I just came home after seeing a preview of the Broadway show, the Motown the Musical, about the life and music of Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown. There have been reviews posted on Facebook and elsewhere, both pro and con for this show. One of the complaints was that the plot is very thin. After seeing the show for myself, I am strongly compelled to debate this complaint.
Motown is the story of a man, his ideas, his ideals and the staggering number of performing artists he worked with during his years building the Motown legacy.
As is the case with many such people, Berry Gordon is driven to succeed as a promoter, and the personal connection between him and his artists–including his wife, Diana Ross–crumbled as he became more successful. The comparatively little dialogue gives you some idea of the hardships, compromises, betrayals and sacrifices involved in making a small private black-owned and run record label into a international mega-hit producing operation. Berry’s thoughts are often told through a song instead of preaching through monologues. I don’t find this disturbing. The music was and is the most important part of his story, and the composer and librettist of this show wisely decided to let the music speak for itself.
For many people who loved Motown, the music was a background to their lives, and drove them as they danced on the floor. As the show progresses, you are struck by the incredible number of singers and musical groups that were part of a little record label started in a house called Hitsville, U.S.A. on a street in Detroit. It was a shock to realize that Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Mary Wells, Diana Ross, the Supremes, Rick James, and Marvin Gaye were just a few of the artists who were part of Motown.
Motown tries to include as many of the best songs of all the artists who sang the label, but it is an impossible task unless you make the show last for several days. I can’t even imagine the number of hours that must have been spent deciding which songs to skip, and which to include. I’m glad it wasn’t up to me. The songs they ultimately chose all moved the story forward and often punctuated the drama. The words of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” are so relevant to today’s world that they could have been written yesterday. Check out some of his tracks on YouTube: http://youtube/Dzs1K3caXJk
The performances were all so amazing–with people serving multiple roles that there were too many great moments. However I have to say because of the incredibly sharp and snappy choreography, all the male singing group numbers in particular were spectacular. The Temptations, Smokey Robinson, and young Jackson 5 in particular danced their hearts out (and the short tribute to Rick James was hilarious). Seeing this music performed live with the choreography is a totally different experience from watching it live, or listening to a CD. The sheer energy of the performers as they do the routines, combined with hearing the music as it was meant to be heard–live-makes this a hair-raising experience. Brandon Victor Dixon, Charl Brown, Valisia LeKae, and Bryan Terrel Clark were utterly believable as Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson,Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye, clearly reflecting the changes in their attitudes and styles as the years passed.
The costumes were fabulous–and in particular the gowns for The Supremes and the mature Diana Ross we re jaw-dropping.
Motown the Musical is a show seriously worth seeing. I dare you to get through the entire musical without singing along on at least one song–and wishing you could get up and dance.
My only disappointment of the evening was that I couldn’t just walk out of the theater and buy some of the Motown recordings at the nearby Colony Music or Virgin records. They, too are gone. Too bad….