Performing Arts

Berry Gordy shares his American Dream in ‘Motown the Musical’

Clifton Oliver as Berry Gordy Jr. romances Allison Semmes as Diana Ross in ‘Motown the Musical.’
Clifton Oliver as Berry Gordy Jr. romances Allison Semmes as Diana Ross in ‘Motown the Musical.’ Joan Marcus

Each American Dream story has its own distinct details, and Berry Gordy Jr.’s spectacular saga is no exception.

Born into a black middle-class family in Detroit in 1929, the seventh of Berry Gordy II and Bertha Fuller Gordy’s eight children dropped out of high school in his junior year to try making it as a boxer. He fought in the Korean War, opened and closed a jazz record store, then worked at the Lincoln-Mercury assembly plant.

When he met singer Jackie Wilson, Gordy found the path to a future beyond his wildest dreams. Co-writing songs for Wilson, including the hit Lonely Teardrops, the driven entrepreneur had his first taste of success. He became the manager of a group called the Matadors, rechristened the Miracles, which featured a talented lead singer-songwriter named Smokey Robinson.

In 1959, Gordy borrowed $800 from his family and launched Tamla Records — and, the label that would become his lasting legacy, Motown Records.

Gordy’s story, enmeshed with those of music legends Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, Martha Reeves, the Jackson 5 and so many other stars, is the backbone of Motown the Musical. Opening Tuesday at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, the touring Broadway show features all or part of more than 60 Motown hits — and a script by the boxer-turned-music mogul, Gordy.

“Motown was a fairy-tale that happened to come true,” Gordy says. “When you dream, you dream big. What happened with Motown surpassed my wildest dreams.”

Motown and its artists have been scrutinized endlessly in books, autobiographies, television specials, documentaries. The musical’s book is based on Gordy’s 1994 autobiography, To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown. In adapting it for the stage, Gordy says he felt “the truth done in an entertaining way would be a hit; otherwise, it’s a documentary.”

Gordy also wanted to set the record straight, from his point of view, for the doubters who thought a black high school dropout of modest means couldn’t have succeeded on a worldwide scale without secret deals or manipulative behind-the-scenes drama.

“People would ask me all the time, ‘How did you do it?’” says Gordy, who will turn 86 in November. “The Broadway show was an answer to all of that.”

Motown the Musical is a jukebox musical that lets the audience savor a huge collection of soulful pop classics, including ABC, Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, Dancing in the Street, Get Ready, I Heard It Through the Grapevine, My Girl, Shop Around, What’s Going On and oh so many more. But that’s not its only aim.

Gordy and his collaborators also wanted to turn Broadway’s powerful spotlight on the story of a creative company that was once the largest black-owned business in the United States, a music powerhouse that turned out songs of love, longing and heartache — songs that appealed to black and white audiences alike.

“I didn’t really know that I set out to do that exactly,” Gordy says. “I wanted to make music for all people. … I felt a good song, a good product and a truthful artist would be the right thing to do.”

In creating Motown the Musical, an $18 million production that opened on Broadway in 2013, Gordy joined forces with Sony Entertainment chairman Doug Morris and producer Kevin McCollum, whose Broadway credits include Rent, Avenue Q, In the Heights and numerous other shows.

McCollum first met with Gordy in 2009 for what was supposed to be a quick drink and a chat about Broadway. One hour stretched into four, and a partnership was born.

“There were 98 songs in his first draft,” McCollum says, laughing. “I said, ‘This is a mini-series.’”

Working to shape the show with director Charles Randolph-Wright, Gordy and McCollum would sometimes butt heads. But theater, like music, is a collaborative process. Gordy knew he had one function as the show’s producer, another as its writer.

“Collaboration is conflict,” McCollum says. “I was his collaborator in producing but I also frustrated him as the writer. … He’s an expert student. I never met anyone as established as he is who is so open to learning.”

In truth, competition and clashing ideas have been a key part of Gordy’s philosophy since Motown’s beginnings.

“I’ve always believed that competition breeds champions,” Gordy says. “We had a quality control group, and Smokey challenged me quite a lot. Everybody had to be honest — no politics or egos allowed. No one could be punished for anything they said.”

Jesse Nager, who played the Temptations’ Eddie Kendricks on Broadway, is doing the larger role of Smokey Robinson on tour. He describes Robinson as “the wind beneath Berry Gordy’s wings” and says Gordy has been an available resource for many of the show’s actors.

“He was in rehearsals with us every day. He’s this huge icon, but he was so passionate about this that you could see how he must have been when he was writing music as a young man,” Nager says.

When the tour stopped in Detroit, the cast toured the Motown Museum at 2648 W. Grand Blvd. The old house — a place where Gordy and his family once lived upstairs, where some of the greatest hits of all time were recorded in a garage-turned-studio, where a big sign still describes Motown as “Hitsville U.S.A.” — held a surprise for Nager, a musical theater grad from the nearby University of Michigan.

“In Mr. Gordy’s restored studio apartment, there were walls of photographs. There was a Temptations wall, a Michael Jackson wall, a wall devoted to Motown on Broadway,” Nager says. “There was a picture of me on that wall.”

Jarran Muse is playing Marvin Gaye in Motown the Musical. Once Gordy’s brother-in-law, Gaye was at first a Motown sex symbol. In the show his 1968 duet with Tammi Terrell on You’re All I Need To Get By becomes a love song for Gordy and superstar Diana Ross. By 1971, however, Gaye — over Gordy’s initial objections — changed course and recorded the brilliant, politically charged What’s Going On. Today, Gordy calls Gaye “the truest artist I’ve ever known.”

Muse agrees and says of Gaye, “He didn’t hold anything back. He liked being the different one. He was very political. If you listen to his albums, you see what he was going through. … Everything he wrote about holds so much weight today.”

The actor got a lesson in the continuing relevance of Gaye’s vision when Motown the Musical was playing St. Louis. The show was there when the decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson was announced. On that night, What’s Going On played like fresh commentary.

“The energy in the building on the night of the verdict was phenomenal. There was not a dry eye in the house or onstage,” Muse says.

Allison Semmes, a coloratura soprano who plays Diana Ross in Motown the Musical, sees the show as an American Dream story.

“Motown’s contribution to music wasn’t just ‘race’ music. Those songs ended up becoming America’s music. Motown broke down social barriers,” Semmes says. “In the show, you see Diana growing. … You see her first at 15, then the Supremes grow up and are polished into these beautiful, sophisticated ladies who were role models for both black and white girls.”

Motown the Musical enjoyed a healthy Broadway run of 37 previews and 738 performances before it closed last month. A London production is to open in the spring of 2016, with a return to Broadway planned for summer 2016. McCollum says that work on the musical, which opened directly on Broadway without an out-of-town tryout, will be ongoing.

“Motown was a living organism, and so is this Broadway show,” he says.

Enthusiastic about the young theater-trained talents now singing gems from the Motown catalog, Gordy hopes that Motown the Musical audiences will again be stirred by the music. And he hopes that his story — one of aspirations, empowerment and support for artists with ideas — will be inspiring.

In the early days, his mother would tell him, “Well, baby, just keep doin’ positive things, and eventually you’re gonna win.”

And he did.

“I knew that even if I failed, I was following my dream head on, full blast,” he says.

If you go

What: ‘Motown the Musical.’

Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, through March 8 (additional show 2 p.m. March 4, no evening show March 8).

Cost: $41.01-$129.51.

Info: 800-745-3000 or www.browardcenter.org.

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