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A 'Superstar' Start on a New Career : Theater: Syreeta Wright plays Mary Madgalene in 'Jesus Christ Superstar.' It's her first stage role ever and first singing job since the '80s.

July 05, 1994|DENNIS HUNT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Ooohh, I was sooooo scared," shrieked singer Syreeta Wright, recalling her opening night as Mary Madgalene in "Jesus Christ Superstar" last October in Buffalo, N.Y. "I was so scared I can't remember doing it. It's a blank now. I really didn't think I was going to make it through another night."

She did, of course.

Since that horrible attack of opening-night jitters, she has been singing the role about eight times a week in the national touring company of the rock opera, which is at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium tonight through Sunday.

The reason Wright had such a bad case of nerves was because, as she explains, "It was the opening night of a whole new life."

As melodramatic as it sounds (actually she's a bubbly, outspoken chatterbox who makes everything sound melodramatic), it was quite true.

Not only was it her first theatrical role ever, it was the first time Wright had sung professionally since the early '80s, when she was in the final stages of her career as an R&B singer-songwriter at Motown. Also, it was the first time she'd worked since a divorce forced her into a career change. For about 10 years she'd been partners with her husband in a business booking motivational speakers. But after the divorce she bowed out of the business.

"I was emotionally drained," admits Wright, who, in the 1 1/2 years before taking the "Superstar" role, concentrated on being a mother to her four children--two daughters, 6 and 8, and two sons, 14 and 18. "But I knew I needed a new career."

However, it was Wright's first career and marriage--to Stevie Wonder--that brought her notoriety.

"It wasn't a very happy time," she recalls, referring to their married years--1970-72. "But I'm friends with him now."

Wright did, though, have her biggest success collaborating with Wonder. In addition to writing with him on his albums "Music of My Mind" and "Talking Book," together they wrote his hit "Signed, Sealed and Delivered." He also produced and co-wrote her album "Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta," which came out in 1974.

"Of my six albums, that was the best," she recalls wistfully. "What's funny is that we were going through a divorce while we were making it."

Wright, who currently lives in Los Angeles, doesn't give her age ("Let's just say I've been around")--but is probably 40ish. "I look good too," she says laughing--but clearly believing it.

Although born in Pittsburgh, Wright grew up in a suburb of Detroit. She started out singing jazz and show tunes but switched to R&B when she got a shot to record for Motown in 1968. But she was one of those "budding superstars" who never had the huge hit album or single that everyone expected.

"I had some wonderful years at Motown, but I was also frustrated and unhappy for some of those years," she recalls. "I never did what I wanted to do. I was always butting heads with the executives about my career."

*

Her final album with Motown was "Spell," produced in 1983 by Jermaine Jackson. "I didn't like the way the album turned out," she says. "I was fighting with the company about it. But then I didn't like a lot of the albums I did."

Her harsh summary of her Motown years: "It was like a bad marriage. You have to know when it's not going to work and call it quits. But I was young and dumb. I should have broken away from Motown years before I left, but I didn't have enough sense to do that."

She finally parted company with the label--and the music business--in 1983. But, after being away from it all for more than a decade, she's yearning to plunge back in.

"I haven't been doing a lot of writing but that's about to change," she insists. "I'm going to buy a little keyboard for the road so I can start writing regularly again. Then I'll start making demos looking for a record deal."

Returning to her former career seemed like a logical step. "I always felt I had been born to sing," she says with pride. "I hadn't done it for over 10 years and I missed it badly. I wasn't sure how to get back into it, but I never thought it would be through theater."

She has her pal Carl Anderson, who's also in "Superstar," to thank for the opportunity. He alerted her about auditions for the role of Mary Madgalene. "I never thought I'd get it because I'd never done theatrical singing," she explains. "It's very different--in terms of breathing and technique--from the kind of pop singing I'd done. But I taught myself how to do it and got the job."

What about the new career?

"I'll probably be with this show until February," she says. "I'd consider another show if it was the right show and I didn't have to travel too much. I'll have to wait until this show is finished before I figure out my next step."

* "Jesus Christ Superstar," Pasadena Civic Auditorium, 300 E. Green St., Pasadena, (818) 449-7360. Tonight-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends Sunday.

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