'Motown: The Musical' returns to its roots

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

Berry Gordy's rags to riches life story, as documented in "Motown: The Musical," begins in Detroit in 1938 when he sees his parents go crazy with joy when Joe Louis beats Max Schmeling.

So it has special meaning that the road company of his Broadway hit show is coming home to Detroit, when the musical plays the Fisher Theatre Tuesday through Nov. 16.

"They love Motown," Gordy says of the young actors who portray the Motown staff and stars. "They were so thrilled and so honored to play these characters. People ask me, 'What is it going to be like in Detroit?' Well, both the cast and the audience will share more love and more joy than age or time can ever destroy," he says, quoting the Smokey Robinson song "More Love."

"All the cast is aware of Detroit and thrilled to be playing in front of the original stars, especially in their own hometown," Gordy, 84, adds. "They feel that Detroit is somehow magic. And it is. Detroit is magic. They all want to feel that magic and get it."

For anyone who's seen the Broadway production (which goes on hiatus Jan. 18), the musical has evolved a bit. Gordy admits to continual tweaking of the show.

"I'm probably the world's greatest tweaker. Yes, we've tweaked it quite a lot. In some cases, we made the action more dramatic, more realistic to the character. For example, when Marvin (Gaye) was angry, he was really angry. I wanted (the actor) to be angrier. Whatever the truth was, I wanted them to act it out. And they all enjoyed that so much. Each cast member had a different personality, and there was an atmosphere in the play that let them have the freedom to be true to themselves, but live the character they're playing."

The nightly flux and serendipity of live theater has made life interesting. "Every night you might get extra colors and textures; it's always a surprise to me," Gordy says. "(The actors) felt anger differently, they felt love differently. I said, 'Go with your feelings, but stay with the script.' That's why I can see it as many times as I've seen it, and not get tired of it."

Robin R. Terry, Gordy's grand-niece and chairman of the Motown Museum's Board of Trustees, has seen the production evolve since its opening in April 2013. "While the foundation is the same, if you saw the Broadway premiere it will feel different to you because the show has evolved so much," Terry says. "There's a lot of technology that's been infused into it, mostly video and things to take the backstory forward. It feels like you're watching a different show.

"The cast members are truly blessed," Terry adds. "They are being trained by Berry Gordy, so there is wisdom they'll have for life well after they move on. They have gone to Motown University."

Indeed, Allison Semmes, who plays Diana Ross in the road company, says she workshopped intensely with Gordy at one point over her inflection, as Ross, while singing the breakthrough Supremes song "Where Did Our Love Go?"

"(Gordy) really shaped me to pull more out of what it was that he recognized in her," Semmes says. "The inflection of how she sang 'Baby, baby, baby' — he really worked on that. And that song influenced the rest of the songs. It was like, 'OK, I understand now, it was a passion, she had a specific inflection that he's looking for.' "

The vocals weren't that far a stretch for Semmes, whose speaking voice is even Ross-like. "Our voices are a little similar," she agrees. "They didn't want me to impersonate her, but capture her essence more than anything. I watched her movies, 'Lady Sings the Blues,' 'Mahogany,' and YouTube has footage that's out of this world! I read her autobiography, as well ('Secrets of a Sparrow'), to get inside her head a little."

Clifton Oliver, who plays Gordy, had been working with the Motown founder earlier, but in a different role.

"I was Marvin Gaye at first, so I talked to him a lot about the relationship they had. He mentored him, but then their relationship became torn. The Broadway company went up pretty quickly, but with this tour he's been able to work on it. He's called me on my cellphone; he's a sharp man at 84! Every time he comes, he changes something."

The biggest challenge playing Gordy onstage: "I don't have time to get a break," Oliver says. "He's in everything. I don't even get a chance to go into my dressing room. It's a lot of work, but I love it."

Oliver and Semmes, and the rest of the cast, are excited about coming to Detroit. "We're going to love it," Oliver says. "I was not in the original Broadway company, so I wasn't at the opening night party, so the only (Motown) person I've met is Mr. Gordy and Smokey Robinson."

Semmes hasn't yet met Ross, but hopes to — perhaps in Detroit? A reunion of Ross with Mary Wilson and her Motown labelmates is what everybody wants, but few are willing to tempt fate and talk about it.

"I can't wait to meet the family, the actual Motown family," Semmes says. " It's so literally the soul of this music, there in Detroit."

"We're closer today than we ever were," says Gordy, of the Motown family, many of whom live outside Michigan. "And they all came to the opening — many of them came. It was just love." Forestalling the inevitable question of whether Ross will come, Gordy says, "I think they're all really anxious to come to Detroit, although I have no idea what the schedules are."

He does point out that when Ross played Chicago a few months ago, across from where "Motown: The Musical" was playing, "She would say onstage, 'I'm bringing you these great songs from Motown, but if you really want to know the story of Motown go across the street and see the musical!' "

After this 60-city tour, which Gordy says reminds him of his traveling Motortown Revue of the 1960s, he is excited about the prospect of spending time in London, as the production there will open next summer. How does he and director Charles Randolph-Wright find so many good Smokeys, Dianas and especially, all those whirling, bell-bottomed Michael Jacksons?

"I said to my uncle in New York, in a rehearsal, 'How do you keep striking gold every single time?' " Terry says. "There's the Broadway cast, the road cast. And they weren't like the A, B and C cast, they were all great." (Note: The producers will hold an open-call audition in Detroit at 9 a.m. Tuesday Oct. 21.)

