Broadway Across Canada: Making Motown meaningful in this age of division

C.J. Wright stars as young Michael Jackson with the Jackson 5 in a scene from Motown The Musical. Photo: Joan Marcus

Fifty-seven years ago a new sound started to percolate on radio stations across North America. It became known as the Motown sound and ever since the music produced by this label has been imprinted on the conscious of the popular music world.

Stars like Diana Ross, Martha Reeves, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and the Jackson 5 ( featuring a very young Michael Jackson) were household names.

To honour of that legacy, Motown’s founder Berry Gordy put together a team and created a musical journey through the Motown archives. It arrives at the National Arts Centre next week.

Front and centre on the stage and behind the scenes is the larger than life personality of Berry Gordy.

The actor who will play Gordy in the musical knows all about the man. He’s met him and been guided by him.

Chester Gregory was born in Gary, Indiana, the same hometown as the Jacksons. He was an fan of Michael Jackson circa the release of Thriller and not circa Rocking Robin. But he knew about that Motown sound.

“I started singing in elementary school. By the fifth grade, it was all I ever wanted to do. My mom would take me to shows and concerts and things like that and my father was supportive as well.

“They got me a voice teacher.”

He would go on to study music as the Emerson School of Visual and Performing Arts in Gary. Today he’s living the dream on tour with Motown the Musical. When he spoke to ARTSFILE, Gregory was in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Chester Gregory plays Berry Gordy in Motown the Musical.

“Motown was everywhere for my generation,” Gregory says, even though its biggest heyday in the 1960s and ’70s was past.

“Since we have been doing this show, we have been noticing how much we hear this music everywhere. You go into a hotel lobby you hear Motown music. You turn on a TV and you hear Motown music.

“The kids know this music too. A lot of DJs sample Motown songs and people recognize where the hook came from when they hear the sound.”

He says that Berry Gordy created something new, an African American label that appealed to white audiences.

“Even though he is this icon known around the world and has created this machine known as Motown as a person he is very approachable, warm and down to earth. I found that pleasantly surprising.”

Gordy was directly involved in selecting Chester for the role he is now playing. He was involved in rehearsals for this tour and and has come to several cities to watch the show. He’s even given notes to the cast and company after shows.

“He’s been very much involved,” Gregory says. “It’s similar to how he worked with the artists on his label.” Gregory believes Gordy wants to maintain a standard that he has set for Motown.

Gregory met Gordy at an after-party in Los Angeles. Two of his friends, Allison Semmes (Diana Ross) and Jarran Muse (Marvin Gaye) were on an earlier tour of the Motown musical. (They are part of this tour too).

“When the show opened in L.A., I was living there and they called me. They said you have to see this show. They got me into the show and into the opening night party. It was that night that I met Berry Gordy.

“At that time I didn’t know I would audition for the show or end up portraying him, but I was a fan of his work.”

Gregory was portraying the singer Jackie Wilson, for whom Gordy had written several hits before Motown was founded.

A few months later, Gregory’s agent called and asked him to start submitting audition tapes for roles in musicals. That prompted a call from the Motown team; they wanted him to an audition for Gordy in person.

It helped calm his nerves, Gregory said, that he had met Gordy.

“I had a sense of who he was as a person and I just focused on how I wanted to portray him and he keyed right in to it.

“My take was to show his vulnerability. It’s easy to look at him now and think he did this and this and this, but as he was discovering those things, he was not sure they would be successful. He was going for it and hoping it would stick.”

Gordy, Gregory says, has always said he wanted to make music that transcends all barriers.

“People come to show and afterwards they come up and say they remember that before Motown the sock hops were segregated with black kids on one side of a gym and white kids on the other. They didn’t mix. After Motown came along everybody was dancing together and the sock hops were integrated.”

Motown the Musical is touring in a very racially charged environment in the United States.

“Berry Gordy says the message of Motown is more important now than ever before. It seems like we have been living in retrograde. A lot of things that people fought for, like equal rights, voting rights, are being stripped away and people are focused on prejudice.

The musical, Gregory says, also serves as a reminder of what it took to achieve civil rights reform.

Artists such as Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder had to enter the performing halls through the back door and they faced threats when they played. Riots would break out in some places.

That history remains relevant, he says, and is part of the show.

“At the end of the day everybody wants to be loved, everybody wants to love,” he says. “When we finish the show people come up to us and they tell us their memories. They feel the songs were written for them.”

During the show, Diana Ross (Allison Semmes) sings Reach Out And Touch Somebody’s Hand, Gregory says, and the audience does just that.

He gets to see it because it occurs during one of his few breaks in the performance.

“The show is 2 hours and 45 minutes and I’m on stage two and a half hours. So I enjoy the break and I also enjoy hearing (and seeing) the audience join hands and sing the song together.”

The musical features some or all of 50 hit songs to tell the story. Some critics have criticized this saying they’d prefer whole  whole songs.

But Gregory likes the format.

“How do you narrow down this catalogue, one of the greatest catalogues in music history, with hundreds of songs and make sure you hit all the marks. People have favourite artists” and favourite songs.

Motown the Musical
Broadway Across Canada
When: July 25 to July 30
Where: Southam Hall

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.