Berry Gordy III/Jr. is a record executive and producer, songwriter, film and television producer, and founder of the legendary Motown Record Corporation.
At its height, it incorporated four major divisions and 37 subsidiaries, producing over 200 soul, R&B, Hip Hop, Gospel, jazz, rock, Latino, spoken word, easy listening, country and African artists, and was te highest-earning African-American business in America!
At 82 years old, he decided to add theatre producer and musical book writer to his portfolio (and set a few records straight) when, in 2011, it was announced that he was developing a Broadway musical based on his 1994 book To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown.
In 1983, Gordy (Jay Perry) sits sulking at home, refusing to attend the Pasadena Civic Auditorium where a collection of global superstars are gathered to celebrate Motown‘s 25th anniversary. It’s all set to be filmed and broadcast as Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, a television special. Smokey Robinson (David Albury) makes one last attempt to persuade him to go, then leaves disappointed. But, with the Corporation in real financial trouble, and as any once-powerful man would, or should, he looks back at how he got there.
Growing up in Detroit, Michigan, the low-paid, unglamorous jobs available to 1950s African-Americans, doesn’t fulfill his need to make a real difference. He gravitates toward the music industry, co-writing a song that gives Jackie Wilson (Segun Fawole) his first solo hit in 1957. It inspires him to borrow $800 of family money and create Hitsville USA – his start-up, and remarkably prescient, record label which will grow into Motown – a salute to the Motor City, Detroit, itself. Meeting singer and hugely prolific songwriter Smokey Robinson and key songwriting/producing team Holland-Dozier-Holland (Ainsley Hall-Ricketts/Duane Lamont), Gordy sets in motion his vision to not only market music acts, but to discover and develop them.
Together, they change pop music history and create unforgettable giants of the genre using the Motown Sound, classes to learn how to speak, dress and move, and participate in the Motortown Revue, an annual package tour, during which the acts were often at risk of racist attacks.
You have to understand that this show is not about Gordy, it’s a love letter to the label and all of those who made it was it is. So, Motown is effectively an enormous montage sequence because let’s face it, the label achieved an enormous amount, and Gordy wants us to know it! Motown icons sing their most popular numbers – a staggering 50 in all, but not always in their entirety. They don’t attempt to re-create The actual Motown Sound, but you will recognise the sophisticated melodies built on simple structures to a four-beat drum pattern and the novel use of horns and strings. The “trebly style of mixing” that was particularly effective for broadcast over AM radio is, of course, missing. But, a 16-piece orchestra accompanies this celebration of the music that, some feel, helped to bring America’s black and white populations together. In reality, it was the backbeat to one of America’s most violent periods of history, bar the Civil War, and brief references are scattered throughout.
We meet The Miracles (Ensemble), Marvin Gaye (Carl Spencer), Diana Ross (Natalie Kassanga) & The Supremes (Cherelle Williams/Mary Wilson, Anna Van Ruiten/Florence Ballard, Chanice Alexandra-Burnett /Cindy Birdsong), Stevie Wonder (Mitchell Zhangazha), The Jackson 5, Mary Wells (Alexandra-Burnett), The Temptations (Ensemble), The Four Tops (Ensemble), Martha Reeves (Angela Marie Hurst) & The Vandellas (Ensemble), The Commodores (Ensemble), Teena Marie (Jayme-Lee Zanoncelli), Dennis Edwards (Lawrence Rowe), Rick James (LaShane Williams), The Contours and The Velvelettes (both Ensemble).
Some songs are used as performance pieces, others to advance the narrative, which are, it has to be said, quite often more eloquent than the sometimes clunky dialogue. Gordy’s lifelong friendship with Robinson and Gaye, his relationship with Ross and his discovery of sleeping giant acts, like the Jacksons and Stevie Wonder, are given a little more stage time than other events. Race riots, civil rights protests, assassinations and technological advances are mere footnotes, and we never really get to know much about the man beyond his intentions, his obvious successes and his love for Ross. What we do get has been sanitised.
Mainstream record labels want what Motown has, and begin to tempt acts away. Purposefully or not, Gordy seems to show that by staying true to his dream, he unwittingly made it easy for them. With pressure from the industry mounting, loss of acts, and lawsuits piling up, Motown slides into decline.
