*”Motown: The Musical” makes its big Broadway debut on Sunday in New York, and the Detroit News has details of what’s in store.
The show has gone through a month of previews, tweaking and trimming numbers from its length (just under three hours), which features snippets of some 70 Motown hits.
The producers said they believe it will transcend the somewhat pejorative phrase “jukebox musical” because of the social importance of Motown in 20th century race relations, with black and white teenagers brought together by their love for the irresistible music.
“It’s the story of how one man formed a family through art and talent, and transformed America not by guns, not by politics but with music,” said producer Kevin McCollum. “There’s no mistake, and it’s not arbitrary that when our president won the election again, ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered’ was played. This is music that gets under your skin, so that skin color and politics no longer matter.”
Below, the Detroit News compiled a list of things to watch out for, based on the musical’s media day in February, along with accounts by Motown personnel and fans from the previews:
Louis vs. Schmeling
The musical starts out with Gordy reluctant to go to “Motown 25” because all of his stars have left him, but then it soon goes into flashback to the event in June 1938 that inspired Gordy to achieve. The Gordy family is gathered around the radio at their home, on Farnsworth and St. Antoine, to listen to a boxing match between Germany’s Max Schmeling and Detroit’s own Joe Louis. The bout, which Louis won in a decisive technical knockout, had huge political and racial implications beyond the sheer sport of it.
As Gordy explained in his memoir: “The fight had been perceived by everyone as a superpower contest between America, land of the free, and Nazi Germany. I was only eight at the time, but I knew that Joe Louis was a hero of all the people, but he was black like me.”
Gordy sees the joy Louis’ victory brings his family and Detroiters as they take to the streets to celebrate. In the musical, he tells his father he wants to be Joe Louis. Pops Gordy cautions his son that he can’t be Joe Louis, but he needs to be “the best Berry Gordy he can be.” There’s a new Gordy song about the fight in the musical to move the action along.
The famously tough sister
Gordy wanted to borrow $1,000 from the family “bank,” but his stern older sister, always wise to Gordy’s fantasies and general lack of follow-through, famously said no. When Esther saw that she was outvoted by the rest of the company, she reluctantly agreed, but only if the amount of the loan was reduced. Hence, the famous $800 loan to Gordy to buy Hitsville. Edwards was of course one of Gordy’s most trusted advisers because of her honesty.
Among the many Motor City locations you’ll see in “Motown: the Musical” are Gordy’s 3D Record Mart record store (in the family compound at Farnsworth and St. Antoine); the Ford foundry and/or the Mercury assembly line, where he worked briefly; his sister Gwen Gordy’s house; the Flame Showbar (Canfield at John R), where he would go see Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday, and where his glamorous sisters Gwen and Anna worked as photo girls; Jackie Wilson’s manager Nat Tarnapol’s office (on Alexandrine, Detroit’s “Music Row”); and of course, Hitsville’s Studio A at 2648 W. Grand Blvd.
‘Dancing in the Street’
The song that propelled Martha Reeves and the Vandellas into worldwide fame is a key element in the musical. It’s used to show how Motown’s fame spread around the country and around the world.
Berry loves Diana
Most of the second act is devoted to the Gordy-Ross love affair, although in real time, it didn’t last all that long. But for narrative purposes, his passion for Ross mirrors the rise of the company and its crossover success until she leaves him and Motown.
Gordy can sing
Yes, Brandon Victor Dixon may be an idealized Gordy, but they did need someone who could sing, unlike the Chairman, who’s often made fun of his own warbling. Literalist Motown fans also will have to get over the fact that Dixon, as Gordy, and Valisia LeKae, as Diana Ross, duet together on one of the most iconic of Marvin Gaye-Tammi Terrell numbers, “You’re All I Need to Get By.”
Sales department sings and dances
Well, not quite. Barney Ales, longtime head of sales for Motown, is in the musical — he’s played by Dominic Nolfi. As Ales, Nolfi has a key scene in which he contends with a complaint from a Motown artist about the sales staff being all white. Ales explains that he can’t get a black salesman past the door of any of the Southern distributors, although that soon changes. Motown becomes so popular, the Southern outlets are happy to have a black salesman call on them.
While many of the Motown acts were good dancers made better by the in-house instruction of famed choreographer Cholly Atkins, several, including the suave Marvin Gaye and the effortlessly cool Smokey Robinson, weren’t very good hoofers at all.
Still, busting a few moves onstage in between choruses of a song is much less taxing than the way Broadway performers move. Be prepared for a cast that is in almost perpetual motion, including the Gaye and Robinson characters.
Just like the records?
It’ll be hard for longtime Motown fans not to nitpick every detail of every song in their heads, but some arrangements had to be altered for the demands of a live musical. Also, several of the singers add more drama to the vocals than was in the original, in service to the theatrics required.
Cast of rivals
Doug Morris, who heads up Sony Entertainment, is a producer on “Motown: The Musical.” He and Gordy are good friends of many years, but Morris likes to tell the story of how when he started out at Laurie Records in the 1960s, Gordy was busy making his music obsolete.
Laurie was no small potatoes, with acts such as Dion on the roster. But Morris said, laughing, “Do you know how many record companies Motown put out of business? Once we heard Motown, it was over. We couldn’t duplicate that sound — we tried.” Morris makes no bones about how he idolizes his longtime friend Gordy. “It’s amazing to go to work every day and tell the person who inspired you, ‘thank you,'” Morris said.