(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.
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.