'Motown: The Musical' ready for Broadway
NEW YORK — Motown history is ready for its new future.
Fifty-four years after its humble beginning on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, that legacy will get bathed in Broadway's bright lights as “Motown: The Musical” opens for previews on Monday at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
The red carpet will be rolled out April 14, when the official premiere is expected to draw a crowd of VIPs from Berry Gordy Jr.'s star-studded Rolodex.
The show's arrival culminates a long labor of love by the Motown founder, who conceived the idea a decade ago and enlisted showbiz heavyweights Doug Morris (Sony Music) and Kevin McCollum (“Rent”) as co-producers in 2010.
Gordy, who wrote the initial script and has been hands-on throughout the process, said the show could become his greatest career accomplishment.
“I think it's magical. It's different,” he said. “Motown has a way of spanning around the world, and that's why I did the play in the first place. It's not just for me to feel good. It's for the fans around the world who believed in me when everybody was saying a kid out of Detroit could never do a Motown.”
Punctuated with vintage hits and energetic dance numbers, the musical will portray Motown's first 25 years through the eyes of Gordy, played by Tony-nominated actor Brandon Victor Dixon. More than half of the two and one-half-hour show is set in Detroit, where Gordy's courtship of a young Diana Ross (Valisia LeKae) becomes a key source of drama.
“We have Detroit on our mind,” said director Charles Randolph-Wright, who has visited the city several times for inspiration. “I've been very aware of what Detroit means — what was unique about that place, that time, that person. I wanted to be sure I have that essence.”
“Motown” is one of the highest-profile shows to hit Broadway in recent years, accompanied by heavy news media interest and a multimillion-dollar national campaign by marketing partner Chrysler Group LLC. If all goes as producers hope, the show could secure the megahit status of jukebox musicals such as “Mamma Mia!” (ABBA) and “Jersey Boys” (the Four Seasons).
It could also bring new life to Motown's music catalog, akin to the resurgence sparked by the soundtrack for the 1983 film “The Big Chill.”
“We have very high expectations for the type of boost we'll get and the type of audience we'll gain,” said Bruce Resnikoff, president of Universal Music Enterprises, which manages the Motown Records catalog. “It's an opportunity to introduce another generation to some of the greatest music in history.”
The show seems to have hit ingredients: a repertoire of classic songs, a timeless American success story and a roll call of famous characters, including Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye.
The story arc will be familiar to anyone who knows the basic Motown tale, from the $800 Gordy family loan that got it started to the triumphant Motown 25 show in 1983. Scenes revealed at a private preview in September included a young Gordy cheering boxer Joe Louis, a race-mixing Motortown Revue, a Paris love scene with Gordy and Ross and an “Ed Sullivan Show” gig by the Jackson 5.
Driving the plot is Gordy's quest to succeed and a “careful-what-you-wish-for” angst, as co-producer McCollum described it.
Still, the musical has faced some skeptics since it was announced last summer.
Some theater insiders have questioned Gordy's playwriting credentials. Others wonder whether he can grant his own story the juicy conflict it needs to be compelling. News media reports out of New York claim the script has been relentlessly overhauled in recent months, refined with help from veteran writers Dick Scanlan and David Goldsmith.
McCollum said such doubters are familiar challenges for Gordy, who fought for credibility in a racially charged era.
“Brian Epstein found the Beatles, and he's known as a genius,” McCollum said. “Compare that to Berry Gordy. How many (stars) did he have to find before somebody finally said, ‘Oh, you know what, he might know something'?”
The project has also elicited mixed reactions from some hard-core Motown fans, who are happy to see the music in the spotlight but who worry that Motown's artists will amount to extras in the Gordy-focused plot.
Gordy defends it as a chance to tell the Motown story his way.
“I've seen so many other versions of what it was,” he said.