The fact that the musical is told from Gordy's viewpoint, which he felt was a needed corrective to such narratives as "Dreamgirls," has been noted in most reviews — sometimes as a criticism. Gordy insists that the narrative is his truth.

At the beginning of the musical we see him in despair on the eve of 1983's "Motown 25" TV reunion, after having lost so many of his stars, including Ross, to other record companies. He doesn't want to go to the show, which infuriates his best friend, Smokey. Gordy says it's true.

"Smokey told me, 'They may have left you for more money, for this and for that, but they're all coming back tonight to honor you. They didn't have to do that. Why did they? Because they love you. You love Detroit, you come back all the time, but you left! That doesn't mean you don't love it!'

"After he left, I started thinking, and because of what I was feeling, it was easy to write that song for the musical, 'Can I Close the Door on Love,' which is one of the big songs in the show that isn't (a classic) Motown song."

After all the hype and beefs have faded, for Gordy it has come back to the bond he felt and what he saw as a 9-year-old in 1938, when he saw his parents crying after the Louis victory, and vowed to do something to make people that happy.

"I go back and I remember myself as just a little punk with a lot of crazy ideas trying to make people happy, and sometimes I did, and sometimes I didn't," Gordy says. "It's just such a joy to come back now and make people happy, and realize I'm the same old punk I was when I was growing up in Detroit. That's where I got my nurturing."


'Motown: The Musical'

Written by Berry Gordy,

directed by Charles Randolph-Wright

Tuesday (preview night)-Nov. 16

(gala premiere, Oct. 22)

Fisher Theatre

3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit

Tickets $39-$95

Ticketmaster.com (800-982-2787)

or the Fisher Theatre (313-872-1000)


Special Motown Museum packages available for the Oct. 22 red carpet

premiere at motownmuseum.org or

call the museum at (313) 875-2264.

The critics on 'Motown: The Musical'

Andrea Simakis, Cleveland Plain Dealer: " 'Motown the Musical' ... is a foot-to-the-gas-pedal production, a slick, fast-moving sonic history of the music that changed the world — or at the very least, the way the world saw black artists. ... Thanks to that single, indie label, the fevered dream of one-time boxer Berry Gordy Jr., such black singers as Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and the one and only Miss Diana Ross became mainstream sex symbols, glamorous celebrities able to sell millions of records to fans of every color."

Chris Jones, the Chicago Tribune: "I wish he had lingered more in his beloved Detroit, the city that gave its most talented young people to Motown and yet fell apart even as Motown rose. Enough. There is no bitterness about Motown leaving Detroit in that town; when this show heads there, there will be some dancing in the streets, I suspect. Good for Gordy for bringing all these songs home."

Chad Jones, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, raved about Allison Semmes' portrayal of Diana Ross and gave higher marks to the music than the book. Citing the Carole King musical "Beautiful" and "Jersey Boys," Jones writes: "What 'Motown' has that those other musicals don't is an extraordinary songbook that just won't quit. Even at nearly three hours, the show doesn't come close to capturing all the fantastic Motown hits."

Timeline of Motown Records

1957: Smokey Robinson's group the Matadors try out for Jackie Wilson's manager Nat Tarnapol. He turns them down, but songwriter Berry Gordy Jr. hears the group and is intrigued.

1958: Gordy brings the group, now named the Miracles, a song, "Got a Job," an answer song to the Silhouettes' "Get a Job." It's released by End Records on Smokey's 18th birthday.

1959: On Jan. 12, Berry Gordy Jr. gets an $800 loan from his family to start his own record company. The first record on what Gordy dubs "Tamla" Records, is Marv Johnson's "Come to Me."

Also in '59; Gordy buys the house at 2648 W. Grand Blvd., west of the Lodge Freeway, where in Studio A the Motown sound was born and numerous No. 1 hits recorded. Between '59 and '60, the name Gordy chose for his overall operations was "Motown," a compression of "Motor" and "town." In Britain, the company was always known as "Tamla Motown."

1968: Motown now sprawls between nine structures owned by Gordy; he moves the administrative offices to a 10-story building on Woodward Avenue at the Fisher Freeway. Formerly known as the Donovan Building, Gordy christened it "Motown Center." 2648 W. Grand Blvd. continues to be used as Studio A, Motown's primary recording studio.

1972: Motown's move to Los Angeles is official, and Studio A hosts its last recording session. Berry Gordy's sister, Esther Gordy Edwards, is put in charge of international public affairs, and the Detroit office.

1985: The Detroit office evolves into a museum, and the nonprofit Motown Museum Historical Foundation is chartered by the state of Michigan.

Dec. 1, 1987: Michigan Gov. James Blanchard, Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young, Motown stars Smokey Robinson and the Temptations' Eddie Kendricks all attend a ceremony at 2648 for the dedication of the Motown Historical Museum and the unveiling of a Michigan Historical Marker at the Hitsville house.

1988: Berry Gordy sells Motown to MCA Records and Boston Ventures Limited for $61 million. "In today's economy, the big get bigger and the small get extinct," Gordy commented. He retained ownership of Jobete, Motown's song publishing company.

1997: Gordy sells half of Jobete Publishing to EMI. In 2004, he sells the remaining half to EMI.

2013: The Gordy-penned "Motown: The Musical" opens on Broadway.