'Motown' is Berry Gordy's memory box

Berry Gordy and Charles Randolph Wright

Motown founder Berry Gordy (left) and director Charles Randolph Wright at the Oriental Theatre. (John J. Kim, Chicago Tribune / March 18, 2014)

How to tell the story of Berry Gordy, the visionary who signed and nurtured Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder and countless other Motown hit-makers? The self-described "bum with a dream" who built Motown Records into an empire?

When he looks back on the challenge facing him a few years ago, Charles Randolph-Wright smiles like a man who has acted, danced and directed all his adult life.

"Well, I wasn't nervous," says the director of "Motown the Musical," which opens Tuesday at the Oriental Theatre, the first stop on a national tour. "But I never slept."

Gordy, the play's subject and driving force, chuckles like a proud uncle.

"It's a big responsibility to get that story and articulate it," Randolph-Wright continues. "It was daunting."

The two men grew up 700 miles apart — Gordy from Detroit, Randolph-Wright from South Carolina — and are separated by a generation. Gordy is 84, Randolph-Wright, 57. But on this day, they are dressed nearly identically in snappy gray suits and black, ankle-high boots. They both look in fighting trim, Gordy as the former boxer, Randolph-Wright a professional dancer.

"Charles is a mini-me — we're both misfits, we're both dreamers," Gordy says. "I'm not the icon, the mogul that some people make me out to be. I'm that kid running around Detroit trying to get someone to believe in him. Charles could relate to that experience."

"I completely understood him," Randolph-Wright says. "As a kid, I idolized him. He presented one of the few images out there like that for a kid growing up" as part of the African-American community. Randolph-Wright moved from South Carolina in the late '70s to New York, where he won acting roles and later became a director in theater and movies.

It is a gray, cold March afternoon, and the partners are sitting in the basement of the Oriental Theatre, where rehearsals have just begun for the Chicago opening of "Motown the Musical." It debuted last year on Broadway and was nominated for four Tony Awards, despite some mixed reviews. The New York Times took issue with how the production tried to cram Gordy's story into 2 1/2 hours with more than 50 songs. The Tribune's Chris Jones lamented that Gordy's desire to control the narrative limited the historical and cultural sweep that a more objective storyteller might have been able to achieve.

Yet even the critics agreed that the music was extraordinary — and how could it not be? Motown, the self-described "music of young America," transcended generations with hits that ranged from the Temptations' "My Girl" to the Four Tops' "Reach Out I'll Be There," the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough."

The play is based on Gordy's 1994 autobiography, "To Be Loved," a book notable primarily for its diplomacy. Gordy had been accused over the years of cheating his artists, paying off radio stations to play his records and rubbing shoulders with the Mafia. But he used his book to make nice, express thanks and tell what is essentially a feel-good American-dream story. After all, Gordy went from the streets to the penthouse by creating Motown with an $800 family loan in 1958, signed some of the most vital artists of the 20th century and 30 years later, sold the company for $61 million.

"He's being very nice and congenial to everyone," the Temptations' Otis Williams told the Tribune at the time about his reaction to the book. "I thought he'd come out and say what he really felt. Some people — he speaks so nice about them, when I know it really isn't that way."

"Motown the Musical" adopts a similar tone as it skirts controversy and focuses on the successes, mostly musical. It was partially conceived as Gordy's response to the hit 2006 Hollywood movie "Dreamgirls," a fictional tale that closely resembled the Motown story, right down to the relationship between the record-company president, played by Jamie Foxx, and his Diana Ross-like protege, played by Beyonce. In the '60s and '70s, Gordy and Ross were lovers and had a child together in 1971. The love affair is a key storyline in "Motown the Musical."

"The movie depicted me as a low-level hustler who did all this (illegal) stuff that people say I did" at Motown, Gordy says. "I didn't want to constantly explain myself, but I had to put something out there that was real and true. When we put the show on Broadway, people related to it. The silent majority knows. It was an instant hit."

But Gordy says he wasn't striving to make a documentary. "We wanted to entertain," he says. That means music, and lots of it, perhaps at the expense of character development and personal narrative.

Randolph-Wright acknowledges that his biggest challenge was "how to get the audience to understand a chapter in one or two lines." But he discovered in working on the Broadway production that there was another element to the story he hadn't originally considered.

"It's actually two stories being told at the same time," the director says. "The narrative is Berry's journey. But it's also the journey of the music as it relates to the audience. Something Berry kept saying to me is that the people in the audience have to have their memory. A scene happens, and a song comes on and it's, 'I met my wife to this song.' My idols come to the show and say, 'This is my life.' There is this fusion. Every age, color and political orientation come together and have this journey."

The performers were chosen for their ability to evoke the era, not merely imitate it, Randolph-Wright says: "These actors are not impersonators. There is a 'Live it Again' T-shirt they sell at Motown. I get it with this show. When the actors playing Smokey Robinson or Marvin Gaye come out, and the audience is singing along, it's a visceral experience."

Gordy has one too when he watches the production. When pressed about his favorite song, he pauses only for a second. "It depends on who is around," he says with a laugh. "But I think it would have to be 'I Hear a Symphony' because at one time I was so in love with Diana Ross, and that song always pops in mind."

"Motown the Musical" also holds a message that he says sustained him when naysayers were pointing fingers. Scripting the play inspired an original ballad, "Can I Close the Door (on Love)," that has the unenviable task of competing with all those hits for the audience's attention. But to Gordy and Randolph-Wright, it's a key moment in the show.

"The bigger Motown got, the more we were attacked," Gordy says with a been-there-done-that air of resignation. "I wrote 'Can I Close the Door' as a response to (Motown's vaunted songwriting and production team) Holland-Dozier-Holland leaving me (in the '70s). They went their own way, and it hurt. But if it weren't for them, I wouldn't be here. No matter who is right or wrong, the question was, 'Can I close the door on these people?' And I realized, I can't."

Randolph-Wright nods. "It's a very specific image, yet universal," he says. "That's what Motown did."

"Motown the Musical" opens Tuesday and runs through July 13 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.; for more information, go to broadwayinchicago.com.

greg@gregkot.com

Twitter @gregkot

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