NEW YORK — The songs are among the most popular of the baby boom era — “My Girl,” “I Want You Back,” “Dancing in the Streets.” They may be the staple of oldies radio; they haven’t been part of a big Broadway musical. Now “Motown: The Musical” is about to become this season’s big bet on the drawing power of the jukebox.
The show will tell the real story that “Dreamgirls” was merely based on: the life of producer Berry Gordy, a onetime boxer who founded the Motown record label and signed some of the decade’s biggest R&B; stars, including the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.
Gordy wrote the book to the show, drawing on his experiences teaching black recording artists how to behave on the road, playing to racially divided audiences in the South during the civil rights era and romancing Diana Ross of the Supremes. Actors play the part of the Motown stars, with Charl Brown as an uncanny facsimile of Robinson, Valisia Lekae as Ross and Brandon Victor Dixon as Gordy.
It’s a time period that audiences can’t seem to get enough of: “Dreamgirls,” “Hairspray” and “Memphis” all have succeeded on Broadway telling the story of people who use music and dance to overcome racial tensions.
But “Motown” has an added draw, producers say: beloved songs and a story that hasn’t been told. President Obama used Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours” during both of his presidential campaigns, and Chrysler recently seized on the popularity of the songs to launch a television ad that featured Gordy, sitting in the back of a 2013 Chrysler 300 Motown Edition, as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” plays.
“Motown music is relevant and contagious,” said Kevin McCollum, one of the show’s producers, who was also a producer on “Avenue Q” and “Rent.” “And it’s never been mined from this point of view.”
The popularity of the time period can be explained by two words: baby boomers. Older audiences are most able to afford the high ticket prices on Broadway. They grew up in the 1950s and 1960s and want to relive the era.
The show is regarded by Broadway observers as a commercial, if not critical, contender. “Motown: The Musical” cracked the million-dollar mark after its first week of previews, grossing $1.03 million after seven performances at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York. That’s the first time a Broadway show has surpassed $1 million in sales without first having an out-of-town tryout.
“We’re seeing all kinds of audience, all kinds of groups, booking this show,” said Stephanie Lee, president of Group Sales Box Office, which sells tickets to groups. “It’s reaching every type of theater-goer and crossing all age and ethnic demographics.”
Producers say that audiences want to hear these familiar songs, perhaps more than they ever have. Doug Morris, the current chairman and chief executive of Sony Music Entertainment, who is also a “Motown: The Musical” producer, says shows such as “American Idol” seldom use new work. “You never hear an original song,” he said. “There’s a reason for that — when they’ve tried, you hear the television sets going off around the country.”
But the show’s familiar story line and popular songs could be a blessing and a curse. Many Broadway shows that merely cull together popular music catalogs have flopped along the years, killed by a lack of interesting plot and character development.
For every “Jersey Boys” or similar Broadway musical based on a familiar catalog of songs, there’s a “Good Vibrations,” a 2005 show about the music of the Beach Boys that closed after just 94 performances.
The difference, critics say, is how well the show translates a musical catalog into a show with a plot and compelling character development — something that can be harder to do when the person whose life the show is based on is the one writing it.
“A Broadway musical has to have a good plot and good characters, otherwise, why would people come to see a bunch of Broadway actors sing songs that they could just sit at home and listen to the original artists sing?” said Michael Riedel, a theater critic for the New York Post who also hosts a weekly show, “Theater Talk,” on PBS. “The big question is, ‘Is he willing to sell it warts and all?’” Riedel said of Gordy.
The warts could include references to his second wife, Raynoma Gordy Singleton, who wrote a tell-all memoir, “Berry, Me and Motown,” portraying Gordy as an ambitious and unfaithful womanizer; and a reported dispute (denied by Gordy) with Marvin Gaye over whether the protest song “What’s Going On” was too political. Gordy has also been the subject of lawsuits over royalty payments to his artists.
In a preview of the show in a rehearsal space on 42nd Street, the cast performed four songs from the show in a revue-like presentation. Actors playing the Jackson 5 performed “I Want You Back” on “The Ed Sullivan Show"; the Contours sang “Do You Love Me” to a segregated crowd in Alabama; Gordy and Ross fell in love to “My Girl,” performed in Paris. The dialogue didn’t sparkle, but it was hard not to bounce along to the songs.
Rick Elice knows the potential pitfalls of the jukebox musical. When producers first approached him and asked him to write what became “Jersey Boys,” he turned them down, because the idea of writing a show around a musical catalog was a “creative non-starter,” he said.
But then he talked to Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio of the Four Seasons and found that they were willing to share details of their lives they hadn’t told anyone, including their involvement with mobsters.
He and co-writer Marshall Brickman acted as journalists at first, he said, drawing out stories from Valli and Gaudio. Then they began writing, thinking of the songs as a prop, rather than a guide, for the book. “We were imagining that we were writing a play and it happened to have a great soundtrack,” he said.
Since Gordy wrote the book himself, “Motown” may come together in a different way — he had no outsider coaxing out the pros and cons of his life as a producer.
But he says it’s the true story.
“When they see the play, I want people to know what I did, and how I did it, and how I felt doing it, and what were the obstacles,” he said. “It’s an honest account of how I did it,” he said, “and I was the only one there.”