DETROIT — For Berry Gordy, conquering Broadway is the next — and by his own admission, last — major milestone of a magical, musical career.
The 83-year-old Motown Records founder is taking his story and that of his legendary label to the Great White Way.
“Motown: The Musical,” which begins previews on Monday at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, allows Gordy to relive the ups and downs of a career that launched him into the entertainment stratosphere and he’s confident will allow him to leave the stage on a high note.
“Most likely it will be my last major endeavor in a creative way,” he said in a telephone interview. “Of course everyone disagrees with me when I say that statement. This is probably the epitome of everything I’ve done — that I’ve wanted to do.”
For those under the impression that Gordy simply signed off on the musical, think again.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer not only sealed up a Broadway slot and agreed to co-produce the show, he also delivered its book and three original songs.
“When I came to Broadway, I had no idea I was going to love it as much as I do,” Gordy said. “(People asked), ‘How are you going to Broadway-ize Motown?’ I said, ‘I’m not going to Broadway-ize Motown, I’m going to bring Motown to Broadway.’”
This time, he’s starting with experience. Motown’s big stars during the label’s heyday were, as Gordy puts it, “kids off the street” — singers such as a not-far-out-of-high-school Smokey Robinson, Little Stevie Wonder and a pre-teen Michael Jackson.
But on Broadway, the team includes director Charles Randolph-Wright and actors Brandon Victor Dixon (Gordy) and Valisia LeKae (Diana Ross), all of whom are Broadway fixtures.
“We’re starting from a higher level,” Gordy said.
Even with a top-notch creative team on and off the stage, the show’s success — just as Motown’s was at its founding 54 years ago — starts and ends with the music.
And in that realm, the team behind the show is working from a position of strength. Maybe too much strength.
Gordy described it as “very difficult” to select classic Motown tracks for the musical, considering the massive trove from which to choose.
Randolph-Wright joked late last year that the show might be 15 hours long. The first version had 100 tunes in it, “and I wanted every song,” he said.
But both men agreed that the way to solve the too-many-songs problem was to focus on numbers that fit the musical’s thematic structure, or what Randolph-Wright called “the spine of the story.”
Since Gordy had special insight into the songs that comprise the label’s vast catalog, he was able to make suggestions as to which ones fit particular story arcs. That was the case with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” which ends the first act; and “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today),” The Temptations classic that starts the second.
Gordy’s role went well beyond song-selector, however.
Gordy, who penned his first hit during the Eisenhower Administration, returned to his songwriting roots, working alongside longtime collaborator Michael Lovesmith to create a trio of original compositions for the musical: “Hey Joe,” ‘’Can I Close the Door on Love?” and “It’s What’s in the Groove that Counts.”
While all are personal songs — the show, after all, is about his life story — Gordy dug deep for “Hey Joe,” which commemorates the inspiration he experienced as an 8-year-old when Detroit’s own Joe Louis defeated German boxing great Max Schmeling in a 1938 heavyweight title fight.
“I saw my mother crying. I saw my father crying. Everyone was so crazy, just going mad,” Gordy said. “So I thought to myself then, ‘What could I do in my life ever to make this many people happy?’ That’s where I got the original passion from.”
Two decades later, Gordy had set aside his dream of a boxing career and was writing songs on the side while working at a Ford Motor Co. plant. That’s when he secured an $800 loan from his family’s savings club and started his own record company, one that he vowed would produce music for all listeners, not “black music for black people” as had been the standard.
Gordy succeeded beyond even his wildest imagination, hiring immensely talented writers, producers, engineers, musicians and singers who blended traditional gospel, jazz, R&B and pop to create a unique sound that had crossover appeal for audiences of all ages and backgrounds and broke down racial barriers at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
“We would always say, ‘It’s what’s in the groove that counts,’” Gordy said, referencing one of the songs he wrote for the musical. “It was about music for all people. Not black and white, Jews and gentiles, the cops and the robbers. It was for everybody.”
Randolph-Wright, who was raised in segregated South Carolina, was among the many young Americans influenced by Gordy’s story and the musical movement he spurred.
“Berry Gordy was one of my idols growing up. At that time, there weren’t many men of color in that power position to look up to,” Randolph-Wright said during a trip to Hitsville, U.S.A., home to the Motown Museum in Detroit. “And, I always say he gave me and people like me permission to dream — to dream big enough that I would be in Studio A talking to you.”
A half-century after he began his ascent to the pinnacle of the music world, Gordy is looking to produce one last showstopper.
“I did the Broadway musical mainly for, I think, the people around the world that believed in me when they had no real reason to other than the music that they heard and loved,” he said.