Motown—and The Message—Couldn’t Come at a Better Time for America

Opening Night   Motown—and The Message—Couldn’t Come at a Better Time for America The musical set in a racially-tense Detroit during the Civil Rights era has made a timely Broadway return.
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Allison Semmes as Diana Ross Joseph Marzullo/WENN

After a benumbing week of race-hate headlines, the second Broadway coming of Motown The Musical July 14 (this time at the Nederlander instead of the Lunt-Fontanne) materialized more like a gospel tent revival than a tune-dizzy cavalcade. The musical healing power the Detroit platter company displayed during the Civil-Rights warfare a half-century ago was, not by any means, lost on today’s audience.

“We’re so thrilled you’re here to celebrate Motown,” lead producer Kevin McCollum said to the show’s second set of “first-nighters” at the curtain call. “There has never been a place like Motown where hearts, passion, talent came together to transform the world, but there’s no reason why every town—today—can’t be Motown.”

His co-producer—the man who created the Motown sound and the superstar galaxy to go with it, Berry Gordy—was very much in attendance, boogying up a storm at 86.

“What Berry Gordy taught us all to do was to dream—to dream big—and right now we need those dreams more than ever,” seconded the show’s director, Charles Randolph Wright. “At a time when we were so separated, that was what Motown was all about. Motown was a movement, and it brought people together—and, with Motown The Musical, that’s what we want to do. We need to bring us back together. We have to remember that we have so much more in common than [we have that] is dissimilar, and that is exactly why it is so brilliant to be back on Broadway—to say ‘Yes, we’re coming together,’ so we can all say, ‘Love is Love is Love is Love.’”

He then introduced “the man who dared to dream, the man who said ‘I could do this’ when everyone said he couldn’t. He’s the ultimate inspiration for us all. We wouldn’t be here. He changed the world, and now he’s going to change the world again.”

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Berry Gordy Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Gordy beamed broadly at the racially mixed audience in front of him and seemed to love all he surveyed. “Over 50 years ago,” he said, “we asked a question when there were problems in the world, ‘What is going on here?’ Today, the stakes are much higher than they were then, and we need to go back to the simplicity of loving each other. What happened in the ‘60s was that we brought people together. The fact I’m looking at this group of people and seeing white people and black people holding hands and loving—it’s so much different than it was when we were coming up and we were trying to do things. We asked a question in those days, ‘What is going on?’ In this Broadway play, you saw our answer was ‘Reach Out and Touch (Someone’s Hand).’ Make this world a better place. We need to go back to those principals.”

At one point in Act II, as Diana Ross (Allison Seemes) waltzed her way to solo stardom with that song, she asked the audience to join hands, lift them high and sway in three-quarter time, and we all did as the diva decreed. A Motown moment!

Valerie Simpson, of the Ashford & Simpson who produced that gold record for Ross, was among the re-opening night audience, as were a couple of key Motown execs portrayed in the show—Suzanne de Passe (played by Krisha Marcanio) and Shelly Berger (Doug Storm). Gordy introduced them from the stage as his “original slaves,” prompting de Passe in the audience to yell out, “Would you say that again?” Gordy laughed and cracked, “Well, you saw her in the play, and you know she’s outspoken.”

Not in attendance, but played on stage with firebrand intensity by Chante Carmel, was Edna Anderson, Gordy’s longtime assistant and confidant who passed away June 13. “She was an activist who didn’t think black people could get ahead at Motown,” Gordy told the audience. “She tried to put us out of business, picketing. I practically had to beg her to take a job as my assistant because I wanted her to hear the truth from a different standpoint. And she became an activist for Motown and for the love and the things that we all stood for. We dedicated tonight’s whole show to her because she is up there somewhere looking down—and we love you, Edna.”
Anderson’s mother was in the theatre and sat by Gordy for the cast party that was held two blocks away on the 30th floor of The Skylark, ritzy, rich with nightlights and almost gridlock with revelers. Original plans for a simple champagne reception in the lobby of the Nederlander were suddenly scrapped and glamorously upgraded.

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Kevin McCollum Joseph Marzullo/WENN

“I just go where B.G. tells me to go,” explained producer McCollum. “For this company, tonight’s show also is its 900th performance—even though it’s just our third performance on Broadway this time. We’ve been at it two and a half years.
“People are realizing this body of transformative music is really the sort of anecdote to ‘What is going on?’ Motown reminds people that if we change people socially we can change them politically to come together. When you’re dancing together, you’re not hurting each other. And Motown makes everyone dance together.”

The show’s producers opted for a low-key re-opening, which was probably the right move since there was no way it could top its original Broadway bow April 14, 2013, which overflowed with Motown royalty, starting with the king and queen, Gordy and Ross, and including Smokey Robinson, Mary Wilson, Stevie Wonder, The Commodores and Gladys Knight.

Consequently, the decision was made to kill the Klieg lights, cut the red carpet and just let Motown The Musical merely resume its million-dollar-a-week Broadway run after a year-and-a-half intermission when it globe-hopped all over the place. Broadway is just an 18-week speed-bump on the way to Las Vegas and beyond.

