THZ EXCLUSIVE: Berry Gordy Gets His Proper Due in Motown: The Musical

Motown's headquarters-a two-story home turned into a recording studio home named Hittsville USA Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Motown’s headquarters-a two-story home turned into a recording studio and re-named Hittsville USA
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

The hits just don’t stop. Motown:The Musical has more hits than your favorite Youtube video. Showcasing 50+ songs from the Motown record label, the show keeps the audience on their dancing toes, as they re-live a plethora of #1 hit records.

The Musical is the story of music pioneer, Berry Gordy’s (played by Josh Tower), rise to fame and the reign of his record label empire, Motown records. The musical is based off of Gordy’s autobiography, To Be Loved:The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown. The production broadcasts the life of a man, who, despite his fame, is not intimately known by the public. Gordy has made a significant impact in the development of black music and the overall development of black artists, by using his skills of persuasion and innate sense of what makes a successful artist.

The musical opens with the Gordy of 1983, sitting inside of the Motown record label office, plagued with the decision of whether or not to attend the 25 year reunion of Motown Records, the label which he birthed and later lost to lawsuits and financial trouble. Flashback to 1938, a young Gordy sits in his Detroit home watching Joe Louis’ championship fight. The fight was credited for motivating Gordy to pursue a career of making “people happy”.

Fast forward again and the show then kicks off with a singing battle between The Four Tops and The Temptations, which is the first of many musical numbers including, “ABC”, “Ain’t no Mountain”, Signed Sealed Delivered”, “Reach out and touch (somebody’s hand)”, “What’s going on”, “You’re all I need to get by”-and of course, “To be loved”. The audience was on fire as they took a trip down memory lane to the days of the Motown Era.

The musical’s ambitious objective to portray 25 years of Motown’s legacy within a piece just shy of 3 hours, forced the musical’s storyline to be rushed. Although the musical intends to tell the story of the music mogul, Gordy, it fails to go into depth of the man’s character. Gordy is portrayed as ambitious throughout the story- a trait most can assume he possessed being that he is the father of a music empire, but little else is learned about the man. Little, if any light, was shown on the personalities of the other Motown greats including, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye and Mary Wells. As a result, barring the fantastic music, the actual story of Gordy and Motown, falls short of providing insight on the legend. Yet, the life of Gordy and Motown could not be properly portrayed without showing the complexities of some of its’ biggest stars such as the Temptations, and Jackson 5; and to achieve that would need another production in itself. However, the show does provide a history lesson in the form of a few “Did you know?” moments. For instance, Gordy initially turned down the Jackson 5 before reluctantly accepting them, Stevie Wonder signed to Motown Records when he was about 12 years old, and Gordy did not have a stable career until his thirties; after failing as a professional boxer and basically begging his family for start-up money to fund Motown Records.

The 1967 Detroit race riots, and deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy were depicted in the musical. Motown had a significant impact on easing the tension between whites and blacks in the civil rights era. In the show, a tenacious Marvin Gaye is shown fighting with Gordy for the right to record the socially conscious song, “What’s Going On.” When Gordy disapproves, implying that Gaye should not involve himself in the racial climate, Gaye shoots back telling Gordy that not only does he have family in Vietnam, but he is fed-up with racism in America. Ultimately, Gaye’s song was produced and Gordy expressed to Gaye that his initial judgment on the issue was flawed. Motown’s ability to fuse the racial lines is evident upon one glance at the audience, which was a melting pot of ethnicities, all reciting the lyrics of Motown classics.

The songs featured in the show were mostly truncated versions, most likely due to there not being enough time in the world to play the full length version of each song. However, Krystal Joy Brown (plays Diana Ross) did a full length versions of  Ross’s “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s hand),” which was dead on. Nathaniel Xavier Cover’s portrayal of young Michael Jackson, from his Jackson 5 days, was also exciting to watch, as he captured the charm, innocence and talent of the late Jackson.

Tower’s role as Gordy was also well played. During a THZ exclusive interview, Tower stated Gordy is a man whose personality and intricacies are little known to the general public. “The public doesn’t know him [Gordy] like they know Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson or Marvin Gaye. No one knows what he sounds like or looks like really,” stated Towers. To prepare for the role of Gordy, Tower watched both old and new interview footage of him. Gordy, who was very hands-on during the production of the musical, personally reviewed Towers’ audition for the role of his character, and gave him the stamp of approval.

Overall Motown the musical is vibrant with an upbeat jubilee energy that spreads throughout the audience. Warmth and familiarity are exuded, as audience members have nostalgia written all over their faces during the journey through a time they knew and loved. Motown the musical gives them a chance to live again.

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