Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy on 'Motown the Musical' and the Label's Evolving Legacy
When Motown the Musical — which grossed over $115 million during its two-year run on Broadway, beginning in March, 2013 — wraps its six-week run at Hollywood’s Pantages
Theatre on June 7, the national tour will then motor its away across N. America through early next year on a 37-date run. Then it’s on to London and a final, victorious lap back home on Broadway.
The musical tells the story of Berry Gordy’s founding of his iconic label as well as the tale of its musical legacy through a series of flashbacks, set at the label’s 25th anniversary in 1983.
Joined by fellow Motown icon Smokey Robinson during a recent chat about the musical’s own growing legacy, founder Berry Gordy says simply, “We tried to take the truth and make it entertaining.”
What does the success of this musical say about enduring legacy of Motown?
Smokey Robinson: We love it.
Berry Gordy: Well, we show how important Billboard was to us to get five out of the top 10, we show that. That was such a highlight of our success having one company with five records.
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What was the initial goal with the project, and how did Motown’s personality fit into that?
Gordy: We just believe in simple things. The truth is a hit — if it’s entertaining. Otherwise it’s a documentary or something like that. So we tried to take the truth and make it entertaining. And most of it is just real life, common-sense stuff. When I needed money, I wrote a song called “Money.” It’s the beauty of the songs. Smokey of course, he kind of did the same thing, only his were more romantic. He’s responsible for probably more babies in that time than any single person professionally and personally.
Robinson: Berry is such a perfectionist and your question is, ‘Did I think it would be successful?’ I knew it was going to be successful. First of all, he had the ammunition that had been built up all those years with the music, the legacy and how Motown affected the world. But I knew if he was going to do it, no one would ever see it unless it was going to be really good. He’s still making changes; he’s never done.
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Gordy: Charles would make all of the cast , he would set up times anywhere from two to ten minutes, whatever it took, and the cast would ask me anything. They’d come and sit down with me, they’d tape it. They were not taught to copy Marvin or Diana but to understand and /be/ them. Not act like them. And he made sure of that. That’s why it’s so authentic and feels so natural, because they are those characters.
Even Diana — it’s unbelievable, I’m seeing myself on stage there, I’m seeing my movements on stage, my anger. Because she was angry with me a lot. When she saw the show, ‘Oh I was ridiculous wasn’t I… and over here you were ridiculous and you showed it.’ It’s funny.
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Will there be a film adaptation?
Gordy: Oh yeah, it’s always in the works — been in the works a long time with different people talking to us about it. But we’re just focusing on this right now. The movie will come when it comes.
What do you think about the modern Motown?
Gordy: I’m very happy about it. I met with [Motown president Ethiopia Habtemariam] and she’s very bright, strong and very interested in taking the brand and joining it with what’s happening and bringing up a whole new generation of people. The company is very much behind her. So we do meet, we do talk. I just love her. She’s a young person coming up with some great ideas and very smart. I love smart.