When Marcus Paul James was growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., his sole purpose was to entertain and perform for people.
Only in his youth, it didn’t seem like entertainment to him, it was just a part of his regular day.
“I never called it performing, if that makes sense. I grew up in church, so music and singing was a part of every day,” James said during a phone interview. “Just like eating. It’s a part of life, especially in the church world.”
According to James, it wasn’t until he left the “not-so-nice” city of Brooklyn to attend the Milton Hershey School and Penn State University that he realized he was meant to perform.
“When I got to Milton Hershey, it became a thing. I had a choice with the band, dancing, choir and it’s enjoyable to me, so I wanted to do it,” James said, adding that he moved to Hershey before his 8th grade year. “Being any good at it was up to the winds. Having continued success with it made me want to pursue it. It was a home away from home.”
James said that coming to Hershey was culture shock for him, as he was accepted into the school for underprivileged kids. It was a long way away from the city streets of New York with all of the trees and animals.
It turns out that the shock of Pennsylvania wouldn’t be much in the grand scheme of things, as James’ career has taken him all over the world with his role in “Rent” (Broadway, off-Broadway and traveling) as well as his recent role in “The Wiz Liv!” TV movie.
“I left my third year at Penn State with a group that had a record deal on the table. I moved back to New Jersey with them to be closer to New York. I happened to go with friends to a ‘Rent’ audition with 3,000 people,” James explained. “My friends signed me up, and I performed eight bars of music and they called me back. They offered me a national tour to play Tom Collins. It was the biggest choice that I ever had to make.”
James said he was stuck with the decision to accept the offer and join the national tour or stick his friends to chase the record deal.
“I was granted this role that I wasn’t even sure they would pick me for. I didn’t want to make a choice, but I decided to take the tour, which my bandmates weren’t happy about,” James said. “It started a road that led me to Broadway performance for Mr. Jefferson until it was over.
“I did ‘Rent’ for five or six years. I went directly into ‘In the Heights’ for three years. I went from that to ‘Rent’ off-Broadway. Then, I had a small break after that, which was my first break ever in about 10 years. Then I went to ‘Motown: The Musical’ from Broadway to the tour. I was all over the place with that.”
James continued to perform “Rent,” which included three stints in Japan and one in Cuba. However, this year, a new role presented itself, as James got a call to perform in “The Wiz Live!”
“When I get calls like that, I ask what the costs are. I’ve done it so long, but everything wonderful has an equal amount of cost to it. It’s not judging the bigness of it, but what it will require,” James explained. “I wanted to know what it is, where it is and what’s required of me. I have to remind myself to be excited about things. I have to make a decision for the rest of the year. There are a lot of big things that cross my mind.”
“The Wiz Live!” is a new adaptation of the 1975 musical by the same name, which has an R&B twist on “The Wizard of Oz.”
In the performance, James plays the messenger.
“The character I play sings a song called ‘No bad news,’ which is initially performed by Mabel King. I bring in the said bad news to the witch,” James said. “In the play, she kills the messenger. In this version, I get to stay alive. I get to bring in the news that Dorothy and friends are coming to kill her. That’s my scene. It’s small, but I’m the owner of the said bad news.”
“The Wiz Live!” has A- and B-list performers in it, including Common, Ne-Yo, David Alan Grier, Mary J. Blige, Queen Latifah and more.
“When stars venture to our land, they are usually so respectful. They can’t imagine doing this amount of work, over again and tomorrow. That idea is so new to them,” James said. “They are so respectful and humble in this environment. It’s always that feeling. It’s very family-like.
“With ‘The Wiz,’ it was new for everyone. It wasn’t all live in front of an audience or just all for TV. It wasn’t more things than it was. That makes an environment that is strange for everyone. We bonded quickly. With the stars, they are just right there with us. We were all nervous and scared. It was so epic. We had to hold on to each other, because this thing is huge.”
And it was huge. According to variety.com, the NBC musical drew 11.5 million viewers, which made the performance bigger than James thought when he first signed on.
“I feel like this one was bigger than the other airs that NBC had done. ‘Sound of Music,’ musical theater people like. They remember the story. Same with ‘Peter Pan.’ It’s cute,” said James. “I feel like ‘The Wiz’ is maybe a bigger brand that has such a worldly weight. People care about this version of the show and movie so much because the audience is bigger. The attention that it got was 10 times that. The audience made a bigger deal of it.”
James said he’s had people from the Hershey area reach out to him a lot after seeing his performance in ‘The Wiz Live!’
“They were coming out of the woodwork,” James said with a laugh. “They were reaching out to me, telling me that they were excited a family member was going to perform. That’s what we are. We’re a family.”
After taking some time off for the holidays, James is expecting an even busier 2016 on the stage and with other business ventures.
“Well, it’s really exciting for me. In the midst of all of that, I’ve been doing a bunch of things. I’m the social media coordinator for Broadway Inspirational Voices, which is a diverse choir of Broadway artist united to change lives through the power of music and service.
“I own the company Silver Towers Productions, which we have some projects we are working on. And, on top of that, I’ve been a singer, songwriter and writer. I release my third album later this month. It’s my new EP. So that’s how I’m starting my 2016.”
James hope that his journey shows that everyone – even those underprivileged – can reach their goals.
“I feel like something that doesn’t happen much is knowing what to do when we get our dream. We are taught to dream and aim high - now what? No one teaches you how to move forward in that way,” James said. “My career consists of me doing what I love doing and doing it successfully. I feel like my success and what I’m gearing for is doing everything that I love to do. I hope everyone, whether they are from Hershey or Brooklyn, realizes that they can reach their goals, too.”