Motown: The Musical cracks along at quite a pace, cramming in twice as many numbers as the average musical, which some have criticised, along with its lack of story. But, it serves to remind us of how hard those acts had to work for the degree of success they achieved, and why the label has been described as a conveyor belt. Acts were locked into a non-stop cycle of recording multiple tracks, hitting the road on tour, and back again. It’s also another jukebox musical which pushes forward the seemingly endless, achingly good pool of young black British talent. The vocal abilities of the entire cast is stupefying!
Many of them perform pop songs twice their age, and update them by using the modern melismatic style (multiple notes per syllable), rather than sticking to the original mainly syllabic style (one note per syllable), to great effect, and all with the professionalism of little male and female Beyoncés for those who must dance too.
This is the production’s second major cast change since its London premiere in January 2016, effective since March 2018. Deserving of particular praise is Perry/Gordy, who is almost constantly on-stage and who you will root for once the flashback to better days is underway; Spencer/Gaye will break your heart with Mercy, Mercy Me; Zhanghaza effortlessly handles Stevie Wonder’s funk style, Fawole is incredible as the hugely energetic Wilson; Angela Marie Hurst’s Martha Reeves and Jayme-Lee Zanoncelli’s Teena Marie are hypnotically good. Kassanga isn’t particularly vocally challenged as Ross, but certainly gets to shine with Good Morning Heartache. It is, however, pre-teen Eshan Gopal who gives a jaw-dropping, show-stopping, note-perfect rendition of Who’s Lovin’ You, eerily channelling young Michael Jackson himself. Gopal shares kiddie duties with Tumo Reetsang, Cruz Lee-Ojo, and Nana Agyeman-Bediako, whom we can only assume possess a similar melismatic mastery at their tender age!
The brilliant ensemble includes KM Drew Boateng, Timothy Benjamin, Ryan Carter, Ricardo Castro, Amandla Elynah, Livvy Evans, Cameron Bernard Jones, Cleopatra Joseph, Nathan Lorainey-Dineen, Mireia Mambo, Matt Overfield, Adam Philpott, Jaime Tait, Kyle Turner, and Michael Woolston-Thomas. So, the producers must be confident in the knowledge that virtually any one of the ensemble could step into one of the main roles at a moment’s notice.
Apart from the speed of story, which I can forgive, what doesn’t quite work for me is the tendency for some actors to sing to/address ‘out there’ to us, the fourth wall, which is irritating enough, but worse when it happens mid-dialogue or a love scene! Also, the acting does slip back into drama school at times.
Gordy wrote or co-wrote over 50 songs and, whether or not he’ll admit it, he probably felt compelled to pen this show because he was tired of being portrayed in a negative light. Unflattering parallels were drawn between him and the ruthlessly ambitious Curtis Taylor Jr. in the 1981 Broadway musical Dreamgirls, created by two Jewish Americans who had nothing to do with Motown. It could have been ignored until another white writer-director adapted it for the screen. Bill Condon (Chicago, 2002, Beauty and the Beast, 2017) moved the action from the original Chicago to Detroit and made more overt references to The Supremes and Motown. In 2007, the producers DreamWorks and Paramount Pictures issued a public apology to Gordy, which he accepted. But, he was probably thinking of a musical as his counter-move even then.
So, go see this musical, because alongside Dreamgirls , Thriller, Hamilton , and Tina: The Tina Turner Musical , you will begin to gather a real taste of just what those acts had to go through and just how much they influenced popular music around the world, despite all of the disadvantages of their existence.
It’s even easier to do so, as the producers have recently joined an increasing number of West End shows and launched an online Ticket Lottery, which allows audiences to register to purchase two great seats at £20 or less. If selected, you will have 24 hours to buy online before the next winner is selected.
Motown: The Musical is currently booking at the Shaftesbury Theatre, 210 Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2H 8DP, until 5th January 2019, and will tour across the UK & Ireland from October 2018 until March 2019. For more information, visit motownthemusical.co.uk
Motown: The Musical had its world premiere on Broadway in March 2014, directed by African-American film, television, and theatre director; television producer; screenwriter and playwright Charles Randolph-Wright. It ran for 738 performances, received four Tony Award nominations, sparked a 2014 US Tour and closed in January 2015. The following year, it transferred to London, opening at the Shaftesbury Theatre in January 2016, with Randolph-Wright and the two leads transferring with it and scoring a West End hit. A cast change was announced to coincide with its first anniversary, the release of 200, 000 tickets and an extended booking into February 2018.