Guest Post by David Thomas
Let me make it clear from the outset: I wasn’t entirely convinced that Motown The Musical really needed a lavish London launch. What it says on the tin should easily be enough to pack the Shaftesbury Theatre for some considerable period. And then to find on arrival that the host for this jamboree was Sir Lenny Henry, one of the finest actors on the English stage (if you don’t believe me ask anyone who was lucky enough to see Fences) surely that was just overkill?
You see, in common with most of the assembled guests yesterday afternoon, I had been lured to the Hospital Club on false pretences. Check your invites: we were definitely given to believe that we would be seeing a presentation about a forthcoming musical production, but what we got instead was a love story, and probably one of the most enduring and passionate in the history of popular music.
From the moment Berry Gordy began to speak, it was immediately apparent that here was someone whose success had sprung as much from his humanity as his abilities. Someone who valued the people he worked with, and the chance to work with those people, far more than the book value they added to his Motown record label.
With a few deft words we were transported back to the beginning of that love story in 1950s Detroit. Gordy, then a young prize-fighter, sat staring at two sets of posters on a café wall. One poster depicted two boxers in their twenties – who looked like they were in their fifties. The second poster featured two band leaders in their fifties – who looked like they were in their twenties. No contest. Gordy hung up his gloves and eventually managed to borrow the money for his first studio, but, as he repeatedly told us, he didn’t get his first real break until he was twenty-nine years old.
Perhaps it was that period in the wilderness that made him so responsive to the talent, and the dreams, of those he signed up? Maybe it’s just the kind of man he was and is. Over the next hour or so Gordy populated the stage with some of the principal characters in the love story; Smokey Robinson (“at fifteen his shirt and his trousers were too big so everything flopped around”) The Supremes (“we used to call them the ‘No-Hit Supremes’ because we spent five years promoting them and could never get them a hit”) and the young Michael Jackson “The Sponge” who instinctively learnt from and incorporated the best bits of other acts and made them his own.
Excerpts from the love story were presented live by some incredibly talented performers. The Director and Producer spoke articulately about the daunting challenge of bringing Motown to the stage. Gordy revealed how it was only on the first tour of the UK, in 1965, that he realized that the tiny entity he had started up in a garage in Detroit had grown into an international phenomenon. In short, we got the presentation in addition to, or rather wrapped around, the love story; the why and the how, the wherefores and the what-fors and the all-important why-the-hell-nots. And from next Spring, audiences at Motown The Musical at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London, will be able to become part of the next chapter in this incredible, enduring and life-enhancing love story -and treat themselves to a great night out experiencing live some of the greatest songs ever written.
Playing at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre from February 2016, don’t miss Motown The Musical!