Writing his own Libretto
‘PERCEPTION UNCHALLENGED IS REALITY’
What connects Brandon Victor Dixon, Cedric Neal, Clifton Oliver, Chester Gregory, Kenneth Mosley, Julius Thomas III, Jay Perry, Josh Tower and Edward Baruwa?
All these professional actors have played Berry Gordy Jr. in Motown The Musical. All have inhabited the man and his music, portraying his life and times, his accomplishments and failings, his inner self, his outer mogul. “Not many people know what he looks like, let alone what he sounds like,” said one of those thespians, accurately. Now, to the show’s audiences, Berry is Brandon or Cedric, Clifton or Chester, Julius or Josh. Or vice versa.
This weekend, on April 20, the musical closes in London, after a successful, three-year run at the Shaftesbury Theatre, and almost three years after its last Broadway production. On both sides of the Atlantic, several million people have seen it, while thousands more will enjoy the British tour version during the rest of 2019, as it travels from Canterbury to Glasgow, Nottingham to Newcastle, Bradford to Blackpool.
As of this writing, the residents of Oxford in January 2020 will be the last to watch Mr. Gordy delineated and depicted on stage, just a few days shy of the 61st anniversary of the granting of the loan which birthed his empire of music.
Hats off to Berry Gordy, he runs Motown like a boss/He dominates Top 40 and he banged Diana Ross/He wrote his own libretto, which is really kind of ballin’/He took every Motown classic, and he said, ‘I’ll put ’em all in!’
TV host (and actor) Neil Patrick Harris made millions laugh, including Gordy himself, with those lines delivered at the Tony Awards telecast in 2013, when Motown The Musical was among the night’s contenders. Less amusing to the chairman, perhaps, was the fact that it ultimately failed to win in any of its four nominated categories.
Then again, Gordy originally made the musical – after persuasion by his friend and business partner, Doug Morris – not to score some Tonys, but rather to seal his story, his history, in the public consciousness, instead of its representation by others. After all, at one point during the show’s substantial running time, the character playing Gordy’s accountant, Sidney Noveck, declares, “Perception unchallenged is reality.”
In particular, Gordy was aggrieved by Dreamgirls. With its fictional debt to the Supremes’ saga, that Broadway hit of the early 1980s was bad enough from his perspective – and the 2006 film version, even more so. “The movie depicted me as a low-level hustler who did all this [illegal] stuff that people say I did,” he told the Chicago Tribune as Motown The Musical began its first national tour in 2014. “I didn’t want to constantly explain myself, but I had to put something out there that was real and true. When we put the show on Broadway, people related to it. The silent majority knows. It was a hit.”
That Dreamgirls had infuriated Gordy was also clear when movie studios DreamWorks and Paramount grovelled in the trade press. “For any confusion that has resulted from our fictional work,” they emphasised in full-page advertisements in 2007, “we apologize to Mr. Gordy and all of the incredible people who were a part of that great legacy. It is vital that the public understand that the real Motown story has yet to be told.”
Without debating the degree to which Motown The Musical has told the real story, let’s note that its director, Charles Randolph-Wright, was in the original cast of Dreamgirls on Broadway. “We’ve all had some laughs about that,” admitted Kevin McCollum, one of the Motown musical’s producers, on opening night in 2013. “David Geffen took an ad out in Variety saying it’s not the Motown story. It’s one of the reasons Berry wanted to tell this story.”
There’s more irony. At least two of the actors who played Gordy in Motown The Musical, Cedric Neal and Chester Gregory, were previously on stage in Dreamgirls. Yet no grudges were held. “You’re the best me ever,” the Motown founder told Neal, a Dallas native who was Gordy in the 2016 London production. “To hear Mr. Gordy, who I call pops, say that to me means a lot,” commented the actor at the time.
Equally positive was Gregory, who played Gordy during a second, albeit foreshortened, Broadway run in 2016 and also in the 2017 roadshow. “I have to say, he was very warm and down to earth,” he told Susan Whitall of the Detroit News, “so it made me comfortable enough to make choices as an actor in my portrayal. I’m actually excited every time I get to perform for him.”
Gregory had another link to Gordy’s past. He once depicted Jackie Wilson in a Black Ensemble Theater of Chicago production, My Heart Is Crying, Crying: The Jackie Wilson Story. “I asked [Gordy] about the song ‘Lonely Teardrops,’” the actor said. “I’d heard rumours about it being a slow song, and then Jackie Wilson took it and made it his own, he had a calypso feel in it. I heard that when Berry Gordy first heard it, he had tears in his eyes and said, ‘You ruined my song!’ He confirmed it. He said, ‘Yeah, ‘Lonely Teardrops’ was a blues song when he first wrote it.’”
