Julie James, the longtime voice of satellite radio’s Broadway channel, will debut Sunday in South Florida as a serious singer of show music.
“So many people didn't know that I was originally a performer and a singer of so many things, opera to musical theater. And so little by little, we've been trying to flip the narrative and reveal this other part of me, the original part of me that so many people didn't know was behind this voice that they know from the radio, that they consider a friend on the radio,” said James, who programs and hosts the weekly interview program “Broadway Names With Julie James” on SiriusXM satellite radio’s On Broadway channel.
James’ theater pals, including Broadway stars Kristin Chenoweth (“Wicked” and “Promises, Promises”) and Norm Lewis (“Les Misérables” and “Porgy and Bess”), are among her biggest boosters, each inviting her to perform with them in New York City.
“[James] really engages with an audience,” said one of her best friends, Jeff Kiltie, general manager of Aventura Arts & Cultural Center, where she’ll perform her Manhattan-tested nightclub act 7 p.m. Sunday.
“She’s bright and sparkly and when she’s onstage she tells great stories,” said Kiltie of Wilton Manors, who met James 23 years ago at the Aventura Mall through a mutual friend. “She ties the songs not only to her, but makes them relatable to everyone in the room. Everybody loves to hear stories about celebrities. She also just has got an amazing voice. She can sing the heck out of anything.”
James was born and raised in Dayton, Ohio.
“I cannot believe as an adult looking back at the kind of wealth of cultural opportunity that existed in a city of – you know, it's not a huge metropolitan city. But Dayton had its own philharmonic orchestra, its own opera company, its own ballet company, several reputable theater companies, an art museum that's of repute,” she recalled. “I can't believe that I was lucky enough to grow up in this hub of culture. My family, thankfully, saw that I was arts-inclined early on and did everything they could to support my love and fervor for all of that. I grew up singing in church, but then I discovered musicals through my high school, like so many kids do.”
During the 1990s, James starred in student productions of “The Sound of Music,” “Hello, Dolly!,” “Annie” and “My Fair Lady.” Then came a sophomore fine-arts spring break trip to New York City.
“We came to New York on a bus trip from Ohio, a Greyhound chartered bus full of high schoolers. We dumped out in the middle of Times Square to stay at the Hotel Edison. I set foot in Times Square and said, ‘This is where I'm gonna be!’ I just knew it. I just knew that that was where my dreams were gonna take me,” James said.
“I saw my first Broadway show, ‘Cats,’” she continued. “And then I actually took that trip again as a senior and saw “Phantom of the Opera.” I was wearing out the cassette tape at the time, so I couldn't believe my fortune that I was able to see it.”
Years later, at SiriusXM, she got to interview and get to know “Cats” and “Phantom” composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.
“That's one of the stories that I tell in my show – I show a picture of me interviewing Andrew Lloyd Webber. I mean, imagine the girl that stepped off that bus, who later is – you know I've interviewed him multiple times. It mind-boggling that that circle would have been created.”
After high school, James studied opera at College-Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati and theater at Boston Conservatory at Berklee. She moved to New York City in the late ‘90s and quickly got her first professional job, the “high E girl” in a Goodspeed Opera House production of “Sweeney Todd.” “It was such a buzzed-about production that Stephen Sondheim himself came to Connecticut to attend.”
“I was kind of off and running from there. I was doing lots of regional work and tours and everything was going great, and then I met who would become my then-husband. We're not together anymore, but he was a musician and a singer-songwriter,” James said.
About that time, James “needed a day job” and found one at a New York temp agency. She didn’t stay long – a former agency co-worker recruited her in 2004 to work at Sirius (before it merged with XM radio).
“At the time they were looking for somebody that had classical knowledge that could work in the music programming department, in a supporting role of these classical channels. And I was like, ‘Wow, this is really interesting. If I'm gonna be working in an office job, how about an office job that actually has to do with music.’”
James then branched out, singing Sirius promotional jingles and parody songs for Howard Stern, doing radio voiceovers, and appearing as “Double J, the Retro Redhead” DJ on the Outlaw Country channel.
