Showing the man, celebrating the music11/19/2014
When I interviewed Clifton Owen, the man playing Motown founder Berry Gordy in the tour of “Motown the Musical,” the show was in Detroit — Motown itself. As you might expect, the cast was finding the experience a love fest.
“People in Detroit are so proud of this music,” said Owen. “They’re so happy to at last have a show that celebrates it.”
And Gordy himself, though he’s been based in L.A. for years, is sharing the love. “He’s very involved, very hands-on,” Owen says. “Before we even went on tour, I got to spend about two weeks with the man, studying him.”
This close study of the lead character has a lot to do with how “Motown the Musical” sets itself apart from other so-called “jukebox musicals.” A number of these, such as the Beach Boys musical “Good Vibrations,” have failed for lack of a story. They play the hits but lack for drama. “Motown” certainly has hits, both those Gordy wrote like “Money (That’s What I want)” — best-known now as a Beatles cover — and those he helped produce for the Jackson 5 and many others. Still, as Owen puts it, “The way this show is written, Berry Gordy’s story and the great music he helped to create go hand in hand. It’s all of the above.”
Among the devices that connect the man and the songs is having Gordy himself sing them, instead of the artist who actually appeared on the record. “As Gordy,” Owen explains, “I get to sing a Stevie Wonder song. I get to perform all these wonderful numbers.”
Not that Wonder doesn’t get a turn onstage, during the show. He’s one of the characters, to be sure, delivering a couple of numbers. Indeed, the show offers Motown personalities more or less non-stop, beginning with a singing competition between the Four Tops and the Temptations. The show travels with its own band, seven musicians (adding locals on a few instruments at each stop).
Besides that, as the music develops from early hits to later, it traces the social upheavals of the decade that spawned them: the 1960s. The struggles of the era are reflected more and more in the lyrics, and the music becomes more complex, even psychedelic.
In Gordy’s personal story, however, one star stands out as most important. That’s Diana Ross, groomed by him as first the leader of the Supremes and then a movie star (in “Lady Sings the Blues,” 1972).
“Just wait till you see who we’ve got for Diana Ross, too,” says Owen. This is Allison Semmes, a younger actress Owen describes as “incredible.”
Before long, Gordy and Ross became lovers, and they even had a baby together — but they never married. Thus this musical is also about that love affair, and with the aftermath. At heart, it’s a story of reconciliation, as an old man must come to terms with the heartaches and glories of his past.
Al of the above, as Owen says.
Overheard in the Lobby: Des Moines now has an annual theater awards program, named the “Cloris,” after Cloris Leachman. CV
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.