Sources: Philly.com – A. D. Amorosi | All Things Michael
When Berry Gordy talks about the legendary record company he started in Detroit back in 1959 (originally Tamla Records, it became the Motown Record Corp. in 1960), he describes an entity transcending music. “My Motown is like a tree,” he says with relish. “We go out on branches in every different direction.”
The sounds and sights of Smokey Robinson’s Miracles, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the young Michael Jackson, the Temptations, the Four Tops, and Diana Ross (Gordy’s onetime, longtime paramour) with and without the Supremes made Motown a force of nature in entertainment circles. Since its first hits – many featuring Gordy songwriting credits – the African American label was what it claimed to be: “the sound of young America.” On Tuesday, its offspring, Motown the Musical, begins a two-week engagement at the Academy of Music.
“When I started this, people asked how was I going to Broadway-ize Motown,” says the 85-year-old music mogul, who sold his shares in the label in 1988. “I said instead that I’m going to Motown-ize Broadway.”
A jukebox musical jammed with classic hits, the show is based on Gordy’s growing up in Detroit, then following his professional and personal desires. “The whole thing was a dream-like fairy tale that happened to come true,” he says, a sentiment echoed in a joint phone interview by Nansci Neiman-LeGette, COO of Berry Gordy Productions. “You always have a purpose,” she says, as the pair riff like an old married couple on all things Motown.
Motown the Musical didn’t come to life in 2013 because its writer was a huge fan of musicals. In fact, the only one that ever stuck in his mind was Richard Rodgers’ 1962 No Strings, starring Diahann Carroll. And even that show’s importance to him came down to record labels – Carroll’s then-husband was Monty Kay, an executive to whom the young Gordy had pitched songs.
So it wasn’t love. “I wanted to do Broadway because it was out of my reach,” Gordy says. Then again, with his successful production forays into film (1972’s Billie Holiday biography Lady Sings the Blues) and television (1971’s Diana!), both starring Ross, he figured that conquering theater was an inevitability.
“I always wanted my artists and my music to hit upon every aspect of American life. That’s why we had them do training – glamour training – under Miss Powell, who had a finishing school.” (Maxine Powell, Motown’s director of artist development, died in 2013.) Gordy’s real dream for Motown – the tuxes and beautiful gowns, the charm school, the need for excellence in everything – was to uplift black Americans, to give them something to strive for and be proud of.
The thing is, like the Four Seasons’ Bob Gaudio and Frankie Valli’s mega-successful Jersey Boys, Motown the Musical is rooted in truth as well as aspiration. And that reality, though dazzling in scope, wasn’t always sparkling.
Take Gordy’s relationships with some of his biggest artists and collaborators, such as Holland-Dozier-Holland (Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland) and Marvin Gaye.
With Gaye, Gordy fought about the civil-rights message of “What’s Going On,” which he saw as out of step with the crooner’s suave, tailored persona. With Holland-Dozier-Holland, he argued about matters of compensation. With other Motown artists giving him headaches, the self-described “fair-but-firm” Gordy levied fines. “They were so important to me that I couldn’t fire them, so I would fine them,” he says with a laugh.
Then there’s Ross, arguably Motown’s greatest star, with whom the thrice-married Gordy had an affair starting in 1965, and a child, Rhonda, in 1971. Though Gordy considers himself a private person who doesn’t revel in self-reflection, to make Motown the Musical work beyond its bustling sound track of 66 songs, he had to tell the truth.
“I learned that if you don’t tell the truth from the start, your story is not credible. People lose interest.” To do that effectively, he had to include the passion he shared with the lead Supreme. “I’m a reasonably normal person,” he laughs, “and anything that happened to me happens to a lot of men. I had to include the love story of my life. Diana knows that she was the inspiration for everything that I did.”
According to Gordy, so true did Motown the Musical ring to Ross that when she saw its opening night on Broadway with the relationship between the pair played out on stage, she wept. “On opening night, the artists who left Motown came back,” he says – no one ever really leaves Motown.
Along with fashioning truth into a book for the show, Gordy had to write new songs to knit together elements of the story that his classic hits couldn’t do alone. “I only write when necessary, but I needed glue,” he says. And with that, he’s off and running on a creative trajectory that he once told Billboard magazine would be finished with the start of Motown the Musical.
“I told a lie is what I say now,” he laughs – he’s now working on a cinematic song-and-dance cycle featuring 15-year-old discovery Jadagrace singing about good deeds rather than anger.
“That’s something I love to do . . . be it with Stevie, Marvin, Jadagrace, or Diana: make a better world,” he says.
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