(The Root) — When Berry Gordy began Motown Records in Detroit in 1959, few people thought he would be successful, he now says. But decades after ruling the Billboard charts and cementing his place in popular culture with films like Lady Sings the Blues, Gordy is on the cusp of conquering a new stage, Broadway.
At a recent preview for Motown: The Musical on a spare Times Square soundstage, the two actors playing Gordy and Diana Ross, Brandon Victor Dixon and Valisia LeKae, act out the beginning of the couple’s storied romance in a fictitious Parisian cafe. Though all the audience really sees are two people sitting at a table without so much as a salt shaker between them, it’s easy to be whisked away by a tale of untimely affection between a beautiful singer and a businessman when they begin singing Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By.”
On April 14, Motown: The Musical will open at Broadway’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, depicting their love story wrapped in nostalgic tracks from the archives of Gordy’s vast label. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, the Jackson Five and, of course, Diana Ross and the Supremes are all featured in the show, which Gordy says has been in the works since 2009, his label’s 50th anniversary.
The Motor City icon spoke to The Root about why he finally took Motown’s music to Broadway, why he mended fences with artists like Holland-Dozier-Holland and his inspiration for sharing embarrassing moments like his first — and unsuccessful — night in bed with Ross.
The Root: Why do Motown: The Musical now? Investors must have been pitching you this idea for ages.
Berry Gordy: Yes, but I was only interested in doing the real show on Broadway. It’s like what I told the Supremes years ago when I advised them to go from their R&B songs to standards because they were so big on The Ed Sullivan Show: “Music is for all people, black and white, Jews and gentiles, cops and the robbers.”
TR: Did their fans find the transition difficult?
BG: At one point I was too white for black people and too black for white people. The white people didn’t want me on their side, and the black people wondered why I was doing their kind of songs, so it was a balance. I’m doing the show now because I don’t have to do it. Even though I’ve had problems with artists in the past, the record has been set straight so many times. All of that has been cleared, and they’ve all come to me and said, “Hey, no one believed a black kid from Detroit could [create Motown] without being in the Mafia, so we were convinced that [the rumors] were right, and maybe we were being cheated.” When they found out that they weren’t, they came back, and now we’re the best of friends.
Anybody that was at Motown at that time can’t not love each other because we went through so much. Now, everybody is thrilled. I always had Broadway in the back of my mind years ago, but never thinking I’d do it. I just told them, “One day, ya’ll will do Broadway, we’ve done television,” so now Broadway.