Another trip to the Grand Theatre and another musical about the golden age of music. What’s not to like? The difference with Motown – The Musical is that it is about a record label, its owner and the artist roster rather than a single performer.
It must be said from the very start that the musical is based on the book ‘To Be Loved: The Music, The Magic, The Memories of Motown’ by Berry Gordy, the founder of the label and the main character in the piece. Because of this, and the fact that it was Gordy who was instrumental in the creation of the musical, some of the episodes in the play are not totally accurate, including the beginning where Berry Gordy approaches Jackie Wilson after a show to get him to record a song, Reet Petite, which he has written, and then a little later, Lonely Teardrops. Although these songs had been written by Gordy, they were done in collaboration with Roquel Davis, using the name Tyran Carlo, who was in fact Jackie Wilson’s cousin. I mention this because the motive for Gordy’s starting his own label was the way in which he had been ripped off over the royalties for these songs. The record producers would put the good song on the ‘A’ side of the disc and put any old tat on the ‘B’ side under an assumed name so that they would also get half of the royalties from the hit record. OK, this is a piece of entertainment, not a documentary, but it serves to illustrate the business-driven aspect of the man’s character; something which was to come back and bite him some years later. The pretext of the show is the 25th Anniversary of the founding of Motown Records, with the story being told in flashbacks.
When I said that this is entertainment, I wasn’t joking. The opening scene was breathtaking, being an explosive singing duel between the ‘Four Tops’ and the ‘Temptations’. They belted out all of the early hits, complete with the dance moves, the likes of which Brits had never seen before. They did look a bit comical at the time when we teenagers were breaking away from set dances and ‘doing our own thing’, but they certainly added a dynamism to the performances. If the singers were brilliant, and they were, then the pit orchestra conducted by Griff Johnson was amazing, recreating the original sounds to perfection.
Whilst you can replicate the sound and look of the period, it is impossible to recreate the feeling of the time. The racial problems in America were longstanding and ingrained into the culture, whereas over here the influx of people of colour was a new thing. The concept of racial discrimination was, therefore, totally alien to us in the early sixties.
I always wondered why the Americans had a Tamla and a Motown record label, whereas we just had Tamla Motown, comprising the same artists. My question was answered in the show when it was explained that American DJs would only play one record per programme from each label, so the enterprising Mr Gordy founded, not only the aforementioned two companies, but also the Gordy label so that he could achieve triple exposure on the stations which would play his ‘race music’ – as soul was known at that time.
After the big opening, we had a peek into the life of the young Gordy, whose influence was the joy which Joe Louis brought to his father and the rest of black America, when he beat the German boxer Max Schmelling in 1938 for the World Heavyweight Championship, the negro defeating the Nazi. From then on he decided he wanted to make people happy and, as he couldn’t do it by boxing, he decided to do it through music. The young Berry Gordy was played by Yami Mirazi, as was the young Michael Jackson and Little Stevie Wonder. Like Edward Baruwa who played the adult Gordy, his singing, dancing and acting was superb.
A large part of the story was concerned with the relationship between the label owner and Diana Ross, around whom he built the Supremes, renaming them Diana Ross and The Supremes and later overseeing her going solo.
The first half ended, as it had begun, with a big production number set in the late sixties, highlighting the political situation with unrest after the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. It was a rather contrived but well performed.
The second half chronicled the beginning of the end of the relationship with Ross when she, like Marvin Gaye and the songwriting team Holland, Dozier and Holland, left the label. The reason they all gave was that they were not being paid enough money, which you will recall is why Gordy originally stopped writing for Jackie Wilson and set up his own company. It is funny how the concept of fair pay depends on whether you are the payer or the payee.
There then followed cameo performances by Stevie Wonder (Daniel Haswell), and a piece by Karis Anderson as the solo Diana Ross, during which she invited members of the audience to join her in the song Reach out and Touch Somebody’s Hand. She played the part as an actress rather than an impressionist, so the songs were delivered powerfully without the underlying frailty of the real Diana Ross’s voice. It was all the better for that and made the character so much more believable. All of the other cast members handled their parts in the same way, so the show retained its integrity as a musical play rather than being a tribute show. Nathan Lewis as Smokey Robinson and Shak Gabbidon-Williams’ performance as Marvin Gaye were also very good; in fact, there wasn’t a weak link in the whole chain.
The production team was far bigger than the cast and so it is impossible to name them all, so let me just say that the sound, lighting, make-up and set design were spot on, and the costumes were brilliant. The biggest impact on the show, however, was the projection of images onto the back of the set. One scene in Paris made you think that you really had ascended to the top storey of an hotel. It put the timeline in context by showing contemporary images, also bringing the set piece songs to life with psychedelic patterns playing in the background or round the edges of the stage. A particularly impressive instance was a design lifted straight from the cover of the album Songs in the Key of Life during Stevie Wonder’s performance. As you would expect, the evening ended with the re-creation of the spectacular to mark the 25th Anniversary of Motown and an invitation from the cast to the audience to get up and dance to a string of the label’s greatest hits. If you want any kind of music to which to dance, this is it. I didn’t need to be asked twice.
Motown the Musical is not the best story around which to base a show, but the singing, acting, dancing and production are faultless. What I will take away with me from the night is a quote from Berry Gordy and is something which I have been saying for years, only to be given a caution by the political correctness police. It was said after a conversation he had with Ross, as to whether it was OK to use the word ‘black’ when, in those days, everyone thought it polite to say ‘coloured’ or negro’. ‘It doesn’t matter what words you use,’ he said ‘it is how they are meant that counts.’ After this conversation they used ‘Black’ as their pet name for each other.
You may have noticed that there are no song puns in this article and you might be wondering ‘What’s Going On’ so ‘Get Ready’, ‘I Can’t Help Myself’. On second thoughts I better not go any further, no real reason – just ’Superstition’.
Signed, sealed, delivered.
Leeds Grand Theatre Box Office 0844 848 2700
Stan writes Let’s Do Lunch for Leeds Living. He also reviews special events for food and drink, which sometimes takes him beyond Leeds. He has also developed an interest in writing on culture, most frequently dramatic and musical theatre.