Berry Gordy, Alumni Prez Reflect on History’s Greatest Label
Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and the Jackson Five are just a few of the superstars that made up the famous Motown sound.
Now, audiences in the District will be able to relive the golden era of a label that broke records and set standards that have never been matched and likely never will.
Producers Kevin McCollum, Doug Morris and Motown founder Berry Gordy are joining forces with Broadway at the National to bring “Motown the Musical” to the National Theatre in Northwest beginning on Tuesday, Dec. 1.
Critics have called the musical, which runs at the National Theatre through Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016, a true American dream story.
It details Gordy’s journey from a small-time boxer to a big-time music mogul who launched the careers of superstars like Ross, Wonder, Gaye, Robinson and the King of Pop, Michael Jackson.
“I love this musical,” said Billy Wilson, the president and founder of the Motown Alumni Association, which boasts that it’s the largest Motown-based historical site in the world with thousands of Motown’s alumni who participate and have joined in keeping the history of the legendary label alive and viable.
Wilson said the musical amounts to the love story of Gordy and Ross, the former Supremes lead singer, whose discography includes such hits as “Come See About Me,” “You Can’t Hurry Love” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
Ross, who remains a major star today at age 71, has starred in such hit films as “Mahogany” and “Lady Sings the Blues,” which earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination.
“The musical stays true to Motown, its sound and the accuracy of the behind-the-scenes happenings at “Hitsville, U.S.A,” Wilson said.
“Different elements of the Motown story itself are told in the musical and addressed in splendid manner,” he said.
Produced by McCollum – the Tony Award winning producer of “Rent,” “Avenue Q,” and “In the Heights,” – “Motown the Musical” features choreography by Patricia Wilcox and Warren Adams.
It includes more than 40 hits like “My Girl,” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and tells the story behind the hits as Gordy and his stable of artists fight against all odds to create the soundtrack of change in America.
“Most Black artists, I feel, were ignored because of segregation and the music industry’s blatant pigeon-holing of artists – Rhythm and Blues, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Pop,” Gordy said earlier this month as he recounted for the Lansing [Michigan] State Journal the inner workings of Motown Records.
“When I started out, I wanted music for all people, the cops and robbers, the rich and poor, the Black and white, the Jews and the Gentiles. When I went to the white radio stations to get my records played, they would laugh at me,” he said.
“They thought I was trying to bring Black music to white people, to cross over, and I said, ‘Wait a minute; it’s not really Black music. It’s music by Black stars.’ I refused to be categorized. They called my music all kinds of stuff. Rhythm and blues, soul.”
“And I said, ‘Look, my music is pop. Pop means popular. If you sell a million records, you’re popular.’ And that’s what we did. White stations in Detroit and then white stations everywhere starting playing our records. Our music became the soundtrack of people’s lives for people all around the world who love this music.”
Ultimately, critics agreed that Motown Records shattered barriers, shaped the lives of millions and made America move to one beat.
For the District shows, Charles Randolph-Wright – the resident playwright at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater – will direct a cast that includes Josh Tower and Allison Semmes as Gordy and Ross; Jesse Nager as Robinson; Jarran Muse as Gaye; and Nathaniel Cullors and Leon Outlaw, Jr. as Jackson and Wonder.
“I am often asked, ‘How did you do it? How did you make it work at a time when so many barriers existed for Black people and Black music?’ There are many answers to those questions but at the base of them is atmosphere,” Gordy said.
“Hitsville had an atmosphere that allowed people to experiment creatively and gave them the courage not to be afraid to make mistakes. In fact, I sometimes encouraged mistakes,” he said.
“Everything starts as an idea and as far as I was concerned there were no stupid ones. Stupid ideas are what created the light bulb, airplanes and the like. . . . It was an atmosphere that made you feel no matter how high your goals, they were reachable, no matter who you were,” he said.
“I always figured that less than 1 percent of all the people in the world reach their full potential. Seeing that potential in others, I realized that by helping them reach theirs, maybe I could reach mine,” Gordy said.
Like the company and its many stars, critics agree that the musical shines.
“Of course, the Motown story itself is much deeper than the play went into, and the crazy things that happened to the artists along the way go much further than was mentioned,” Wilson said. “But, all in all . . . I loved it, and I wouldn’t change anything.”
Tickets are available at the National Theatre box office, online at www.TheNationalDC.com, or by calling (800) 514-3849. A day-of-performance lottery for a limited number of best available seats at $25 each – cash only – will be held at the theater two hours before each performance. Orders for groups of 10 or more may be placed by calling (202) 628-6161 ext. 227. For more information, call (202) 628-6161 or visit www.TheNationalDC.com.