In the late 1950s, when former featherweight boxer Berry Gordy Jr. decided to switch careers and take a shot at the heavyweight music producing business, he didn’t go to New York or Chicago or any other major recording center.
Instead, he stayed right where he was, in his hometown of Detroit, and miraculously transformed it into a musical mecca that gave birth to some of the brightest stars in the American pop galaxy.
Thanks to Gordy and his team of now-legendary recording artists, Detroit’s nickname, “Motown,” became synonymous with a genre of popular music that dominated the charts and transcended racial barriers. A generation of Americans of all ethnic groups grew up listening and dancing to Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells, The Temptations, The Four Tops and many other greats that Gordy introduced to the world.
The golden years of Motown have long passed and the company is not even headquartered in Detroit anymore. However, the Motown legend lives on in the eponymous Broadway musical that is coming to the Saenger Theatre on Tuesday for a run through Jan. 24.
The book for this jukebox musical was written by Gordy himself, based on his 1994 autobiography, “To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown.” In it, Gordy recounts his personal and professional relationships with Ross, Robinson, Gaye, Jackson and others, in addition to documenting the record company’s history, development and impact on American culture during Motown’s heyday.
“Motown: The Musical” premiered on Broadway in April 2013 and ran there for nearly two years. The current tour opened in Chicago in May 2014.
For veteran Broadway actor, Chester Gregory, the opportunity to portray Berry Gordy onstage “is quite an honor,” as he described it. Gregory, who played “Sweaty Eddie,” the policeman in last season’s production of “Sister Act” at the Saenger, gave his first performance in the Gordy role in Richmond, Virginia, on Jan. 5.
While preparing to assume the role last fall, Gregory met Gordy in person and received encouragement from him. “I was surprised to see how approachable he was; how kind and how energetic he was at 85 years old,” Gregory said.
“He watched and listened and he gave me some guidance on how to go about a scene. It was very gracious of him and a highlight of my life I’ll never forget,” Gregory added.
The show opens with a re-enactment of the “Motown 25 (year) Reunion” in 1983, then goes into a series of flashbacks relating to Gordy’s childhood and the birth and growth of his musical empire. Excerpts and medleys of more than 60 Motown hits are featured, with actors portraying the real-life recording artists, ranging from Smokey Robinson and The Miracles in the late ’50s through Lionel Richie and The Commodores in the late ’70s/early ’80s.
Gregory sings a few of the songs himself, mostly from Gordy’s early years as a songwriter for some of Jackie Wilson’s first solo hits in the late 1950s.
Gregory, who was born after the early Motown era, nonetheless feels a strong connection to at least one of its major headliners, Michael Jackson. “I’m from Gary, Indiana, and so was Michael. He was one of the biggest influences on my career,” he said, as he recalled seeing Jackson perform his famous moon walk on TV during the “Motown 25 Reunion.”
The show, Gregory explained, also includes a good bit of dancing by the performers as they are singing. However, unlike some jukebox musicals, the seating logistics don’t favor audience members dancing in the aisles, but during certain songs, “people might join hands and sing along,” he added.
“It’s quite epic how, night after night, people are willing to participate,” Gregory said. “No matter what their differences are, this music unites everybody. And that says something about the visionary that Berry Gordy was.”