Playing a musical icon on stage is a great opportunity — but it’s a challenge, too. Just ask the cast of Motown the Musical, which opens Tuesday at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami.
The jukebox musical, written by Motown founder Berry Gordy and based on his 1994 autobiography, follows the music that took the world by storm and features more than 40 classic songs made famous by such giants as Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder and The Temptations.
So how do you approach playing a legend?
“Carefully!” jokes Jesse Nager, who plays Smokey Robinson. “I did my research. I read Smokey’s book and talked to people. These are real people, they have real families and friends and cousins and neighbors. ... We’re lucky they are really nice people, and they love to talk about Motown.”
Nager, who has been with the show since its 2013 inception (he originally played Eddie Kendricks of The Temptations), was lucky: He actually got to meet Robinson. Castmate Allison Semmes, who plays Diana Ross, didn’t get access to the singer she portrays. But she had another plan for nailing Ross’ signature moves.
“I call it YouTube University,” she says. “I go to class and just watch her, all the old footage and recent stuff too. There are certain things about her that are specifically Diana — the big hair, the eyes, the freedom on stage. She’s so open you can tell she’s loving what she’s doing. ... There’s so much pressure portraying this living legend, but the thing that gives me ease is that when we first started, the creative team said: ‘We don’t want imitations or impersonations. We just want you to capture her essence.’ I just trusted that and had fun with it.”
Nager and Jarran Muse, who plays Marvin Gaye, also watched plenty of videos, but the entire cast got help from Berry Gordy himself, who has long been an affable — and useful — figure on the set, taking notes and answering questions.
“All the scenes with Marvin Gaye are with Berry Gordy, so why not have the man himself tell me how things happened?” says Muse, who has also been with Motown since the beginning and has played just about every male role in the show. “It’s his story. He knows.”
Singers naturally want to put their own spin on songs, but that’s a no-no for obvious reasons, and the Motown cast is OK with that.
“We’re creating a play for people to remember what it was like the first time they heard The Jackson 5 or Diana Ross,” Nager says. “We have the opportunity in solo shows if we want to interpret. That’s not what this is about.”
“The audience wants to hear the song they remember, the song they played on their record players back in the day,” Muse says. “They don’t want a modern take on it. A lot of what’s out there now isn’t as good as the music was back in the day — you don’t need to put your own spin on it!”
The performers may be too young to remember the heyday of Motown, but they all feel a connection to its timeless melodies, unique sound and memorable beats. Muse says that though he’s a fan of Beyoncé and John Legend, he still listens to Motown in his downtime. Semmes uses Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand) — her favorite song to perform because she goes into the audience to sing it — as an example of the music’s universal appeal.
“It’s such a beautiful song, and you see the crowd holding hands and singing it together. The words are so simple, but it connects everyone.”
Nager jokes that even if he wanted to get away from the music, he couldn’t.
“What’s so funny is whether I take it with me or not, it’s always there. It pops up in the diner where I’m eating, the store I’m shopping in. Motown is always around.”
If You Go
What: “Motown the Musical”
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd.
Tickets: $29-$150; arshtcenter.org