No Town Like Motown: Navigating the Life, Times and Tunes of Starmaker Berry Gordy

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10 Mar 2013

Brandon Victor Dixon

Randolph-Wright said it was hard, given the rich catalogue, deciding which songs to keep in the show and which to leave out. "Every song you hear in this show, you want to hear," he said. "But how do you put this journey into two and a half hours? There's so much, so many people. They're all part of this story. But we found out how to take the story and condense what could easily have been a miniseries." He said he wouldn't know the exact song count until opening night, but promised the show would contain more numbers than does your average musical.

To sing the classic pop hits, the director has assembled a large cast, including Valisia LeKae as Diana Ross and Charl Brown as Smokey Robinson — both particular Gordy favorites. Brandon Victor Dixon will play Gordy himself.

Randolph-Wright said he didn't want note-by-note recreations of their numbers, "I want [the actors] to evoke these artists, not copy them, not be an impersonator. But it has to be the Motown sound. The actors have been tremendous in finding those things that make them seem real as those people."

The tunes will be used in various ways. Some will be presented as straightforward performances; others will be used as narrative tissue, to further along the story. In addition, the score will include three or four new songs, written by Gordy expressly for the musical.

The director has found it a particular delight to see Gordy returning to his songwriting roots. "We forget that he wrote a lot of those early hits. Over the years, as Motown grew, he became less about being an artist, and more about being a businessman. It's thrilling to see him become completely creative again."

(This feature appears in the March 2013 issue of Playbill magazine.)

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