I am where I wanted to go since passing the glittering façade of the Shaftesbury Theatre during our pub crawl leading to the jazz night at Ronnie Scott’s. An endless amount of Motown tribute shows and revues are now touring and rotating through the stages of the whole planet. I have been assured that Motown The Musical in the West End though tells the record company founder’s story and hence of the label – a journey which will take us from Berry Gordy Jr.’s childhood inspirations to the company’s 25th anniversary in 1984.
Starting off by borrowing money from his mother’s family emergency savings to start a recording studio instead of putting the money back for a hopefully never needed organ transplant, tells us a lot about the thin safety net of 1960s Detroit. But things work out for Berry; people love to record in his studio and the recordings sell well. One of the most curious stories in these early stages is how a blind boy called Stevie does some recordings and how his mother gets a washing machine out of this deal.
Motown is a sound which bears warmth and quality, a standard on its own. Motown is also a whole cosmos of legends and after all a lifestyle, claim the founders.
For the second time this week I witness Martin Luther King being assassinated and what follows are protests and a merging of black rights campaigners with the anti-Vietnam movement. Whole crowds appear on stage and I am taken back to having seen Hair for the first time, as a guest play from New York.
Then disco music starts dominating the charts and Motown implodes as a victim of its own success – bigger record companies are offering Motown star singers, musicians and songwriters exorbitant sums of money. Too many of these offers are just too good to decline. Even Berry’s girlfriend leaves for a major deal, she who was there for from the very early days, doing recordings with her two girlfriends after school. He had promised her the three pillars of success (defined as Las Vegas, movies and the Broadway) and together they ticked them all off: Diana Ross has sung herself to ultimate stardom, played Billie Holiday and has long left her original band The Supremes (then the biggest selling girl group in the world respectively) behind her. And Motown cannot even closely match the multi-million deal she has been offered.
Then another boy wonder auditions, accompanied by four brothers and the rest is music history indeed. “And this is when it started go wrong”, whispers my friend in my ear, “this is when they stopped Michael Jackson’s education and he was never allowed to learn anything else but performing – at the age of ten!” She admits she is now worried about the child actor playing little Jacko. On the way out I assure her that for this reason strict rules on child performers have been established.
What stays after we leave is warmth and for the next week I will not wake up without humming My Girl. If you sit at a show and close your eyes just to concentrate on taking in the sound, song, sound and singer must have formed a perfect unity. “Are you a Motown?”, Berry Gordy Jr. asks. Happily.
Motown The Musical – directed by Charles Randolph-Wright
**** out of 5 stars
Performed in the Shaftesbury Theatre until April ’19
We got our tickets for seats G13 and G14 in the Royal Circle for GBP 99 incl. fees