After Sirius and XM merged, James became program director for the Metropolitan Opera channel. Soon, it suddenly made sense to also put her in charge of the On Broadway channel, where she now works with musical theater veterans Seth Rudetsky, Christine Pedi and John Tartaglia.
James says that every day, she must program 48 hours of music. “It’s 24-7 / 365, times two channels because I am curator of all the material on the Metropolitan Opera channel as well as the On Broadway channel.”
In addition to programming duties and her “Broadway Names With Julie James” show, she also now does a news feature called “The Broadway Buzz,” which, she said “airs every other hour of every day with the top stories of whatever is making the world of Broadway turn that day.”
James’ biggest challenge, particularly for On Broadway: programming for all listeners and their diverse tastes.
“Maybe it's a golden classic. There's a reason that Rodgers and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hart, Sondheim – there's a reason that all of these things live on in the great pantheon of material.”
Then, there’s the audience that grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. “You might have a very casual listener. Maybe she’s a mother that’s in her 40s or 50s and she kind of just wants her memories of her favorite shows that she did in high school.
“But then you have the younger generation that wants to hear kind of the more cutting-edge stuff, the more recent stuff, the more things like ‘Hamilton’ or ‘Dear Evan Hansen,’ or what's playing on Broadway right now.”
James says that “every hour of every day, I'm trying to strike that balance: Here’s something new, something old, something in between. Here's a group number. Here's a ballad. Here's something that's got some big, full company energy behind it. Here's something that’s maybe a little bit smaller and sparer. So, it's a balancing act.”
Along the way, James has helped launch new shows and new stars.
“I do a lot of exclusives which are the first listen. A lot of the shows come to me,” she said. “I was the first one to play ‘Funny Girl,’ the new Lea Michele recording. Before it was released, the only place you could hear it like a day or two before was on our station. And Lea Michele actually handpicked which tracks she wanted, which was kind of cool, too. She hand-selected ‘People’ as the first track that she wanted everyone to hear.”
James’ radio work led to her own Broadway debut in 2019, when Chenoweth surprised her during an on-air interview with an offer to sing in her one-week stage show, “For the Girls,” directed by former Miami Beach resident Richard Jay-Alexander.
James recalled Chenoweth telling her during a SiriusXM interview: “People need to know that you sing. People need to know that you sing.”
“So live on-air,” James said, “she surprised me by inviting me to appear with her on Broadway. And it's something that continues to this day because I'm going to appear with her just before I come to Florida.”
Kiltie, the Aventura cultural center manager, said “the word is getting out that [James] has a great voice.”
“When someone like Chenoweth invites you to perform with her on Broadway, you know that’s talent recognizing talent,” he said, adding that James has a lot of SiriusXM fans and that “a lot of people want to see her perform more, rather than just be the talk-show host on the radio.”
Although Sunday night is James’ official Florida performance debut, she has sung to local audiences for fun and charity. She has made several appearances at clubs along Wilton Drive and in 2019 James emceed and performed at the National LGBTQ Task Force Gala – Miami.
“It has been my great joy and honor to be a lifelong ally in the community and to do anything and everything I can for those that I consider my brothers and sisters,” James said. “It’s really a community that embraced me and that I embraced right back. That’s why I've really found a second home in South Florida, and it means so much to me to be able to come there and share a full evening of something special.”
Kiltie and his husband, James Foster, who recently spent time in Manhattan with James, said she’s the real thing.
“She absolutely recognizes that the world she lives in is populated by LGBTQ+ people,” Kiltie said. “Knowing her more than 20 years, she is who she presents herself to be. She is a great friend, she is loyal. She’s just a good person. She’s super supportive of everybody around her. She’s the kind of person who is always building everybody up.”
IF YOU GO
SiriusXM radio star Julie James performs 7 p.m. Sunday at Aventura Arts & Cultural Center, 3385 NE 188th St., Aventura. Ticket prices are $25 to $57, plus fees at ticketmaster.com.