Director Wright was proud that four of his current leads were understudies from the original Broadway production, and he gave a special shout-out to members of the original cast who were in the back of the house gleefully carrying on like kids: among them the original Berry Gordy (Brandon Victor Dixon) and Saycon Sengbloh (fresh from their respective Tony nominations for Shuffle Along and Eclipsed), Marva Hicks, Donald Webber Jr., Marielys Molina, Jawan Jackson, Preston Dugger III and Ricky Tripp.

It wasn’t an overly starry night as Broadway openings go. Adriane Lenox and Ruben Santiago Hudson lent their Tony-winning presence to the evening, along with book writer Dick Scanlan, dancer-actor Derrick Baskin and gospel great BeBe Winans.

Choreographer Warren Adams, who teamed with Patricia Wilcox to keep the show in a state of high-energy motion, acknowledged, “The whole thing moves constantly. Our work was a combination of understanding what each individual group did and was. We emulated moves as in giving a sense of how they moved, but all of the moves had to be different. It was more about capturing the sense of what each group was and building on top of that. There were so many—The Temptations, The Tops, The Miracles, The Commodores, The Supremes, you can go on and on. They never performed for a Broadway show. They performed live and on television, so we had to find the production side of everything and present that as best as we could. The only exception: I wanted to capture the opening of The Jackson Five on The Ed Sullivan Show because that’s so iconic and always seems to bring the house down.”

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Cast Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Leon Outlaw Jr., who plays junior-size versions of Gordy, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, and shares that large order on alternate nights with J.J. Battgeast, did the opening-night honors and was rewarded with a properly thunderous reception.
The grown-up Stevie Wonder is played by Elijah Ahmad Lewis, who actually got to meet The Man at the show’s Detroit opening. “Not only that,” he was quick to add, “I actually got to close the show with him in a duet. That was an out-of-body experience. Stevie Wonder was a major part of Motown. It’s very humbling to play him, especially while he’s still living, to pay homage to everything that he has done.”

Jesse Nager was another who met his real-life counterpart, Smokey Robinson, easily the most likeable character in the show. “I think it’s because he’s Berry’s best friend, and he loves Smokey so much,” reasoned Nager. “There’s just so much heart in it.
“First and foremost, he’s the kindest man alive--such a loving human being. Just being around him, you can’t help but feel lighter and more joyous. Also, he’s one of the most talented men alive—an incredible singer, songwriter, storyteller, activist, human being—he’s amazing. We did the show in Los Angeles, so he came to the opening there, and Mr. Gordy actually threw us all a big brunch, and we all got to hang out for the day with Smokey. He calls me ‘Little Smokey,’ and he’s a lot of fun.”

A swing and a Temptation his first year with the show, Jarran Muse has graduated to the role of Marvin Gaye, who had not nearly as harmonious a relationship with Gordy as Robinson. “I like that Marvin was so passionate about what he believed in,” said Muse. “He was able to express that and force his views on a kind of close-minded Berry. Marvin was the reason Berry was able to open up and see other points of views and accept them. The rest is history, with the release of those albums he didn’t want to release. I like being that part of the character in Motown.“

He has had a memorable year on the road. “This is my fifth tour and probably the best one because of the music. My other tours have been so much fun, but this was like an emotional journey, particularly with everything that’s going on in the world. We were in St. Louis during the Ferguson riots, and we were in—the list just goes on, the places we were in the country where huge racial incidents were happening. It made you feel like you were back in the ‘60s because nothing’s really changed.”

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Berry Gordy and Allison Semmes Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Semmes, who makes the music’s most direct link to the audience playing Diana Ross, agreed. “We really need this music. It’s so necessary—especially now. I think poignant we’re bringing back this story now when the same social unrest seems to be happening. Motown music reflected that. It was an outlet to what was happening. I’m a strong believer that music unites. I grew up in the Chicago Children’s Choir. It was multicultural, but the power behind it was that people could come together from all walks of life and do music. That’s what Motown does and is. That was Berry Gordy’s vision of it. He didn’t want it to be race music. He wanted it to be American music, and we see the challenge of that vision happening through those times.”

The real Berry Gordy said “the other Berry Gordy”—the actor playing him, Chester Gregory—“does me better than me.” Still, you have to suspect that impersonating a living legend, who is a producer and the author of your role and could give you no end of notes on how to perform it, would be pressure, but Gregory tut-tuts that.

“Believe it or not, the specific thing that Berry wanted was for me to be grounded in the truth,” the actor insisted. “He will allow me to play him any way I want to as long as it is truthful portrayal. Berry Gordy is a very gracious person in that regard.”

Ultimately, Motown the Musical is more record catalog than book musical, and you have to look no farther than the title page to see the truth of that: “Book by Berry Gordy, based upon the book, To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown, by Berry Gordy. Music and Lyrics From The Legendary Motown Catalog.”

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