Perhaps the most challenged actor to play Gordy in Motown The Musical was the first. Brandon Victor Dixon was in the initial cast at New York’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, and held the part for 15 months. “As much as I respect his legacy and what he’s done,” Dixon told the Wall Street Journal, “what mattered to me was the project ahead of us.” The actor questioned Gordy’s intentions during rehearsals. “Why are you here? Because if your reasons aren’t good enough, the show won’t be good.”
When Gordy replied that he sought to tell his version of the Motown story, Dixon said he pressed for more, especially about the break-up with Diana Ross. “I’m missing something here,” he recalled saying. “You are the only one at the table who can tell us what this is.” Gordy rewrote the scene, but later took issue with Dixon’s account. “Maybe it was one of those things that I gave to him that he thought he gave to me,” he said to the Journal. The actor responded, “There have been frustrating times, but he always wants to hear people’s ideas. You rarely find writers or producers who are that open.”
Dixon did his homework, too, including a trip to the Motown Museum. Moreover, he understood the social and political setting of the subject matter, not least because he had previously appeared in a London production of well-regarded civil rights musical, The Scottsboro Boys.
Even so, playing a living legend – when the legend controls the script – is demanding for any actor. “Mr. Gordy sat in my dressing room for three days straight and filled me with stories, information and facts about what really happened as he was building Motown,” said Clifton Oliver, who served in the show’s 2014 U.S. tour. “He told me that on Broadway, he wasn’t able to capture the true essence of Motown because it was so…rushed. Act two of the Broadway production was finished the day before it opened.”
Speaking to The Hub, Oliver – who has also appeared in The Scottsboro Boys – continued, “Mr. Gordy at the end of the day is a true black man. He has a sharp tongue at times, and he can be sweet and very funny at times. He is incredibly smart – I call him ‘the computer’ because he has so many memories and he doesn’t forget anything. He has extensive written notes, recordings and videos from every stage of his life.” (I can believe it: when once interviewing Gordy for Billboard, I noted that the session was recorded on audio and video tape.)
Clifton Oliver made yet one more cogent point, during another interview. “There has never truly been a musical piece about a black man turning nothing into something. So the fact that Mr. Gordy was able to put his story out the way he wanted it to be, and told through his eyes, is an amazing feat for African Americans in music theatre, period. That never happens. If they are interested in our stories, it’s about slavery or being a pimp, or something not positive.”
The positivity about Motown The Musical is also what connects Brandon Victor Dixon, Cedric Neal, Clifton Oliver, Chester Gregory, Kenneth Mosley, Julius Thomas III, Jay Perry, Josh Tower and Edward Baruwa.
Theatre notes: Motown The Musical officially opened on Broadway on April 14, 2013, featuring more than 50 Jobete copyrights, and three songs written specifically for the production by Berry Gordy with Michael Lovesmith. The show’s original $18 million investment was recouped in 2014, while its first national tour that year grossed $20 million. Notwithstanding the second, abbreviated New York run, Motown The Musical has done extremely well – and bear in mind that only 25 percent of Broadway musicals are reckoned to make a profit. Meanwhile, say hello to the new boss: Jahi Kearse, who plays BG in the latest Great White Way success, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations. To be loved, once more?
Music notes: the original Broadway cast recording of Motown The Musical was released in 2013 on CD, and included “Can I Close The Door (On Love)” and “Hey Joe (Black Like Me),” but not the show’s third new song, “It’s What’s In The Grooves That Counts.” A compilation album called Originals was also made available, and that exists today on streaming services. Both Brandon Victor Dixon and Chester Gregory can be found digitally, too. Dixon sings on a new track, “We Are,” and on cast albums for Jesus Christ Superstar and Rent. Gregory’s 2008 album, In Search Of High Love, is available to stream, as is other material by him, including Remembering Jackie.
Personal notes: like others who have spent a lifetime living and breathing Motown, I found the show to be far short of the real thing, musically and narratively. All the more so, in fact, after seeing it four times, in America and Britain. It is entertaining, like many jukebox musicals, but satisfying? No. The irritations include the conflation of Martin Luther King’s assassination with “What’s Going On” – in reality, three years apart – and the near-absence of Stevie. Perhaps the latter anomaly is contractually attributable to a wish to tell his own story on stage. If the Temptations can, why not Wonder? Anything would be preferable to such corny lines in Motown The Musical as, “Damn, there’s our little Stevie, making history.” But at every performance I’ve seen, the audience’s enthusiasm, goodwill and warmth was obvious. This “truth” is a hit, indeed.