Out actor Jesse Nager heats up ‘Motown’ as Smokey Robinson
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES
Jesse Nager was born in Boston, raised in New York and touring the country on a show set in Detroit, but Dallas holds a special place in his heart: It’s the hometown of his husband, Jacob.
“I love it here!” he says effusively about the city. “Jacob loves to show me around where he grew up — when we got here yesterday, the first thing we did was go to Dickey’s Barbecue.”
It’s not the first time Nager has been in Dallas for work; a few years ago, he was in the national tour of Xanadu. But appearing in the role of Smokey Robinson in Motown The Musical, which plays through Aug. 16 at the Winspear Opera House, has been an especially rewarding experience.
“I was in the original New York company playing one of the Temptations,” Nager says. He left the show a few month before it closed on Broadway to take on the meatier role of the legendary frontman of The Miracles and best of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy.
“I am onstage less now than I was before, but it’s a more focused experience. You’re sort of working harder physically in the ensemble, but you dig a little deeper when you’re a principal,” he says. “You spend more time creating the character.”
In fact, getting to meet the people who made the music, and started an entire genre of pop culture (who doesn’t have an instant idea of what “the Motown sound” means?) was one of the genuine thrills of Nager’s career so far.
“Mr. Gordy wrote and produced the show, so he was always [in rehearsals in New York], at every preview, always giving notes. Because Motown is such a family, the [people who are characters in the show] were always around. At first, you’re in awe and then your walls go down and you talk to them as normal people. That’s’ when the real details come out that you can put into the performance. You learn more from the people around them.”
Nager gleaned most about developing Robinson for the stage not from the legendary singer himself, but someone else.
“When I met him I wasn’t playing him yet, but once I was cast, I think the most influential person for me [to understand the character] was Claudette Robinson, his first wife. She would text me [suggestions and stories]; she’s sort of a friend now, which is unbelievable,” he says.
There have been many unbelievable moments in Nager’s journey. Among the highlights were meeting Stevie Wonder, and one event that he’ll never forget.
“Mr. Gordy was being honored and was performing with the Jacksons. Growing up, my biggest obsession was with the Jackson 5. We ended up performing with them at an event outside the show — that was probably the most start-struck I’ve ever been,” he says.
Meeting them has also been a learning experience — not just as a singer, but as a professional.
“I think the biggest lesson for me is that most of these Motown artists — the ones that are still alive — are still performing. The reason is, they worked so damn hard to get where they are, they say, why would I ever give it up?” Nager says. “In this time of American Idol and Youtube stardom, it’s important to remember actual longevity reflects how hard you work, no matter how popular you seem at the moment.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 31, 2015.