said is a soul record with some R&B, pop and even electronic influences.
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James will be on tour through the end of the year and into 2018 behind the album. Like in years past, she is making sure to include Modesto among her stops. While her parents no longer live in the area, James said she loves returning to where she got her start on the stage. Raised primarily in Utah, her family moved to Modesto when she was in middle school. It was here she started acting, singing and performing.
The Modesto arts community “gave me everything. I had no musical background before we moved to Modesto. Moved there in seventh grade. It’s where I joined my first choir, had my first voice teacher, got involved in Modesto Performing Arts and Townsend Opera. I think fondly of how it shaped who I am.”
One of her fondest performance memories of Modesto is being part of the Modesto Performing Arts 1997 production of “Bye Bye Birdie.” She played Kim and it was her first leading role in a show for the company.
“I still have so many friends from that production; I have a couple of best friends from there,” she said.
Over the years, James has performed back in her hometown at the State Theatre and Gallo Center for the Arts. She returns to the State for her upcoming show.
“I love coming back home because I did get my start back there and my musical life begin there,” she said. “One of my favorite parts of touring is getting to see people I never get to see. Touring allows me to see all these people you don’t get to see much after you graduate high school and college. And I can see teachers from the Valley. It gives me a great excuse.”
On her homecomings, and across the country, James said she frequently gets asked about the secrets to her success. She has followed the path many aspiring actors and singers from the Central Valley would love to follow: graduate high school, attend the esteemed Juilliard School in New York City and then grace the stage in Broadway shows. But she said her journey wasn’t the one she expected, either. When she graduated Johansen in 1999, she wanted to be the next Barbara Cool and specialize in musical theater and operettas like the Tony-winning great.
“It’s tough because there’s no way to replicate any one person’s path. When you’re younger, you want the key, you want to know how to do it. I think I had a very different set of goals and plans when I was younger,” she said. “I often say to be open for what life has in store for you, not what you have in store for life. Also to not look on other people’s plate, not be jealous and covetous of other people’s life. Yours is the only path you can walk.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 8
Where: State Theatre, 1307 J St., Modesto
Tickets: Advance $19.50-$25, door $24.50-$30, VIP meet-and-greet $45-$50