For Berry Gordy, conquering Broadway is the next and — by his own admission, last — major milestone of a magical, musical career.
The 83-year-old Motown Records founder is taking his story and that of his legendary label to the Great White Way.
“Motown: The Musical,” which begins previews on Monday at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, allows Gordy to relive the ups and downs of a career that launched him into the entertainment stratosphere and he’s confident will allow him to leave the stage on a high note.
“Most likely it will be my last major endeavor in a creative way,” he said in a telephone interview. “Of course everyone disagrees with me when I say that statement. This is probably the epitome of everything I’ve done — that I’ve wanted to do.”
For those under the impression that Gordy simply signed off on the musical, think again.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer not only sealed up a Broadway slot and agreed to co-produce the show, he also delivered its book and three original songs.
“When I came to Broadway, I had no idea I was going to love it as much as I do,” Gordy said. “(People asked), ‘How are you going to Broadway-ize Motown?’ I said, ‘I’m not going to Broadway-ize Motown. I’m going to bring Motown to Broadway.'”
This time, he’s starting with experience. Motown’s big stars during the label’s heyday were, as Gordy puts it, “kids off the street” — singers such as a not-long-out-of-high-school Smokey Robinson, Little Stevie Wonder and a pre-teen Michael Jackson.
But on Broadway, the team includes director Charles Randolph-Wright and actors Brandon Victor Dixon (Gordy) and Valisia LeKae (Diana Ross), all of whom are Broadway fixtures.
“We’re starting from a higher level,” Gordy said.
Even with a top-notch creative team on and off the stage, the show’s success — just as Motown’s was at its founding 54 years ago — starts and ends with the music.
And in that realm, the team behind the show is working from a position of strength. Maybe too much strength.
Gordy described it as “very difficult” to select classic Motown tracks for the musical, considering the massive trove from which to choose.
Randolph-Wright joked late last year that the show might be 15 hours long. The first version had 100 tunes in it, “and I wanted every song,” he said.
But both men agreed that the way to solve the too-many-songs problem was to focus on numbers that fit the musical’s thematic structure, or what Randolph-Wright called “the spine of the story.”
Since Gordy had special insight into the songs that comprise the label’s vast catalog, he was able to make suggestions as to which ones fit particular story arcs. That was the case with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” which ends the first act; and “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today),” The Temptations classic that starts the second.
Gordy’s role went well beyond song-selector, however…
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