Motown Records didn't release every indelible pop-soul hit from the '60s and '70s, although sometimes that's how it seemed. The Drifters' "On Broadway," for example, was one that got away, to Atlantic.
Now the touring production has come to L.A., where it's at the Pantages Theatre through June 7. Settling into an overstuffed chair in a den hung with memorabilia in his Bel Air home, Gordy connected some of the dots between the hit factory and the stage musical.
Did you pay much attention to musical theater in your early days in Detroit?
Growing up, I think we all loved Broadway. I told many of my artists that I wanted them to be able to do singing, dancing, movies, television and Broadway. There were no limits.
In 2006, it was announced that "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," a musical you were writing with a score of Motown music, would be opening at the Ahmanson Theatre in L.A. But it was quickly withdrawn and replaced by "Jersey Boys."
It was a fictional story set in a high school, mainly about a 15-year-old girl living in today's times with today's problems and using Motown music. I was pretty heavy into that, trying to do something that's meaningful for today's teenagers and make it entertaining. Then David [Geffen] came along, and Doug [Morris].
Geffen was a producer of the 1981 Broadway musical "Dreamgirls," generally regarded as a rough version of the rise of the Supremes, and it was made into a 2006 movie co-produced by DreamWorks, the studio Geffen helped found. How did Geffen and Morris reach out to you?
David asked me what I thought about the movie, and I told him I did not like it. He was very upset about that. He made it plain and clear that he loved Motown and this was not based on me or my life, and he encouraged me to do my own show in a truthful way. Doug Morris said, "If you do a fictional play and don't do your own story, you need to see a psychiatrist."
Did you have any say in the casting of the "Motown" Broadway and touring productions? And were you looking for actors who looked or sounded like Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and other Motown stars?
Yes, I had the final say on everything because it was my vision. Charles [director Charles Randolph-Wright] knew things he was looking for that I would not have looked for. I looked for people who looked the part, but they had to have the talent, and more than that they had to have the feeling. You had people who looked more like [certain singers] than others but didn't act as well or feel [the same].
Some reviewers have complained that the show tries to cram in bits of too many hits. They would have preferred fewer numbers, done more thoroughly.
It would have been extremely boring. They can go to a concert and hear songs straight through. We were trying to tell a story, a Broadway story, and the songs help tell the story. It was about a person that wanted to make other people shine, and by doing that he found out that he could shine more than he could have shined in any other way.
What do actors who play Berry Gordy need?
They need to have compassion and understanding. They have to be as nice as they could be but tough as they had to be. Berry Gordy never liked people who mistake kindness for weakness.
The list of songs in the show goes alphabetically from "ABC" by the Jackson 5 to "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" by the Miracles. If you'd added a song that begins with Z, the marketing department could have advertised it as "Motown A to Z."
If you'd told me that before, I could have written the song. There are three new songs that I co-wrote.
Wasn't that a lot of pressure? Over the years you had a hand in writing some of the Motown hits, but here you were, in your 80s and faced with measuring up to some of the best pop songs ever.
We wanted to make it a real musical and not a jukebox musical, and to make [certain scenes] work I was trying to write a song that would fit the play better than the old songs. One was "Hey Joe, You're Black Like Me," a tribute to Joe Louis, who was my hero. I saw my mother and father cry when he knocked out Max Schmeling, and it made me wonder whether I could do anything in my life that would make people happy enough to cry.
Some of the soul music and rhythm and blues stars associated with Atlantic and Stax became very bitter after disco took off in the mid-1970s and supplanted soul. How did Motown respond to that?
When disco came out we welcomed it. I love all music and felt it was a new form and very interesting. We had a big hit with a Thelma Houston song [he begins to hum her 1977 disco hit, "Don't Leave Me This Way"]. We didn't really categorize our music. It was all Motown music, whatever felt good to us.
The recent courtroom battle in which Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" was found to have copied Marvin Gaye's Motown hit "Got to Give It Up" focused attention on musical plagiarism. Did Motown have a system for making sure it didn't put out records that accidentally had copied a pre-existing song?
We were inspired of course by many songs, that's just natural. But we never came across that with our writers. They were in their own cocoons. We had a Motown style, a Motown band, so it was not really easy for us to duplicate someone else's song.
You sold Motown many years ago as well as the publishing company that owns rights to many of the songs. Are you kicking yourself now that "Motown the Musical" presumably is generating a new round of record sales and publishing royalties?
Not at all. I'm thrilled that it's doing as well as it's doing, and I even look forward to working with Motown to rejuvenate whatever it can. I'm proud of the artists, and I realize how grateful and lucky I am.