Opening on Broadway in April 2013, Motown: The Musical was nominated for four Tony Awards and played more than 700 regular performances in its original run. The smooth sounds of Detroit did very well in the world of musical theatre, spawning a US tour and a West End production in London – but what about people who don’t subscribe to Playbill Magazine or plan vacations around the New York standby lines? What about folks who are just fans of the music itself? The heart and soul of Tuesday night’s opening performance of Motown: The Musical showed that even newcomers to this kind of stage should feel welcome to give in to their temptations and get ready.
Motown is a “jukebox musical”, which means that the show is mainly built around a collection of pre-existing songs instead of an original book of tunes. In particular, the production features more than 60 songs from Berry Gordy’s legendary record label, augmented by a few originals written just for the show by Gordy himself. The songs span the history of the label, culling something for everyone from hits that were made popular by acts like The Temptations, The Supremes, The Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, and… Teena Marie?
Based on his autobiography, Motown: The Musical is Berry Gordy’s story – and it picks up at the Motown 25th anniversary television special in 1983, where all of the reuniting acts are wondering whether Gordy will show up on the same stage as artists who have all since gone their separate ways. While Gordy stews in his armchair at home, he also thinks back to happier days… and the audience watches as he flashes back to his life as a boxer, songwriter, and record impresario.
The story moves along very quickly with snappy dialogue, short vignettes, and sketches of Gordy’s changing relationships with Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and Diana Ross. This speed means that character depth and development can often take a backseat to charm and plot momentum. That’s mostly okay because the real focus of the show is on the songs that made everything possible.
Because of the huge number of songs and the wide scope of the narrative, many of these tunes necessarily appear in some kind of shortened form. The show opens with a breakneck medley of “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)”. “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”, “Baby I Need Your Loving”, “I Can’t Get Next to You”, “Reach Out I’ll Be There”, and “(I Know) I’m Losing You” as the Temptations and Four Tops go back-and-forth in a Battle of the Stars. That’s just a three-minute set-piece, and the pace doesn’t let up from there.
On the one hand, this is a pretty cool way to cram in the maximum amount of recognizable ear candy for nostalgic music fans in the audience. But on the other hand, this means that even some of the most staggering and enduring classics in the catalogue get relegated to fragments or palate cleansers for moving the story along. “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” deserves better than being chewed up to serve as an interlude during a scene where the rumour mill churns about Motown’s move from Detroit to L.A. – but as a dedicated activist against what Julie Taymor’s “Across the Universe” did to the Beatles catalogue, I’m thankful that “Please Mr Postman” was not used to soundtrack a scene where Berry Gordy is waiting for a package to arrive in the mail.
Furthermore, some of these recontextualizations actually work pretty well, with the narrative stepping up to lend additional emotional weight to classic songs. For example, the mass social consciousness of Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” is instead transfigured into a micro human-to-human plea, as a near-a-capella Gaye implores Gordy to believe in him and take a chance on his artistic explorations. Other songs, like “War”, “What’s Going On”, “Ball of Confusion”, and “My Girl” are nearly played in full, giving them the space to really let the audience and performers dig into them.
Under the excellent direction of conductor Matthew Croft, the orchestra and performers bring each of these songs to life. These tunes are stone-cold classics, so regardless of length or context, the bulletproof songs will please crowds no matter what. But even so, they leave mighty big shoes to fill – and the cast steps up to the task of dusting off these well-worn 45s for the stage. Kenneth Mosley (Berry Gordy), Justin Reynolds (Smokey Robinson), and Matt Manuel (Marvin Gaye) all bring just enough Broadway bombast to project these songs to the back rows without sacrificing the intimacy and soul of the original recordings.
Motown is a particular showcase for Trenyce (Diana Ross), who occupies a central and constant presence in the story as the breakout star of the Supremes, Berry Gordy’s love interest, and a powerhouse solo artist in her own right. Charged with singing many of the label’s signature hits, Trenyce also pioneers the thesis of the program as she slows down the pace with the literal show-stopper of “Reach Out and Touch”. The show already tries to shade in the wide-ranging importance of Motown’s music with the-times-they-are-a-changin’ references to drugs, JFK, MLK, and the Vietnam War. But, bringing the house-lights up and pausing to invite audience members onto the stage to sing while the rest of the audience holds hands and waves along, Trenyce (as Ross) does more to remind us of the social, emotional, and participatory power of music than historical shout-outs could ever do.
Motown: The Musical is not a perfect show, and occasionally buckles under the inherent challenge of bringing a massive amount of music, history, and plot into a single two-and-a-half-hour Broadway program. Even so, music-lovers have nothing to fear: the narrative does its main job of celebrating a catalogue of songs that form a cornerstone of music history. I’ll admit that I was initially worried that the show would be little more than a Time Life Greatest Hits Box Set or a California Raisins cover album. Instead, Motown: The Musical brings this timeless music to life with Broadway breath, a kickass orchestra, and performers who reach out and touch the audience like the songs that they sing.
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