“All we need is music, sweet music, there’ll be music everywhere.” Written by Marvin Gaye, William “Mickey” Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter, Dancing in the Street is one of Motown’s signature songs, amongst the many well known classic released by the label and it was the song stuck in my head the entire journey home after the West End hit show, Motown the Musical.
Inspired by the autobiography of Motown founder Berry Gordy, Motown the Musical starts the story immediately before the 25th anniversary concert celebrating the birth of Motown. Gordy is reluctant to attend, feeling betrayed by the artists he feels he made stars, only for them to leave him when better offers were on the table. The audience is then transported back to see Gordy’s childhood, the impact of a conversation with his father, a few lost years before he ultimately manages to get enough money together to start his record label – and the birth of Motown.
Whilst the musical might be loosely based on Gordy’s autobiography, it is clearly his personal interpretation of the past and doesn’t always give away a lot about the man himself. His relationship with Diana Ross and subsequent break up is referenced, as is his feelings towards the artists he felt abandoned him. But if you’re hoping for a theatrical biopic of his life, you’ll be disappointed. But then again, that’s clearly not the point of the play – the audience is here for the songs.
Motown the Musical is all about the music – as it should be. There is simplistic, almost scant plot, which is not a criticism as it allows for a plethora of hit songs to be included without feeling forced. There can be a tendency amongst similar plays to shoehorn in the songs to the narrative, which often feels clunky, but Motown resists doing this and the few songs that are used to drive the story forward feel fitting. Instead, most of the songs are performed more naturally by the artists embodying the characters they play either as auditions or concerts, which allows the audience to really enjoy them.
With over 50 songs credited in the musical, it would be impossible to include full length versions of all of them, but there is certainly something to suit everyone who is a fan of the record label. One of the biggest cheers of the evening goes to the cover of the Jackson 5’s ABC, likely due to the admirable performance by the young actor playing Michael Jackson. Although it is perhaps the songs sung by Diana Ross and the Supremes which are consistently some of the best of the evening, thanks to a consistently strong performance by Karis Anderson. Edward Baruwa as Berry Gordy does a lot with the character, drawing out more emotional depth that the story gives him and is responsible for a number of of the big numbers.
For a musical which stays away from the more complex parts of the history of Motown it is not afraid to mention the issue of racism at the time. It would be easy for the musical to gloss over the racial elements and discrimination faced by the artists but thankfully it doesn’t and references are made to the artists being defined by the colour of their skin, the problems with getting black artists on the radio and the segregation of audiences at the time. It is not a major part of the storyline, but an important point to the narrative of many of the figures during the time.
Motown the Musical does exactly what it says; it provides hours of high energy Motown music, much to the delight of the audience. It is a lot of fun and thoroughly enjoyable to spend a few hours immersed in the sounds of the era.
Motown the Musical is at the newly refurbished Alexandra Theatre from 11 October to 3 November, and tickets can be purchased here.
This was a press event. Photos and their copyright belong to Tristram Kenton.