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Sunday, January 22, 2017

Motown: The Musical

Who doesn't like Motown music? If there is somebody out there who doesn't appreciate The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson, or Marvin Gaye, I don't think I want to know you. How can you get a more perfect song than "My Girl," recorded by the Temptations and written by Smokey Robinson. Or "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," or "I Want You Back." Therefore, Motown: The Musical, is certainly going to make people happy, because it is an almost never-ending string of hits that defined an era.

That excuses the fact that the book of the musical is a self-serving snit by Berry Gordy, who wrote it himself. Gordy, certainly one of the most important people in American pop music history, writes of himself as a misunderstood genius who was betrayed by almost all of his acts for money, then graciously decides to forgive them.

The story is framed as a flashback. It is just before the TV special honoring the 25th anniversary of Motown, but Gordy doesn't want to go. He's too bitter about all the people on the show who left him. We then go back to his beginnings, worshiping Joe Louis, writing songs for Jackie Wilson, and then starting his own record company from almost nothing (well, there was a thousand-dollar loan from his parents).

He then acquires talent. First Robinson, then the songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, who wrote many of the great hits. He records Marvin Gaye and the Marvelettes and Martha and the Vandellas. After one of his salesman is told that white people will never listen to black singers, they break through, mostly because of The Supremes. He and Diana Ross have a relationship, though there is no mention of his wives (he and Ross never married, and the story tells us that she left him after she was offered 20 million by another record company).

Frankly, Gordy should have just been made this a concert, like the old Beatlemania, with look and sound-alikes singing the songs, and jettisoned the story. Because the music can't be beat, and there's some wonderful talent on display. For many of the songs we only hear snippets, but there are full productions of "Dancin' in the Streets," "My Girl," and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." There is also an extended sequence of Diana Ross's debut in Las Vegas, where she sings "Reach Out and Touch" with audience participation that, though a crowdpleaser, seems indulgent.

Motown: The Musical will basically just want you to get out your old records or go on Youtube or download these songs. They will not, as much as he wants to, make Berry Gordy a cuddly figure.

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