Hitsville revisited - ‘Motown: The Musical’

On the night his first wife served him with divorce papers, Berry Gordy went to his sister’s house in Detroit and wrote a song.

“To Be Loved” became a 1958 hit for Jackie Wilson and the title of Gordy’s 1994 autobiography. The book tracked how his recording studio, Hitsville USA, created “the sound of young America” with artists such as the Supremes, the Four Tops and the Temptations, even as its founder juggled marriages and affairs amid the racial and social upheavals of the time.

A quarter of a century after he sold Motown Records, Gordy, 83, is returning to the story as co-producer and book writer of a $16.5m Broadway show. Motown: The Musical, which squeezes 57 songs into its two-and-a-half hours – from the Jackson Five’s “ABC” to Smokey Robinson’s “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” – might be the ultimate in “jukebox musicals”, shows that are popular for their familiar soundtracks as much as for their stories.

For Gordy, however, it is also a chance to set the record straight. “Deep down, I’ve always wanted to show the people their love for Motown was not loving the wrong things and the wrong people,” he says in a voice as scratchy as a vinyl record but as animated as a man half his age. “I didn’t want them to feel that something they had believed in all their lives was a phoney, was crooked, was ridiculous.”

Memories of Motown have been shaped by a couple of critical books and the musical Dreamgirls (1981), a fictional tale of three soul singers whose triumphs and crises echo those of the Supremes. But Gordy has faced doubters who played up “the wrong things and the wrong people” for decades: “Some said that I was in the mafia. Some said the black kids from Detroit could never make it without being in drugs or this and that. And we very seldom tried to defend ourselves, we just continued to put out great music.”

In Motown: the Musical, his retelling of the story is, unsurprisingly, sympathetic. The adult Gordy, played by Brandon Victor Dixon, is the clear star. We see him as an eight-year-old boxer wanting to make people as happy as Joe Louis had made Gordy’s parents by knocking out the German heavyweight Max Schmeling. We see him teaching artists to kick, turn and smile; and we see him falling in love with Diana Ross (played by Valisia LeKae). “She was magic, and she was mine,” says Gordy, still sounding wistful all these years later.

Gordy outside his Hitsville offices in Detroit in 1964

Even so, lawyers and accountants have more than a walk-on part in the drama. Holland/Dozier/Holland, the songwriting trio behind the Supremes’ 1966 hit “You Can’t Hurry Love”, were among the former protégés who ended up trading lawsuits with Gordy over royalty disputes; artists including Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye left the label, looking for more control than he would give them; and some fans still have not forgiven him for firing Florence Ballard from the Supremes in 1967. Ballard died almost a decade later after a battle with depression, and her exit is brushed over in the musical with a cliché from Gordy’s character: “The pressure of fame is vicious. Not everyone can go the distance.”

Motown: The Musical starts and ends in 1983, with Gordy sitting disillusioned in his house as stars who left him for bigger labels gather for Motown 25, a televised reunion concert now mainly remembered as the event at which Michael Jackson introduced the moonwalk. This April’s opening night for the new show has provided a happier reunion. “The thing that made me the most fulfilled was the fact that the artists came. Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight ... and some of them cried just because they have felt sorry for me and the legacy and all that with all of the stuff that they knew was not accurate,” says Gordy. “Deep down, they felt relieved that finally their life stories were being told in an accurate way.”

Gordy has been interested in Broadway for more than 40 years, since he invested in Pippin, a Stephen Schwartz-Bob Fosse musical first staged in 1972 (a revival of Pippin is competing with Motown at the Tony Awards in New York this weekend). Yet he resisted offers to adapt his memoirs for the stage until US music executive Doug Morris, suggesting Gordy should “see a psychiatrist” if he did not tell his story on Broadway, offered an unusual partnership.

Morris, who is 74, co-wrote “Sweet Talkin’ Guy” for the Chiffons in 1966, and has run all the remaining “big three” music companies: Warner Music, Universal Music and now Sony Music. He has worked with acts from Stevie Nicks and Jay-Z to current Sony signings such as Daft Punk, Pink and Justin Timberlake but the co-production deal he offered Gordy was like no artist contract he had ever signed. Morris, with no background on Broadway, would put up all $16.5m of the musical’s production costs but, in any deadlock, would have just one vote, with Gordy having two. “Steve Jobs told me to use my own money if I really believed in it,” explains Morris, who helped Jobs launch the iTunes Music Store in 2003 and stayed close to him despite record labels’ sometimes fraught relationship with the Apple co-founder. “I knew [two votes to one] was going to be the only way to do it. He [Gordy] had to do it his way.”

“Doug made it very plain to everyone that he was banking on me,” says Gordy. “And, of course, that made me his slave,” he says with a laugh. “Coming up from where I came from, I always wanted people to believe in me.” Previous forays into film, such as the 1972 Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues, were hard, he recalls, because people doubted his ability to transfer his success from one medium to another but Morris’s confidence made his Broadway debut easier.

The two men are co-producers alongside Kevin McCollum, whose Broadway credits include Rent (1996) and In The Heights (2007), both winners of Tonys for best musical. The director, Charles Randolph-Wright, who has worked in television and movies but had no experience of putting together a Broadway musical, won Gordy over by saying the Motown show would be “his life’s work”.

