Sep 16

Singing a Motown Story

Motown playbill“A song is like a short story with a beginning, middle and end,”[1] instructs Berry Gordy. He’s speaking to his friend, Smokey Robinson, who hasn’t written a timely ending to a song. It’s early in both their careers, and the insightful Gordy shows Robinson a way to improve his songwriting skills. In this case, it’s by truncating Robinson’s lyrics once they’ve become redundant and are no longer adding value. (Sound familiar to any writers out there?) That one line from Motown the Musical resonated for me. I had to agree that songs do tell concise stories. The musical was loaded with about sixty of them. Each one was skillfully placed so that by the end of the main story, the giant Motown story, audience members were left wondering if the sensational songs were indeed inspired by the experiences of the rising stars who sang their way into history.

The Broadway production was based upon Gordy’s book, To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown, which was first published in 1994. Subsequently, an electronic version was released in 2013, most likely to coincide with the debut of the musical. Think: strategic marketing. It worked on me. Having enjoyed the play, I was enticed to download his e-book. In the not-to-be overlooked preface, Gordy explained why he penned his life’s story. He wanted to preserve his perspective and offer to readers the truth, as he experienced it, surrounding the entity he had created. He wrote, “…misconceptions about me and Motown became so great I finally had to deal with them.”[2]

Similarly, the musical story presents Gordy’s point of view to theater patrons. During the second scene, we learn of his upbringing in Detroit. A young Gordy and his family gather near a radio in their home and cheer on Joe Louis as he defeats German heavyweight champion, Max Schmeling, in a one round, knockout fight. The triumph is a source of pride for many people throughout the United States and impresses upon Gordy “a burning desire to be special, to win, to be somebody.”[3] The following scenes depict how Gordy achieves those things over a span of thirty years. Having written the script, he takes viewers through the rise and fall of his record label, unveils once-private moments, and sends a consistent message of the uniting force of love. Through civil riots, hate crimes, injustice and prejudice, Motown music spreads love and destroys boundaries between blacks and whites.

Although some serious subject matter permeates the show, the action moves so quickly there isn’t time to dwell on somber moments. Through Broadway magic and over 350 costumes,[4] the cast transforms into the characters they represent. All the favorites: Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, The Four Tops, The Temptations, The Commodores, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Marvelettes, and more.

At some point, I stopped comparing the actors to the originals. Their singing, dancing, and portrayals made the show entertaining and fun, engaging, and convincing. The most conflicting thought I had while sitting in the audience was whether or not it would be rude to sing along. (Well, there was also the immediate development of my cougar-crush for Eric LaJuan Summers when he came onstage as Rick James. Until then, I hadn’t fully appreciated how hard he works…out.)

Still sharing his talents with the world, Mr. Gordy turns 85 years old on November 28th and doesn’t seem to be done telling stories just yet. He continues to invent ways of keeping our beloved Motown Sound alive and, in so doing, serves as inspiration to us writers. Motown the Musical complements his legacy and earns its own place in history.

Congratulations to everyone involved in the production, including Detroit’s own Jawan M. Jackson. Well done.

Detroiters, Motown is coming to the Fisher Theatre October 21-November 16. Hope to see you there, singing and dancing in the seats.

[1] Motown the Musical. By Berry Gordy. Dir. Charles Randolph-Wright. Perf. Josh Tower. Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, New York City. 10 Aug. 2014.

[2] Gordy, Berry. To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown. (1994; New York: RosettaBooks LLC, Electronic Edition for iPad 2013) 20.

[3] Ibid., 41.

[4] Backstage at Motown: the Musical with Marva Hicks! (Video file). Retrieved from

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cTUx5tPmX18#t=76.

9 comments

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  1. Following comments.

    • Book Lover on October 11, 2014 at 8:57 pm
    • Reply

    Hope you enjoy the musical when it comes to town. The songs of Motown still bring back beautiful memories to many people.

      • Kelly Bixby on October 16, 2014 at 11:32 pm
      • Reply

      Thanks, Book Lover. I hope it’s a huge success in our hometown.

    • Sue Remisiewicz on September 21, 2014 at 5:43 pm
    • Reply

    Advice to budding writers often includes the recommendation to read a lot of books. Listening to songs that carry a story may be a good supplement in showing how to say a lot in a little time. Thanks for the inspiring thought.

      • Kelly Bixby on October 16, 2014 at 11:29 pm
      • Reply

      Music does have its own language and speaks to us in very personal ways. Life would be less joyful without it. Sue, are you thinking what I’m thinking? Writing songs may not take as long as writing books. Hmmm.

    • Yibbity on September 18, 2014 at 1:03 pm
    • Reply

    I did watch the video. Brings me back to the time we went to see the Supremes at the Roostertail.

      • Kelly Bixby on October 16, 2014 at 11:23 pm
      • Reply

      Yibbity, the musical is great fun. I hope you’ll go see it and re-live some Motown magic.

  2. Nice piece, Kelly, thanks for sharing. Enjoyed it!

      • Kelly Bixby on October 16, 2014 at 11:20 pm
      • Reply

      My pleasure, Phil.

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