The music of Motown has had people dancing in the streets around the world since Berry Gordy, Jr., borrowed $800 from his family in 1958 to start the iconic, barrier-breaking record label.
But for the past year and a half it's had people dancing in the seats.
Theater seats, that is. "Motown The Musical," written by Gordy and based on his 1994 memoir "To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown," opened on Broadway during March of 2013, scoring four Tony Award nominations and a Theatre World Award for Outstanding Debut Performance. This week the musical comes "home," beginning a three-and-a-half-week run at Detroit's Fisher Theater, just a few blocks east of the Hitsville USA headquarters (now the Motown Historical Museum) where Gordy's creation delivered hit after hit through the 60s and into the early 70s.
"Detroit is where it all began, some I'm very excited," says Gordy, 84, who sold Motown in 1988 for $61 million but has remained Chariman Emeritus. "The cast is thrilled, not only to be playing in front of the original (Motown) stars but Detroiters as well. They feel Detroit is somehow magical -- and it is."
Clifton Oliver, who has the unenviable task of portraying Gordy in the traveling company of "Motown The Musical," confirms that the Detroit run has been circled on the cast members' calendars.
"It's going to be awesome," gushes Oliver, whose previous credits include ?? "Everyone's extremely excited -- and nervous as hell! It's been amazing to be seeing and meeting all those original Motown stars, but to be there in Detroit is going to be...special for all of us, and hopefully for the audiences."
Gordy began working on the musical several years ago because, he says, "a musical was the only thing left to do. Everyone had a version of what they thought my story was. I thought it was time the real story was told using the songs in an entertaining way. I wanted to show who we were, what we did, how we felt doing it -- and how Motown was woven into the fabric of the Civil Rights movement."
Gordy also knew what he didn't want. "Not a so-called 'jukebox revue,' " he says. "Our musical was inspired by the original Motown family." "Motown The Musical" features 65 songs from the label's catalog, nearly every one a major hit, as well as one new number, "Can I Close the Door (On Love)," which Gordy wrote with Michael Lovesmith and was inspired by the redemptive emotions he felt during the taping of the "Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever" TV special in 1983.
"Writing the (musical) and talking to different people made me understand why people feel Motown music became the soundtrack of change in this country and demonstrated what I always believed: that the American Dream is colorblind," Gordy says. "I appreciate and owe much gratitude to the Motown people who had so much faith and trust and the courage to follow me down roads that didn't even exist. They worked, laughed, cried, lived and died to help make Motown what it is today."
The Motown alumni are feeling many of those same emotions towards "Motown The Musical." "It's been wonderful," says Motown stalwart Smokey Robinson. "It's basically his life story, and it's as accurate as it can be for a play. I mean, it's got only, what, two hours to tell the whole Motown story. But it's great."
The Supremes' Mary Wilson says the musical "is something that's legitimately from a Motown person, so it's good people get to see what we were all part of and what made Motown Motown," while the Four Tops' Abdul "Duke" Fakir praises it as "an incredible musical. Some people talk about the story because it goes back and forth, but that's how it was. I was just a basically listening to the music and enjoying it." Aretha Franklin, meanwhile, has seen it three times and expects to add to that tally during the Fisher Theatre run.
"I know and know most of those people and grew up with them, so that's some of what makes it really great," Franklin says. "They've done a really great job with it."
Gordy says the musical's cast has become "a brilliant extension" of the Motown family, though he acknowledges that it's "strange" to see himself portrayed on the stage. "(It's) like I've come out of a time capsule," Gordy explains. "Every time I see the play, I take another trip down memory lane." Oliver, meanwhile, says his challenge is balance Gordy's reputation as a shrewd and even ruthless businessman with the "funny, loving guy" he's come to know through the production.
"Nobody really knows anything about Mr. Gordy besides the rumors," explains Oliver -- who, yes, calls him Mr. Gordy all the time. "I think most people believe he's a villain, if you will, or a darker character, but when you get to know him, that's not the case. SO i try to make him more of a lovable guy, a relatable guy.
"I have to impress Mr. Gordy, and the people who know him. That's a lot of pressure."
Gordy, who's currently working on "a song-and-dance movie about today's times" with a teen actress named Jadagrace, is planning to make a film adaptation of "Motown The Musical." He also has other historical projects in mind, including a documentary about the company. " 'Motown The Musical' is a celebration of the human spirit and all that is possible," Gordy says. "I hope audiences will leave the theaters carrying Motown in their hearts and souls, not only in Detroit, but all over the world."
Motown The Musical
Oct. 21-Nov. 16
Fisher Theatre in the Fisher Building, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit
Tickets are $39-$130
Call 313-872-1000 or visit www.broadwayindetroit.com
The Motown Historical Museum is holding special events on Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 21-22, to celebrate the musical's arrival. Visit www.motownhistoricalmuseum.org for information.
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