Motown Records didn’t release every indelible pop-soul hit from the ’60s and ’70s, although sometimes that’s how it seemed. Berry Gordy, the Detroit auto plant worker, onetime aspiring prize fighter and failed jazz record shop proprietor who built Motown, waited until he was in his 80s to score a Broadway hit. “Motown the Musical” ran nearly two years in New York before closing in January.
Now the touring production is on the road. Gordy connected some of the dots between the hit factory and the stage musical.
Did you pay much attention to musical theater in your early days in Detroit?
Growing up, I think we all loved Broadway. I told many of my artists that I wanted them to be able to do singing, dancing, movies, television and Broadway. There were no limits.
In 2006, it was announced that “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” a musical you were writing with a score of Motown music, would be opening at the Ahmanson Theatre in L.A. But it was quickly withdrawn and replaced by “Jersey Boys.”
It was a fictional story set in a high school, mainly about a 15-year-old girl living in today’s times with today’s problems and using Motown music. I was … trying to do something that’s meaningful for today’s teenagers and make it entertaining. Then David (Geffen) came along, and Doug (Morris).
Geffen was a producer of the 1981 Broadway musical “Dreamgirls,” generally regarded as a rough version of the rise of the Supremes, and it was made into a 2006 movie co-produced by DreamWorks, the studio Geffen helped found. How did Geffen and Morris reach out to you?
David asked me what I thought about the movie, and I told him I did not like it. He was very upset about that. He made it plain and clear that he loved Motown and this was not based on me or my life, and he encouraged me to do my own show in a truthful way. Doug Morris said, “If you do a fictional play and don’t do your own story, you need to see a psychiatrist.”
Did you have any say in the casting of the “Motown” Broadway and touring productions? And were you looking for actors who looked or sounded like Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and other Motown stars?
Yes, I had the final say on everything because it was my vision. Charles (director Charles Randolph-Wright) knew things he was looking for that I would not have looked for. I looked for people who looked the part, but they had to have the talent, and more than that they had to have the feeling. You had people who looked more like (certain singers) than others but didn’t act as well or feel (the same).
Some reviewers have complained that the show tries to cram in bits of too many hits. They would have preferred fewer numbers, done more thoroughly.
It would have been extremely boring. They can go to a concert and hear songs straight through. We were trying to tell a story, a Broadway story, and the songs help tell the story.