- 05 Feb 19
Telling the brilliantly compelling story of the era-defining record company, Motown The Musical is a wonderfully invigorating theatrical experience. Producer Adam Spiegel talks to Pat Carty about the challenges of bringing the iconic label's tale to stage.
A fine conversation starter for the barroom table, or any table for that matter, is to offer a nomination for the greatest record company of them all, though such institutions are all too quickly becoming relics of the past. I would personally nod at Chess Records, Stax, Trojan, Atlantic or Island. Others of a different bent might plump for Factory, Stiff, Interscope, Blue Note, Def Jam, or a myriad of alternatives. One name that will always be near the top of such useless yet crucial talk is that of Motown Records – The Sound Of Young America.
Almost as important as the music is the story behind the label, which just celebrated its sixtieth anniversary. Nascent songwriter Berry Gordy quickly realises where the real money is and forms Tamla Records in 1959. The label morphs into Motown Records, the name an amalgamation of Motor Town, the nickname Detroit had earned thanks to its many automobile production lines, an approach Berry would adopt when he established Hitsville, U.S.A. – the studio at 2648, West Grand Boulevard, Detroit. Hit after glorious hit came off the belts, from Barrett Strong’s statement of intent, ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’ to solid gold masterpieces from Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson and many, many others.
The label’s rich history is celebrated in Motown: The Musical. Produced in close association with Berry himself, the show attempts the gargantuan task of condensing this immortal story into a few short hours’ spectacle. Hot Press was lucky enough to sit down with producer Adam Spiegel, a man who’s previously worked on everything from Shirley Valentine to Saturday Night Fever, before a preview of the show in London’s Shaftesbury Theatre, where they’ve been knocking out musicals since 1911. One presumes that he’s a massive Motown fan first and foremost?
“I don’t think anyone isn’t”, the producer reasons. “We’re telling the story of the creation of possibly the most iconic record label of all time. My partner on this project is Berry Gordy himself - I’ve worked with lots of very accomplished people but I’ve never worked with anyone like him - and the responsibility to tell his story well is a heavy one, but a really exciting one as well. He’s a very demanding human being, which is why he’s achieved the miracles that he has. This is a man who created a musical legacy that got the whole of America dancing to the same tune, at a time when people were not allowed to share a bus. His is an extraordinary tale.”
Just by being a black business man at the time means that the civil rights struggle is as much a part of this story as the music. “Absolutely. Gordy put Martin Luther King’s speeches on to vinyl. He was very much aware of the prevailing conditions of the time, there were radio stations that only played black music and stations that only played white music, it’s only sixty years ago that those levels of racial division existed.” The label was the biggest black business in America for a couple of years in a row. “I think probably for longer than that actually, he was the first black entertainment tycoon, but the label became part of the civil rights movement in so much as suddenly everybody started listening to the same thing, which was unheard of before.”
Was this a conscious thing, selling records as an act of subversion? “I think the intention was to sell records and to subvert, yes.” is Spiegel’s opinion. “And it’s difficult in the musical climate we have now to imagine that back then you listened to either white or black music. People will walk into the theatre and be aware of issues that have raised their ugly head again in our time.”
With regard to the music itself, before Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye went off in their own directions, there’s a unique sound to those early records, you can really hear the room, and that band. How do you go about trying to recreate that sound that was so important? “You’re talking about the Funk Brothers! You have to try and marry two separate objectives, one is to reproduce faithfully the Motown sound and the other is to make sure this music works in a theatrical environment. A lot of very expert people worked for a very long time to create orchestrations that met both criteria.”
What’s Going On
There’s no denying it, Hot Press is a bit of a cynic when it comes to musicals, the “let’s put on the show right here!” notion and the shoe-horning of such precious art into what might be seen as “light entertainment”. I ask what Spiegel might say to those people who adore Motown, who could give you catalogue numbers of obscure singles from 1964, but might be wary of the idea of a “musical”? He’s quick with an answer, indicating it’s something he’s thought about before. “This is not a musical in a conventional sense, people don’t just unilaterally burst into song. It’s about the creation of the music, so it occupies a very different role. It does take the narrative forward, but the characters are preforming the songs as they would have performed them, and that’s the story telling part of the show. It’s a different conceit. It’s the tapestry of what was going on during the creation of the record company. It’s a unique experience to sit beside someone watching someone else play them from fifty years ago, as I have done with Berry Gordy, and as a result his attention to detail is heightened to a level that you would never usually see. It’s his life, it’s his story, it is him. He wouldn’t tolerate anything less than excellence.”
Is it to be expected then that anything that shows Berry in a less than flattering light might be airbrushed out? “It can only tell the story from one perspective but the show acknowledges lots of difficult areas, and I think it’s an unusually honest and candid version of the story. The world of Motown incorporated hundreds of people, each of who will have their own story from one particular angle. This is the story from Berry Gordy’s angle.”
But surely to make for an entertaining theatrical experience you have to shave off some of the more controversial elements of the story? “I would honestly say the answer to that is no. Yes, you’ve got to try and make it into an entertaining evening and I believe fervently that we have achieved that. We have to leave quite a lot of stuff out; otherwise it’s a twelve-hour evening in the theatre, which no one wants! We have fifty odd songs in the show, you could quite comfortably have had one hundred so there are difficult choices throughout the process of creation but I don’t think awkward areas have been side stepped.” So the show doesn’t shy away from Gordy famously arguing against the release of Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece, What’s Going On?
“That’s very much in it, Berry says to Marvin “if you’re right, I’ll learn something, and if I’m right, you’ll learn something”. It’s an iconic scene. You have to remember that while Motown had a protest label” – they did indeed, the album-orientated Black Forum Records which operated from 1970 to 1973 – “Marvin Gaye was a pop star!”
Is the Dublin production a scaled down version of the London show? “Almost the reverse actually, each time that we do the show again, we make improvements to it. I think the Dublin version is more richly satisfying, physically and visually. It’s amongst the biggest musicals in London, in terms of the size of the cast and the set, and the costumes. There are lots of Motown imitations, but this is a unique opportunity to hear the story as told by the man responsible.”
Lastly then, perhaps the most difficult question of all, what is the greatest Motown record? “For me, you can’t go beyond ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’” is Adam’s smiling response. “But you’re a child in a candy store when you look at the catalogue, they’re just aren’t any bad records.”
As you sit thorough the show, it’s hard to find fault with this assertion. The audience is zipped from the early years through civil rights struggles and the birth of several classics, finishing at the famous 25th anniversary show in 1983 where a moonwalking Michael Jackson takes over the world. As Spiegel claims, Berry’s struggles are all up there on the stage but it’s the music that carries it. If you have ears at all, you can’t but be swept along by classic after classic and the audience I was sat in had a bloody good time, which is surely the point of pop music in the first place.
Motown The Musical runs from the 5th until the 23rd of February at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin.