The Tony-Award-nominated Broadway hit, “Motown, The Musical,” based on music mogul Berry Gordy’s autobiography, makes its San Francisco debut this month. Featuring over 50 classics from the likes of The Supremes, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, the show tells the story behind the music that transformed the country’s cultural landscape. We talked to the director Charles Randolph-Wright and producer Kevin McCollum (whose credits also include “Rent” and “Avenue Q”) about the making of the production.
Aug. 15 - Sept 28. Tickets $40-$210. Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., 888.746.1799
On Motown history:
Kevin McCollum: Berry was the guy who started the label. He found young talent from the neighborhood of Detroit and gave them an opportunity to succeed. At 29 years old, he went to his family and got a loan for $800 and created Motown. As a producer, I'm like, that’s an American dream story. That’s about family. That gives me a reason to sing.
On the power of the music:
Charles Randolph Wright: This music is my DNA, and I think everyone feels that way. When you see audiences come to this show, they own this music. It crosses every boundary, every age, every color, every political party. What Motown did musically, I think the musical is doing again. Bringing people together at a time when they need it.
On Motown’s effect on today’s artists and young audiences:
CRW: You look at who’s popular now, and you can just see the lineage. Beyonce, from Diana. Pharrell from Smokey. And fashion, film and television—Motown affected all of that. I’m shocked that young audiences know as much of the music as they do. And even if they don’t recognize the music, they recognize themselves because the actors are their age—Smokey and Marvin were 19 when they came to Motown.
On choosing songs from the vast Motown library:
CRW: Berry says competition breeds champions. Just like at Motown, you had to convince him why a song should be in the show, and we all had to convince each other. There are songs that I adore that we had to take out of the show because they didn't tell the story. This was the first time I've ever worked on a show where I liked every song that was cut.
On working with Berry Gordy:
KM: Here's the great secret about Berry Gordy: He is a collaborator first. Everybody gets to have a say. And whoever can make the best point, or create the best sound, they win. As the leader he inspired everyone else to be a leader. There's a line in the show about how he created a culture of beat the teacher. You wanted to convince Berry you were right.
CRW: He pushed us beyond what we could imagine we could do. Working on this, I understood how Motown happened, why the artists became who they were. Because when someone ultimately believes in you and pushes you, you'll go even further than you imagined you could go.
On the music industry then versus now:
CRW: A great detriment is reality television because the young artists think you can become a star overnight without doing the work. The Supremes had to learn how to sit at a table and use the right silverware, put books on their heads, take elocution classes, learn how to curtsy—because they were going to perform for the queen. It is a different kind of entitlement now. There, you had to work. You had to do the dance classes, the voice classes.
On what San Francisco should expect:
KM: When you hear the show with that 16 piece orchestra, you'll be dancing in your seats and dancing in the streets after. It’s contagious. The energy, it gets in our soul. There's something about the Motown artists. They knew how to write; they knew how to get under our skin so skin didn't matter any more.