There is no Hitsville formula for musicals, however, and Morris and Gordy have made big financial and reputational gambles. The Economist calculated recently that just one in 10 musicals makes money, and the Broadway box office has stalled in the year to May, with grosses flat at $1.14bn, reflecting the early demise of several shows. A third of Broadway’s new shows last season were musicals but they have had mixed success. In April, as Motown opened, Hands on a Hardbody, based on a documentary about an endurance competition to win a truck, closed after just three weeks. Viva Forever!, a critical disaster of a show based on the Spice Girls’ rather more limited repertoire, is closing in London at the end of June after six months.

Morris knew the risks from his friendship with Bono. The U2 frontman helped write the music for Julie Taymor’s Spider-Man musical, which endured months of previews and broke Broadway budget records before finally opening in June 2011. Two years on, it is still earning more than $1m a week but it could take years more to recoup its investment.

In this challenging climate, Motown is off to a strong start. Despite mixed reviews and missing out on a best musical Tony nomination, it has been selling out its 1,500-seat theatre, pulling in more than $1.3m a week. That is less than The Lion King, Wicked and The Book of Mormon but in the same league as hits such as Kinky Boots or Lucky Guy. It also makes it Broadway’s top-selling new musical of the season.

With international versions likely, Morris stands a reasonable chance of making money. If they survive their first year or two on Broadway, where labour costs are notoriously high, musicals make their real profits by touring lower-cost cities in America and transferring overseas, anywhere from London to Seoul. And while no jukebox musical has so far matched the global earning power of Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King or Wicked, a couple – the Abba-themed Mamma Mia!, and Jersey Boys, based on the Four Seasons – feature in the all-time top 10 grossing musicals.

In the past decade, Broadway producers have raided the catalogues of artists including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Green Day. A Carole King musical is in the works for 2014. As a high-stakes business become more risk-averse, the appeal of shows based on music that already has millions of fans is clear. Put simply: a big musical can bring a broader crowd to Broadway than more critically acclaimed dramas.

Gordy taking a picture of the Supremes in Paris in 1965

Six months before it opened, in a lavish preview featuring the cast, Gordy and Smokey Robinson, Motown: The Musical pitched itself to the big ticketing agencies responsible for bringing busloads of tourists to the Great White Way. “They’re all great, normal people that come [to Broadway],” says Gordy. “The high-class people, the middle-class people, the low-class people. Whoever comes have feelings. And they lived with this music.”

To Morris, the musical’s appeal is simple: apart from the universally recognisable soundtrack, it evokes a tumultuous period in US history and, at its heart, the “incredible American success story” of Gordy, who as a worker at the Lincoln-Mercury automobile plant in Detroit, had the idea for a musical production line where an artist could come in one door an unknown and go out another a star. Having borrowed $800 from his family, he created one of the most remarkable businesses the music industry has seen.

As Gordy says: “If a kid came to me now and said I want to do what I wanted to do, I’d say, ‘I think you’d better go get your nine-to-five job.’ I wanted to have this assembly line thing and do the same thing with people that we did with cars. It’s crazy.”

The approach Gordy borrowed from Henry Ford created a true hit factory by focusing obsessively, like a modern-day advocate of “six-sigma” disciplines for eliminating defects, on creating near-perfect end products. The musical portrays the candid Friday meetings that would fuel competition between his artists, songwriters and producers with the aim of finding guaranteed top 10 hits, even if it meant passing up songs such as “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”, which they could not agree upon for a year.

“I was in charge but I made logic the boss, and so anybody could fight with me. Competition breeds champions,” he says, but he adds that Motown sought to eliminate the “politics and greed and ego” of most creative enterprises: “Then the love comes through.”

Lyrical explanations aside, Gordy’s management style has made him a rich man. He sold Motown Records in 1988 for $61m to MCA, now part of Universal Music. Jobete, Gordy’s catalogue of publishing rights to the songs he calls his babies, went in stages to EMI Music Publishing (now controlled by Sony) for about $320m. Has he also succeeded in having the last word on his legacy with Motown: The Musical?

On stage, grasping lawyers, not ambitious artists or an unreasonable founder, take the blame for the disputes. “The Motown family has always been a close-knit family, no matter what the problems,” he says, and he now accepts why that family scattered. “Artists left me because of a lot of reasons. I didn’t give them the amount of control that other people would. I started with them when they were absolutely nobodies and nothing, and so naturally, like any parent, they never get too big that you [wouldn’t] say, ‘Hey, I think you’re on the wrong track.’ ”

Adam White, a Motown historian, endorses the musical’s portrayal of events. When artists Gordy had made into superstars were reluctant to appear in the Motown 25 TV show, Gordy felt they were ungrateful, although he came to understand that, as White says, “They had to be themselves, like children leaving home.”

For Gordy, the truth is, ultimately, what rolled off his production line. Debates about his legacy are not going to be settled on a Broadway stage. The songs are what endure, and what are bringing in fans for a chance to revel again in one of music’s richest catalogues. If nothing else, Motown: The Musical helps fulfil Gordy’s long-held aim: “I guess all my life I wanted to be heard,” he says.

Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson is the FT’s media editor

Listen to the full Motown playlist on Spotify

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