Motown the Musical: ‘It makes people smile and that’s a good thing’

The hits songs keep on coming in the story of Berry Gordy and his record label

The cast of Berry Gordy’s ‘Motown the Musical’, on its way to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin in February 2019.

The cast of Berry Gordy’s ‘Motown the Musical’, on its way to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin in February 2019.

 

There is a moment during Motown the Musical in which a young Berry Gordy declares he wants to be the best version of himself, and, it seems, that’s exactly what he did.

Motown is the musical incarnation of Gordy’s memoirs. It recounts the history of what was once the largest black-owned company in the United States. Gordy founded the enterprise in 1959 with an $800 loan from his family, during the height of the civil rights movement in the USA.

The show first graced the stage in 2013 on Broadway, before opening its London production in 2016. It will make its Irish debut in February 2019.

The story opens in 1983, as an embittered Gordy refuses to attend an NBC special commemorating 25 years of Motown. He laments a frayed legacy and the artists who have abandoned his tutelage. The production then adopts a tested formula – storytelling through flashback, in a similar fashion to Jersey Boys.

When Gordy founded Motown, he plastered the words ‘Hitsville USA’ above its door, a portent of the company’s future success.The Motown label produced more than 525 albums, and collectively its artists achieved more than 57 No 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts.

It would be difficult to overstate his achievements, a fact the musical’s producer Adam Spiegel emphasises. “If you look at Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, the Four Tops, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder – for one person to be responsible for catapulting that group of people to the global icons that they became, it’s almost impossible to grasp; and for that person to be a black entrepreneur from Detroit – I’ll say it’s a fairytale, but it’s not, because it’s so much more significant than that. It’s an extraordinary adventure and to be able to tell that story on stage is a real privilege.”

A few notable musical moments include a rendition of Please Mr Postman and the Jackson 5’s entrance on stage

The show fuses historical events with popular songs. It references President John F Kennedy’s and Martin Luther King’s assassinations, the civil rights movement and everyone from Smokey Robinson to Rick James appears. Motown melodies such as Shop Around, My Girl, What’s Going On, and I Heard It Through The Grapevine bolster Gordy’s narrative, as he takes the Motown sound from relative obscurity to, as Spiegel says, “ the soundtrack of every generation”. A few notable musical moments include a rendition of Please Mr Postman and the Jackson 5’s entrance on stage.

Civil rights movement

The performance includes a nod to the company’s role within the American civil rights movement. During the production, the Contours, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles perform, while two aggressive white police officers survey a segregated audience. The lyrics to You Really Got A Hold On Me lends humorous commentary to the tense situation, and by the time the performance concludes, the policemen are gyrating to the beat, reflecting, as Spiegel says, Motown’s remarkable ability to make “everyone dance, white and black, to the same tune”.

Spiegel notes that while the show resonates differently outside of the US, it still retains an emotive impact. “In the UK, I think the political significance of Motown is perhaps slightly less obvious. Because we in the UK are less constantly aware of the racial divides. Motown is something to smile about. The musical very much talks about its significance in the civil rights area, but when you say Motown in the UK or Ireland people say ‘great’. In America, people go, ‘Oh, it’s important’. It is a slightly different response, but in its own way equally resonant.”

Berry Gordy outside ‘Hitsville USA’, the original headquarters of his company in Detroit, Michigan, circa 1960. Photograph: Reuters/Motown Records
Berry Gordy outside ‘Hitsville USA’, the original headquarters of his company in Detroit, Michigan, circa 1960. Photograph: Reuters/Motown Records

During the show, Gordy’s success is punctuated with moments of misfortune – his marriage to Thelma Coleman dissolves, artists such as Mary Wells and Florence Ballard depart the company, his relationship with Marvin Gaye grows turbulent, and there is a notable legal spat with the songwriting production team of Holland Dozier Holland.

A focal point of the show is Gordy’s romance with Diana Ross, as Ross blossoms from checkered-skirted schoolgirl to international star. During the musical, he persuades her to leave the Supremes and launch her solo career with Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand), he musters $2 million to launch her cinematic career with Lady Sings the Blues, and is ultimately blindsided when she signs a $20 million contract with RCA.

You do have a responsibility to make sure that the people that are playing these iconic roles are the very best people

Ross, during the West End performance, was captured through the honey-laced voice of Natalie Kassanga. Spiegel comments on the difficulty in casting such renowned figures. “We went into the Gospel world, to church choirs, we auditioned all around the country, I mean in Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Edinburgh. I mean, we auditioned everywhere because you do have a responsibility to make sure that the people that are playing these iconic roles are the very best people that exist. So there are no shortcuts on that, and we were very diligent about that.”

A few changes

Spiegel has made a few changes to the original Broadway production, and things may alter by the time Motown reaches the Irish stage. “It’s a little bit like a recipe. So you know when you cook something for the first time it’s maybe okay or really good, but when you cook it the second time, the third time, the fourth time, largely it improves because you learn certain lessons from it. So when we did it in London we were already, I think, the third version of Motown, because it had been in New York and then it had been on tour in America, and now we’ve done our UK tour, so we’ve managed to make more improvements, I think,” he says.

The production concludes as Gordy attends the Motown anniversary special, where he reminisces about black boxer Joe Louis and his own desire to instil people with joy – a desire Spiegel appears to share – “I think the word Motown – there are very few incredibly powerful words, Motown is one of them. It’s very difficult to say that word to anyone without them smiling, and that’s a very rare quality.

Motown the Musical comes to Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from February 5th-23rd, 2019. For tickets see bget.ie

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