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Mighty Motown: A Conversation with Berry Gordy

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Berry Gordy and Diana Ross
Berry Gordy directs Diana Ross in 1975's 'Mahogany'
Photo Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/ Getty

It's not hyperbole to say that just about everyone loves the music—and the drama—of Berry Gordy's Motown Records. Why? It's Motown. Motown unites the generations, and never, ever gets old. Perhaps this is because, as Gordy says, "Motown is truth. The truth of who we are." Far more than just music, the very idea of Motown is African-Americans aspiring to do more and to be better. Take the illustrious Supremes, for example. The gowns, the charm school, the glamour, the pursuit of excellence: "All that," Gordy says, "was to give Black people things to dream about."

And now the dream extends to a different stage. This April Motown is bringing its talents and truth to Broadway (the historic Lunt-Fontanne Theatre) in the form of Motown: The Musical. Previews begin March 11, but already there's buzz. Last fall, when Gordy previewed the show to press and industry insiders, a veritable who's who showed up to sneak a peek—from Clive Davis to Smokey Robinson to Aretha Franklin. Gordy even ended up onstage, singing and dancing with an energy that belied his 83 years.

Featuring some of the most soulful and polished young stars of the theatrical world, Motown will offer plenty of behind-the-music-style drama, particularly that of the once top secret love affair between Gordy and Diana Ross. But at its core Motown is the tale of a boxer and assembly-line worker (that would be Gordy) who wrote songs in his spare time and, in an epic battle for respect and fairness, in 1959 founded what would become the Motown empire. Braided together by Motown hits, the play is a construction of the life story of Berry Gordy. Is he nervous? "Oh, no," he says with a laugh. "I haven't had time to be."

Gordy certainly has been busy. He wrote the musical and coproduces with Tony Award winner Kevin McCollum (Rent, In the Heights) and Sony Music CEO Doug Morris, and he conducted some of the talent searches via YouTube. The Motown founder is especially thrilled about the story of the Supremes in the musical. "It's time for people to really see and understand the Diana Ross whom I know and love," Gordy says.

As rehearsals got under way, many in the cast couldn't contain their excitement. "While [playing Berry Gordy] is not a role I ever dreamed of, the show and process of building it have been a dream come true," says Brandon Victor Dixon. Valisia LeKae, who portrays Ross, seems to be living a fantasy. "My grandfather's barbershop had a jukebox, and at age 6 I would pick the Supremes, the Jacksons, Stevie Wonder and the Temptations," says LeKae. "My family is truly excited about this show."

With all those hit songs from the Motown catalog, it's a wonder Gordy hasn't done this sooner. Curiosity about which parts of his life he's chosen to highlight should be enough to pull folks into the theater. The idea of seeing early Motown artists—even careful interpretations of them —is fiercely seductive. It's a chance to experience the thrill of Marvin Gaye in rehearsal, or maybe Gordy and Ross hanging out with young Michael Jackson. It was a time of struggle, self-expression, vision—and hits that would last forever.

Gordy has stated that "there are many similarities between the Broadway philosophy and the Motown philosophy." Both are about hard work and creating one's own destiny. "Oh, yeah," Gordy says, "the more you do, the luckier you get."

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