Big of voice and oh so slick in presentation, the West End production of Motown the Musical – which is now on UK tour through 2019 and pausing at the Edinburgh Playhouse for a three-week run – was everything I had expected.
The songs thrilled as they ran smoothly one into the other, the hundreds of wigs and outfits we had seen on the backstage tour turned a cast of 20 into a multitude of famous singing sensations – each of whom gave a performance that caught the imagination.
It’s exactly what you’d want – and hope for – in a big West End hit. What I hadn’t expected, however, were the politics and social history which gave the show a greater depth beyond any common or garden jukebox musical.
Because it turns out that Motown The Musical goes way beyond the “one big soul extravaganza” strapline, hand-jives neatly around the idea that it is simply an excuse to parade a selection of the hottest music ever recorded and delivers a glimpse of the experience of being black in America in the 1960s.
Motown was founded by Berry Gordy in Detroit in 1959 using an $800 loan from his family. At the time, white teenagers were crying out for the rhythm and blues produced by black artists who, because of segregation laws and sheer racism on the part of recording executives, weren’t able to record it.
Gordy gave black artists the space they needed. Using his own experience working on the Ford Motor Company automotive assembly line, he brought together a team of producers, songwriters and his house band, the Funk Brothers, to assemble Motown’s signature sound.
And it is that background which the musical brings into the foreground. It’s not an all-pervasive, proselytising element of the show, however. Just the detail which cements the whole piece together.
Part of the reason for the success of that detail is the presence of songwriter Michael Lovesmith as a creative consultant with the show. He started out singing in churches as a trio with his brothers before being signed to a songwriting contract at the tender age of 11 with Motown producers Holland-Dozier-Holland.
Speaking of his involvement with the show, Lovesmith recalls: “I met Mr Gordy at age seventeen, and by that time I had produced about twelve artists. Motown wanted me to work with the Jackson 5. I was their age, so I could relate to them in a way that not everybody could. They were so used to working with older people who didn’t quite understand their energy!
“I ended up becoming Berry Gordy’s protégé, and started producing and vocal coaching Michael and his brothers. Then soon after that I started recording with The Supremes and The Temptations. That’s pretty much how I got started.”
Born in St. Louis in 1953, Lovesmith says he was “desperate to get to Detroit and get working in music but my parents wanted me to get through school, so I studied and studied so I could graduate from high school early and from there I went straight to Detroit.
“The funny thing about Motown is, I think Motown could have been anywhere, and in a sense it was.”
Every town might have had its own groups of performers, and many had a record label, but Detroit had Berry Gordy. “He was this beacon of light,” says Lovesmith, “showing you what you can do and what you could be. There were musicians and singers all over the country, but Detroit had Berry Gordy so it became a magnet for them.”
iconic Motown sound
One of the big problems to crack in getting Motown the Musical to the stage for its Broadway premiere in 2013, was finding the right director to recreate the iconic Motown sound.
“We searched high and low for someone who understands the need for the show to sound like Motown” says Lovesmith. “One person came to meet us, and gave us his idea of how he would find a Stevie Wonder, a Michael Jackson, a Smokey Robinson, which we didn’t think was possible, and that person was Charles Randolph-Wright.
“Charles walked into the room and knew what Motown is, who Motown is and what Motown looks and feels like. He grew up on this music.”
Director of the original Broadway hit, the London West end transfer and now the UK tour, Charles Randolph-Wright started out as a performer in the original cast of Dreamgirls on Broadway. While on the show he directed a fellow performer’s nightclub act and moved on up from there.
“Motown is all we ever really listened to growing up!” says Randolph-Wright. “Mr Gordy is one of my idols, so I wanted to create the show that he wanted to see. I approached it the way that Berry Gordy approached it – I needed to find artists that would evoke a certain thing.
Karis Anderson as Diana Ross. Pic Tristram Kenton
“What I never wanted to do was find people who would just impersonate those performers, I wanted them to make me feel the way Diana Ross made me feel, an actress that would actually make me put my hands up and sing ‘Reach Out and Touch’.”
“I had a goldmine to work with because Mr Gordy and Michael were there to help, and they knew these people before they were the icons they became. I wanted to find people who had what these people did before they became stars. What was that spark, what was that tone?”
The result works, singing with a properly authentic voice as it focusses on the prime Motown era of the 1960s. Including what was, for me, the revelation that Motown was the recording company which ensured that Martin Luther King’s speeches were recorded for posterity.
“I love that each audience member finds some aspect of this show that resonates with them,” says Randolph-Wright. “The show is infectious, and the UK truly knows and loves this music.
“It’s not just a record label, it’s not just a show, it’s a movement.”
Motown the Musical
Playhouse, 18 – 22 Greenside Place, EH1 3AA. Phone booking: 0844 871 3014
Tuesday 20 November – Saturday 8 December 2018
Evenings (not Sun): 7.30pm, Matinees Thurs, Sat: 2.30pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.
Motown the Musical on tour 2019:
20 Nov 2018 – 8 Dec 2018
0844 871 3014
10 Jan – 2 Feb 2019
0844 871 3012
5 – 23 Feb 2019
Bord Gais Energy Theatre
0818 719 377
26 Feb – 23 Mar 2019
0844 871 3018
26 Mar – 6 Apr 2019
Wales Millennium Centre
029 2063 6464
9 – 20 Apr 2019
01274 432 000
23 Apr – 4 May 2019
0115 989 5555
21 May – 1 Jun 2019
0844 871 7649
4 – 22 Jun 2019
08448 11 21 21
23 Jul – 3 Aug 2019
Milton Keynes Theatre
27 – 31 Aug 2019
0844 856 1111
3 – 14 Sep 2019
The Marlowe Theatre
1 – 12 Oct 2019
The Mayflower Theatre