As Motown the Musical heads to Leeds, Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad speaks to the producer who brought it to the UK.
April this year and I am in a sweltering London ready to head into a sweltering Shaftesbury Theatre to see what is one of the West End’s hottest musicals.
It’s a miracle the audience at Motown the Musical didn’t spontaneously combust given that amount of heat – plus the absolute fireworks that were going off on the stage. As I imagine is the case for many of you, I grew up listening to the music of Motown. Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 were my route into some of the most instantly memorable music ever created. Maybe for you it was Diana Ross, or perhaps the Temptations? Maybe Smokey Robinson or Stevie Wonder or Martha Reeves and the Vandellas? An extraordinary list by any account and there are plenty more like it.
The story of Motown, then, you might think is one long upbeat feelgood tale. Not so.
Berry Gordy, the genius – and I used the word advisedly and correctly – behind Motown created his label and the music the world would love for many decades in an America rife with racial unrest.
The story of Motown is not just one of happy songs that make you instantly tap your feet and click your fingers, but one of incredible success against equally incredible odds.
Adam Spiegel is the producer behind the West End hit musical and the man who is bringing it to Leeds Grand Theatre next month.
“Because we hear the music all the time and know just how great it is, it’s easy to forget what a difficult thing it was for Berry Gordy to make it,” he says. “The principal legacy of music is to be remembered, so it’s sometimes difficult to put music into the context of the moment in which it was created. At the time of the birth of Motown, America was all about civil rights, politically the country was in a very difficult time and the fact that this music was being created by a black version of Richard Branson is extraordinary.
“We take for granted that the music we hear on our radios today is made by people who all look different from one another, but the barriers Berry Gordy had to get over to lead us to where we are today were huge. In the 1960s in America there were stations for black music and there were stations for white music. It’s impossible for us to imagine sometimes now, it’s not that long ago, it’s within living memory that that was the case.”
Inside the theatre I witness the power of this story. The music speaks, or sings, for itself, but it is the brilliantly put together story, by Berry Gordy himself, that places that incredible music in its political context. Marvin Gaye is at the forefront of trying to push the political agenda in the Motown The Musical story. When he sings What’s Going On, I defy anyone not to be moved by the song like you’ve never been moved by it before.
“Berry Gordy got over all of those barriers in his way and he did it from Detroit, a midwest America industrial city, as the first black music tycoon,” says Speigel.
Back inside the theatre, I sit there and realise that as the Yorkshire Post theatre correspondent, I really want to tell you about this production, but as a human being I desperately want as many people as possible, of all colours, to see this vital and important story. It is one of those rare musicals that has serious muscle and message behind its musicality. Audiences get to see the complex relationship Gordy had with Diana Ross, the difficulties he faced in trying to convince anyone to invest in what was going to be the first black owned, black led, black music producing record label and the complicated relationships he had as a creative producer with the musicians he employed.
Speigel had the terrifying honour of meeting the man who made Motown. “He is incredible. He’s nearly 88, plays tennis every day, he’s sharp as a whip. He’s amazing,” he says. “I went to see the show in New York and then had a meeting with him and essentially sold myself to him saying ‘please, please, please can I produce your show’.”
Gordy said yes and Speigel set about the arrangements to bring Motown the Musical to London’s West End and from there around the country. He also had the honour of working with Gordy. “He’s much smarter than anyone else in the room,” says Spiegel. “When we were casting the show he was involved in all the auditions and when he has an opinion on whether or not someone is good enough, you listen. You think ‘well this is the guy who discovered Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, he really is at the top of the mountain and the rest of us are scrabbling around at the bottom’.”
The good news is that from the top of the mountain Berry Gordy changed music for all of us and the extraordinary story makes for one hell of a stage show.
Key moments in the motown story
1959: Berry Gordy obtains a $800 loan from his family savings fund to create Hitsville USA and Motown.
1960: Shop Around by The Miracles becomes Motown’s first million selling hit.
1963: Stevie Wonder’s album 12 Year Old Genius becomes Motown’s first No 1 pop album.
1965: Five Motown releases reach No 1 on the Top Ten Pop charts.
2009: 50th Anniversary of Motown.
Motown the Musical, Leeds Grand Theatre, November 6 to 17. Tickets from the box office on 0844 8482700 or online via www.leedsgrandtheatre.com