As Motown The Musical enters into it’s final stretch in London’s West End, TFSR gives it’s thoughts on the flashy production
Motown The Musical is a hit. Sure, the story is a bit patchy and the dialogue is a bit forced, but the it’s the musical legacy that pulls in the punters night after night. As record labels go, very few have been as influential as Motown, both musically and culturally.
The show first debuted in New York in Broadway, and the London production started about 3 years ago. It’s due to close at the Shaftsbury Theatre in April (the theatre itself is due to a massive renovation), and the production is to go on tour later this year.
As “jukebox musicals” go, Motown The Musical has a huge advantage over rival productions by the fact the music is just so good. But, let’s face it, “jukebox musicals” are almost always guaranteed to find an audience and be a success. Mamma Mia, which puts the hits of Abba to a story, has been hugely successful. Jersey Boys, which tells the story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, was equally successful and introduced their music to a whole new audience. And the new musical telling the story of The Temptations looks incredible.
Motown The Musical is an undeniably fun production, and provides a quick (if sanitised) history lesson to the casual Motown fan. The cast are great (particularly the guy playing Berry Gordy Jr) and the production and sound are equally superb. For a fun, non-pretentious, easy-to-enjoy show, little else can compete.
Now for those punter who know little of Motown, that’s fine. But for those of us with more than passing knowledge of the Detroit label, the show can be a bit infuriating.
In part, this is because there is simply too much history at Motown to tell in just over 2 hours. One minute Berry Gordy is a young boy listening to Joe Louis fights on the radio, then 10 minutes later he’s written hits for Jackie Wilson, met Smokey Robinson, left his first wife, and had the first hits at Motown. It’s a bit exhausting, but it’s also rushed, which means we don’t really know how Berry founded Motown or what he felt at the time, just that he did it.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the story largely settles into the relationship between Berry and Diana Ross, who arrives at Motown with her singing partners Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, better known as as The Supremes. Once the group have their first hit, ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’, they become the centre-focus for Gordy and the play.
As a result, Motown The Musical becomes Diana and Berry The Musical. Again, given that the story is based upon Berry Gordy’s autobiography, the focus on his relationship with Diana is unsurprising. But we don’t really learn anything new: Berry and Diana were an item, but we don’t really learn why they were drawn to each other and how it affected their professional relationship, other than it was hard to balance.
This would all be fine if it was a musical purely about Diana and Berry, but calling it ‘Motown The Musical’ neglects the other talented acts on the label, particularly those with greater musical influence and ability.
The greatest annoyance about Motown The Musical is the way Stevie Wonder is relegated in the story, as if his success wasn’t important for the company when, in the seventies, Motown depended in part on his huge success. Indeed, for an artist who has won 25 Grammy’s and is an artist of arguably more importance musically than Diana Ross, he is given barely any time at all. When he does appear he’s first, briefly, a small boy, then appears decades later in the plays shaky timing, as an adult singing ‘Happy Birthday’ – before singing ‘Signed Sealed Delivered’, a song released nearly a decade earlier!
Again, there’s simply too much history (and too many artists) at Motown for it to be told in a 2 hour show. But instead of acknowledging it and telling perhaps part of the story, the show tries to cram in as much as possible. But, like a fast food meal, you leave still hungry for more.
For instance, the show opens at rehearsals for the Motown 25 special, where The Temptations are doing battle with the Four Tops. It’s a clever opening. But, firstly, the elephant in the room is that this wouldn’t have been the original line-up of The Temptations – Melvin and Otis were the only ones left at this point, along with Dennis Edwards. Secondly, more frustratingly, this is the only time the Four Tops appear. After the first 5 minutes the group simply vanish, never to reappear.
They aren’t the only ones. Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, The Marvelettes and Junior Walker all appear for a about a minute, to then be never seen nor mentioned again. Marvin Gaye gets a bit more time, certainly more than Stevie, but even then he only appears to sing ‘What’s Going On’ and a snippet of ‘Inner City Blues’. Oddly, there’s no mention of ‘Let’s Get It On’, surely one the ladies of the West End would love to hear.
In the second half the cramming of history continues. The Commodores appear for 30 seconds to sing ‘Brick House’; Rick James comes on to wiggle his crotch to the front row as he sings ‘Give It To Me Baby’; and Teena Marie appears to sing a little of ‘Square Biz’.
As this shows, there is a lot to cover when it comes to Motown. Indeed, some of it isn’t covered at all, especially when it becomes threatening to the Motown brand and “family” the PR has cultivated. For instance, Florence Ballard’s dismissal from The Supremes is mentioned once in passing (her slide into poverty and early death are obviously not mentioned). Similarly, David Ruffin’s firing from the Temptations isn’t mentioned – when The Temptations re-appear to sing ‘Ball of Confusion’ the one with the glasses is simply gone.
Poor Gladys Knight & The Pips aren’t even mentioned at all.
It isn’t all bad. Far from it. The cast, the production and, most of all, the music make the show watching. And for the casual fan and theatre goer, much of this probably isn’t an issue. If you’re looking for a musical featuring nothing but hits from the sixties and seventies, this is it. Plus the kid playing a young Michael Jackson is great.
Admirably, it tries to draw attention to Motown’s prominence in the civil rights era, including scenes on the 1967 Detroit race riots and Berry Gordy’s recording of Martin Luther King’s speeches for his Black Forum label (although it seems MLK’s voice is copyrighted, as it wasn’t his unmistakable tones saying his words).
But for those of us who love and adore Motown and it’s history, don’t expect to learn very much.
The script itself doesn’t help things. The dialogue is often simple, the jokes fall flat on naff puns and the drama tries to be overly poignant when it doesn’t need to be.
What Motown the Musical is really concerned about is protecting (and making money from) the Motown legacy. The play’s narrative is that everything Berry did was justified. Berry’s autobiography is a great read, but in it’s transfer to the stage, it becomes little more than a PR exercise in defending his rule.
And sure, it’s his show, his reputation. I get it. But it just feels sanitised.
For instance, Holland-Dozier-Holland are shown to be briefly unhappy with their money, and next thing they’re off. We don’t go any deeper, and Berry is shown to have no alternative but to sue. Similarly, the move to L.A. from Detroit to make Diana Ross a movie star is shown to be justified in the end (even if Motown ran out of money).
It’s this obsession with legacy that results in a back-slapping, sentimental ending that is ultimately unsatisfying. Motown’s legacy is unparalleled as a musical and cultural force, but Motown The Musical only scratches the surface. Motown’s legacy deserves better.