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

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10 Mar 2013

Berry Gordy
Berry Gordy
Photo by Kal Lee

First-time Broadway director Charles Randolph-Wright is at the helm of one of the more pulse-quickening titles of the season, Motown: The Musical, about record producer Berry Gordy's heyday.

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In terms of backstage politics, Charles Randolph-Wright may have the trickiest job of any director working on Broadway this spring. He is staging Motown: The Musical, a musically overflowing new show about the life and career of recording mogul Berry Gordy.

One of his producers is Berry Gordy as well. Gordy completes his hat trick by having written the libretto for the piece.

"Sometimes I'll forget the person I'm talking to is the same person that is depicted on stage," said Randolph-Wright.

One imagines such waters are difficult to navigate. What if Producer Gordy tells the director not to interfere with Writer Gordy's work? "It's something we talked about from the beginning," said Randolph-Wright. "He's very open as to what the story is."

The show, which is playing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, is largely based on Gordy's 1995 memoir "To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown."

"He wrote the book 20 years ago," Randolph-Wright explained. "Now he has an even different perspective on that. You have to ask, 'How do we tell the story of this big character, who is based on this real person, and yet that person is involved with the creation of the show, and is working on it?' It's a challenge, but the way we have worked is a very open process."

Charles Randolph-Wright
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Randolph-Wright recalled one particular moment when Gordy confided in him an episode from his past when he was at his most vulnerable. "We were walking around and he told me this story. I couldn't believe it. I said, 'You want that on stage?' I thought it was very brave. But at this point at his life, what does he have to prove?"

Randolph-Wright added that Gordy, now 83, has no trouble juggling his many roles. After all, it is something he's been doing for decades. "In most cases that would be a challenge," he said. "But he spent his whole career wearing so many different hats. When I'm with the writer, that's who I'm with. The producer is a different person. I am always with the person who's doing all those thing, but in each separate instance I'm with who Berry is at that moment."

Charles Randolph-Wright was one of several directors who interviewed with Gordy. From the start, he thought he was right for the project. "This is in my DNA," he said. He doesn't mean that he grew up with Motown's music (as many of us did) — though that is part of it. His connection to the material is more complex. "I've done every angle of this story. I've been in a music group. I've danced to the music. I've sung it. And I've lived in all those worlds he did, though not the same way he did."

When the marquee was hung on the Lunt-Fontanne, Randolph-Wright glanced down the street and noticed he was only yards away from the Imperial Theatre. In the early 1980s he passed through the stage door of that theatre every night as a member of the original cast of Dreamgirls — the fictional account of the rise of The Supremes, a group Gordy helped found. "What's happened in those years from that show to this show, it's been an amazing journey," he mused. "From the Broadway musical version of this story to the real story."

Motown's greatest asset is the iconic song­book the Detroit-based record label produced; and they'll get ample helpings of that hit parade, including songs made famous by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles ("Shop Around"), Diana Ross and The Supremes ("Stop! In the Name of Love"), Marvin Gaye ("What's Going On"), Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, and Michael Jackson and The Jackson Five ("I Want You Back").

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.)