Berry Gordy, the man behind Motown and on whose life the hit play “Motown the Musical” is primarily based, made a visit to the District last week where he spoke with reporters, later enjoying the debut of the Broadway hit show at the National Theatre in Northwest which continues through Jan. 3.
Gordy, 85, celebrating his birthday on Nov. 28, appeared spry and upbeat during an afternoon of interviews with members of the press.
And during his conversation with The Washington Informer, he candidly spoke about his many memories as the founder and former leader of Motown Records.
“It’s great to be back in D.C. — years ago when the Motown Review was on the road, this was like our second home because of our time on stage at the Howard Theater,” Gordy said.
Charles Randolph-Wright, the director of the play, sat beside Gordy and spoke about the show and how Motown impacted his life.
“Seeing firsthand what he [Berry Gordy] did and how he did it — it’s been fascinating. He brought it all together and as an outsider, a person who grew up in a small town in South Carolina, the music of Motown was something that always captivated me,” Randolph-Wright said.
“His life was all about making his dreams come true and so this play is about dreaming,” the director added. “We still see the influence of the Motown sound on today’s artists because Motown is more than just music — it’s a movement.”
When asked how he compared the current play to the event on which it’s focused, the 25th anniversary celebration of Motown, Gordy said the two both resonated with him, albeit in very different ways.
“Those days prior to the Motown 25 show, I was pretty unhappy because of the artists who had left for more money,” Gordy said. “I felt betrayed. Diana [Ross], Marvin [Gaye] and the Jackson 5 left when I was at the height of my career. Their leaving Motown destroyed our bottom line and threatened our very existence.”
“But after considering that even those who had left were returning from all parts of the world for the anniversary, it showed me how much they still loved me. I realized that I still loved them and could see myself possibly doing what they had done if I had been in their shoes. I guess I held on so tightly because I had seen what can happen to artists when they gain so much power and have so few restrictions on their lives — they often self-destruct. I didn’t want that to happen.”
Gordy said that since the play’s debut on Broadway in 2014, it has undergone several changes — many under his direction.
“We had so many great songs, but we realized that some didn’t fit the play. And the show was a little too long. So we made some revisions. And I’m very pleased with what audiences are now seeing,” he said.
In a more personal moment, he discussed his relationship with Diana Ross who not only became one of Motown’s top entertainers, but whom he loved very much — even sharing a “love child” together.
“Diana called me yesterday and said she was trying to get to D.C. for the play but didn’t be-
lieve she’d be able to make it,” he said. “The love is still there. I guess that’s why I wrote the song that’s sung at the end of the play, ‘Can I Close the Door on Love.’ I came to understand that you can’t ignore or negate that love. I guess I’ve felt that way about most of the Motown family my entire life.”
Allison Semmes, the actress pegged for the nationwide tour in the role of Diana Ross, bears an uncanny, even eerie resemblance to Ross — not in her physical appearance but in the nuanced movements that would become Ross’s trademark. Semmes talked about how she prepared.
“I was originally an understudy for the role of Diana Ross but I watched, studied her on YouTube and was patient,” said Semmes who did a stellar job in the role from start to finish.
“Sometimes it’s hard to believe that I’ve been granted the unbelievable opportunity to portray one of the greatest entertainers in Motown history. The music was fundamental and inspiring during a period of great turbulence in America. And it will always be special for millions of people all around the world. It will always be special for me,” she said.