Skip to main content

Charles Randolph-Wright – Motown The Musical

When Motown Records supremo Berry Gordy met theatre director Charles Randolph-Wright with a view to putting Gordy’s life story onstage, the man who took American black music into the mainstream pointed out that his potential new charge had never done a big Broadway musical. Randolph-Wright responded by saying that neither had Gordy. 

Thus the deal was sealed on what would become Motown The Musical, the Tony-nominated Broadway and West End hit drawn from Gordy’s 1994 autobiography, To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown. Like his book, the Gordy-scripted show tells the story of how a young kid from Detroit founded a world-changing record label that turned Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson into stars alongside the likes of Stevie Wonder, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas and The Jackson 5. 

“That was one of the things that connected us,” says Randolph-Wright of the man he still calls Mr Gordy, as the UK tour of Motown The Musical arrives in Edinburgh for a three-week run. “We immediately found a rapport. The simpatico was amazing. I have a family of entrepreneurs, so we connected on every level. To see Mr Gordy and to talk about what he created was amazing, and then to work with him on the show was something else. He was very hands on, and there were moments when we might be talking about something, and we’d have a disagreement or an argument, and I’m like, I’m disagreeing with Berry Gordy.”

Randolph-Wright began as an actor in the original 1981 Dreamgirls, a fictionalised musical about the rise of a young female singing trio whose style wasn’t a million miles away from The Supremes. Aa a director, Randolph-Wright went on to oversee a 75th anniversary production of Porgy and Bess, while his own plays include Blue, which featured music by Nona Hendryx. Like them, directing Motown The Musical has been a labour of love.

“What I realised is that Motown was part of my DNA,” he says. “I idolised Berry Gordy. He was one of a few men of colour who had his own business. That was something I was aware of even as a child. I grew up in South Carolina, where it was segregated, and I saw Motown bring black and white worlds together, so when you put on a record people would start talking, and that’s something we need right now more than ever. In that sense, Motown wasn’t just about the music. It was a movement.”

While Motown The Musical is to all intents and purpose a feelgood show, in terms of providing a voice for young black America, the political statement Gordy’s label was making cannot be understated. Gordy started Motown in 1959 as Tamla Records just as the civil rights movement was finding its feet on the back of the Civil Rights Act two years before. When Motown The Musical appeared in 2013, things seemed to have come full circle.

As Randolph-Wright observes, “Growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, we had hopes that things might change, so to get to where we are now is very troubling. We’ve taken Motown The Musical to cities that had issues and disturbances in relationship to young black men being shot by white cops, and I’m watching a primarily young cast of people of colour onstage, and I hear them do a song like What’s Going On? and I realised, my God, this is happening now.” 

Motown The Musical opened in St Louis in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in the suburb of Ferguson in 2014. This prompted unrest on the streets, as did the grand jury decision not to indict Wilson, while a U.S. Department of Justice investigation concluded that Wilson had acted in self-defence.
“We didn’t know if we would be able to go on, or if the entire city was going to be shut down,” Randolph-Wright remembers. “In the end we did go on, and you could feel this tension running throughout.” 

When Motown The Musical opened in London, bringing in an all British cast has continued Gordy’s legacy in a way that dates back to Motown’s first bloom when a 1965 package tour played 21 UK cities. Featuring a line-up of The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Miracles and Martha Reeves and The Vandellas, the tour came on the back of The Supremes scoring a number one hit with Baby Love the year before. The decision to use a British cast for such an American story also comes from a very personal place that relates to Randolph-Wright’s own background studying acting in London.

“When I first came over to talk about taking Motown The Musical to the West End, I was asked if I would be bringing an American cast, and I said no. For one thing, British audiences mean a lot to Mr Gordy, because it was that 1965 tour that introduced Motown to the world. Secondly, I studied in London when I was a junior in college, and I’m an anglophile. I came of age in London. It was where I discovered art and opened me up to a more global view of the world, so it’s a place that’s still very close to my heart.”

With this in mind, the UK touring cast of Motown The Musical includes star of The Lion King Shak Gabbidon-Williams as Marvin Gaye, Karis Anderson of pop band Stooshe as Diana Ross and Five Guys Named Moe star Edward Baruwa as Gordy.

“It was important to me for a British cast to do the show,” says Randolph-Wright, “and when actors started coming in, I was blown away. I’ve always said to the various casts that I didn’t want them to imitate the people they’re playing. I want them to express themselves. Every performer playing Diana Ross has been different, but they’ve kept an essence of the character that’s made it authentic.”

The unity expressed in such a transatlantic alliance is crucial to Motown The Musical. 
“It’s telling the story of how we have more in common than we have differences,” says Randolph-Wright. “We are more alike than the world is telling us right now, and the power of Motown The Musical, and the power of Motown is to bring hope and joy through music instead of hate. To hear that music, and to go out of the doors of the theatre after hearing it and feeling that hope is really important right now.” 

Motown The Musical, The Playhouse, Edinburgh, tonight-December 8.

The Herald, November 20th 2018



Popular posts from this blog

Suzy Glass – Message from the Skies

Freedom of movement matters to Suzy Glass, the arts and events producer currently overseeing the second edition of Message from the Skies.This animated literary derive around the city forms part of this year’s Edinburgh’s Hogmanay programme, and runs right through till Burns’ Night. Glass’ concerns are inherent in the event itself, which has commissioned six writers from different disciplines and experiences to each pen a love letter to Europe. Each writer has then paired up with a composer and visual artist or film-maker, with the results of each collaboration projected in monumental fashion on the walls of one of half a dozen of the capital’s most iconic buildings.
With venues stretching from the south side of Edinburgh to Leith, and with one city centre stop requiring a walk up Calton Hill, there is considerable legwork required to complete the circuit. It shouldn’t be considered a race, however, and audiences are free to move between venues at their leisure, visiting each site on d…

Kieran Hurley – Mouthpiece

Things have changed since Kieran Hurley first began writing the play that would become Mouthpiece, which opens at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh this weekend. At the time, Hurley was, in his own words, “quite new on the scene.” As a writer and performer, he had already scored hits with Beats and Chalk Farm, two pieces that put him on the map with a new generation of theatre-makers steeped in an equally new wave of grassroots opposition that drew from the iconography of revolutions past. Where Beats looked at the politicisation of 1990s club culture, Chalk Farm, co-written with AJ Taudevin, focused on a teenage boy caught up in the 2011 London riots.
More plays followed. Some, like Heads Up used the same solo story-telling aesthetic to look at an everyday apocalypse. More recently, Square Go, written with Gary McNair, dissected toxic masculinity through a school playground fight.
All the while as Hurley developed as a writer, from new kid on the block to established provocateur, this…

Rob Drummond – The Mack

Rob Drummond was at home in England when he looked at the news feed on his phone, and saw a post about the fire at Glasgow School of Art. It was June 2018, and the writer and performer behind such hits as Grain in the Blood, Bullet Catch and Our Fathers initially presumed the post was to mark the fourth anniversary of the 2014 blaze in GSA’s Mackintosh Building, which was undergoing a major restoration after much of it was destroyed.
As it turned out, the news was far worse, as reports of a second fire were beamed across the world. As someone who had taken Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s iconic construction for granted while living in Glasgow, Drummond was as stunned as anyone else with even a passing relationship with the Mack.
While emotions continue to run high in response to the disaster, Drummond channelled his thoughts on all this into what he does best. The result is The Mack, a new play that forms part of Oran Mor’s A Play, A Pie and a Pint lunchtime theatre season in Glasgow prior …