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