Motown Records founder Berry Gordy Jr.
Vince Bucci, Associated Press
Can a Motown musical conquer Broadway?
- Article by: BRIAN MCCOLLUM
- Detroit Free Press
- July 4, 2012 - 3:06 PM
Can Berry Gordy Jr. produce one more mega hit?
After years of rumors, hopes and false starts, Gordy announced last week that his "Motown: The Musical" will debut next spring on Broadway, in a Nederlander theater to be named. On board is a high-powered showbiz team that includes producer Kevin McCollum, Sony chief Doug Morris and director Charles Randolph-Wright.
Few details have emerged about the musical or its story, although with 82-year-old Gordy writing the script, it's expected to track the Motown founder's life story, with characters that include best friend Smokey Robinson. Detroit presumably would be a key setting.
Provided that it finds its way to a compelling story, theater experts say, "Motown" has the makings of a sure-fire hit, arriving against a lucrative backdrop of "jukebox musical" smashes such as "Mamma Mia!" (featuring the music of ABBA) and "Jersey Boys" (the Four Seasons).
"Dreamgirls," one of the modern era's most successful Broadway productions, is long presumed to have been inspired by the story of Motown's Supremes. Robinson even sought and received an apology for the negative portrayal of a Gordy-type character in the 2006 film version.
In a Broadway industry where only a quarter of shows break even, it doesn't hurt that "Motown" has the services of McCollum, widely regarded as a theater trailblazer, with a résumé that includes Tony Awards for "Rent" and "Avenue Q."
"Seeing Kevin attached to it means something in our industry," said Blake Ross, editor of the Broadway trade magazine Playbill.
"When we first got wind of this, it certainly seemed like an exciting prospect -- all the right songs, all the right people," Ross said. "The genre of Motown is still hot. It's right in that demographic sweet spot of people who purchase Broadway tickets: the baby boomers."
Few have experienced Motown's stage potential better than Rick Sperling, head of Detroit's Mosaic Youth Theatre. His musical "Now That I Can Dance: Motown 1962," which chronicles the formative days of groups such as the Marvelettes, has been Mosaic's biggest success, consistently drawing capacity crowds during its runs since 2005.
"It's the most popular thing we've ever done," Sperling said. "So there's a huge demand out there for this -- and our production didn't even have all the hits."
Sperling and others say those hits, which remain staples on radios across the world, already do much of the heavy lifting for Gordy's show, giving it the sort of familiar sing-along material that helped "Mamma Mia!" soar. The announcement said "Motown" will include songs made famous by the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye and others.
Still, the songs can't do it alone. To succeed, the show needs a gripping story -- a job that now lies in Gordy's hands.
"The music is of utmost importance, of course, but to sustain the audience for 2 1/2 hours, you have to have a good narrative," Ross said. "Otherwise it's just a long concert."
"Dreamgirls" succeeded because of its timeless villain-and-hero tale, a story of power clashes and backhanded dealings. The fate of "Motown," Ross said, might rest on "just how honest and raw [Gordy] is willing to be with the audience."
Those who know Gordy well, citing his famous perfectionism, say the announcement is a positive sign.
"It shows that he's obviously feeling comfortable about this, and ready to take it to the next level," said Paul Barker, a longtime Motown associate who worked for Gordy in the 1990s.
Citing Gordy's 1994 autobiography, "To Be Loved," Barker said the "Motown" script will likely keep an upbeat tone. In the book, Gordy's villains are circumstances -- situations to be conquered with skill and hard work: the music-biz establishment, the civil rights struggle, family pressures.
"If you read the book, you'll notice he never attacks people head to head," says Barker. "He's never been the type to throw somebody under the bus. He's always about the positive -- encouraging, motivating, showing the next generation the light."
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