Securing a strong libretto for a musical is one of the most crucial, yet difficult, tasks confronting a show’s development. So skeptics scoffed when it was announced that Berry Gordy would be both producer and librettist for the new Broadway show “Motown, the Musical,” about the legendary pop music label he founded. The 83-year-old mogul would be telling his own story to boot: the fast rise of a Detroit high school dropout to master svengali of the likes of Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, and countless others. But the challenge has proved too much for Gordy. According to a report in the New York Post, veteran book writer Dick Scanlan (“Thoroughly Modern Millie”) has been brought in to collaborate with Gordy and Los Angeles-based writer David Goldsmith.
“Motown,” which begins previews on March 11 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, has been one of the most highly-anticipated events of the season, fed in part by last year’s glittering group sales presentation, which seemed almost like an opening night, red carpet, stars and all. Gordy, with Aretha Franklin, on his arm, told the assembled crowd that the his libretto would be a warts-and-all re-telling of his scrappy story — he was a one-time boxer — including his tempestuous romance with Diana Ross. The Motown artists were a family but a rather dysfunctional one. No surprise given the fame and money that came rolling in from 1959 with its first hit, The Miracles’ “Bad Girl,” until 1988 when Gordy sold the label to MCA for $61 million.
“Motown” opens amid the feuds and bad blood circulating at the label’s 25th anniversary gala and flashes back to Gordy’s climb to the top, aided by his keen ear for popular taste and eye for beautiful and soulful black talent. Playing the central roles of Gordy and Ross are, respectively, Brandon Victor Dixon and Valisia LeKae, complementing a kick-ass cast of singers and dancers. Given the recording gold on tap, “Motown” has all the potential to be a sizable smash if the creators can get the book whipped into reasonably good shape. Lead producer Kevin McCollum has a good track record in that regard (“Rent,” “The Drowsy Chaperone”). The big question is whether Gordy — as brash, independent, and ego-driven as ever — will yield to the collaborative nature of making musical theater. His showman instincts might well win out. After all, he showed up with Aretha Franklin at the group sales unveiling, even though she’d never recorded for his label. Gordy tried to sign her but her father and manager — Baptist minister C.L. Franklin — considered Motown too local of a label. She eventually went to Columbia Records – one of the few who got away.
Image: Record producer and founder of Motown Records Berry Gordy/Jemal Countess/Getty Images