TR: Why did you decide to make the love story between you and Diana Ross the focus of Motown: The Musical after keeping your relationship a secret for so long?
BG: Because it’s true. Motown covers heavy stuff, like the first time Diana and I had sex. I was so engrossed in her. It was something I’d wanted, and I was in love with her long before she was in love with me, so when she fell in love with me in Paris, I couldn’t believe it. Of course, nothing happened on my part, and it was so embarrassing. I wanted to smother myself. Then Diana said, “It’s not that bad. Look at it this way, at least you have power over everything else.” I’m not ashamed of putting anything about my life anywhere, because I’m a normal person.
TR: Is it odd watching someone else play you?
BG: The cast is so smart, and Brandon Victor Dixon has studied me. We’ve been rehearsing for nearly two years. Brandon has his own mannerisms, but they fit mine. He just studied me so much, but he’s a natural Berry Gordy-type. We cast a natural Marvin Gaye type and a natural Smokey Robinson type — we tried to get the naturals as much as we could.
TR: You and Smokey are quite fond of embracing. Is your Broadway Smokey a cuddly guy, too?
BG: The real Smokey is, especially with me. In the show, Smokey and Berry always liked the same girls, and they make a pact to always stay friends and never let a woman come between them.
TR: There’s the rumor that Diana Ross dated Smokey before she dated you.
BG: Ah — possibly, yes. [Laughs].
TR: After all of these years and other Broadway shows that are loosely based on Motown, like Dreamgirls, what do you hope your audience takes away from Motown: The Musical?
BG: Every time people see it, they’ll probably pick something else up. Motown came along at a time in the 1960s, and we were very lucky, especially being close to leaders like the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I had him under contract. We did three albums [of his speeches] because he realized that our music was helping his cause. The right music unites everybody. We tried to do that, and we were successful. Often there are more similarities than differences between people, and the good folks have to band together because the bad ones are disrupting things. Like my character says in the show, “The bad guys are killing off our dreams, one by one.” We can’t let that happen.
Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.