Walking along Shaftesbury Avenue one Monday in late March, we passed the Shaftesbury Theatre which was showing Motown – The Musical. We both like the music and have several CD’s with the music. So, purely on impulse, we walked up to the box office and asked if there were any tickets for a matinee show? Yes, there were! We booked them.
After having done so, as is usual in such impulsive decisions, we were plagued with doubt. We looked up reviews and read that the play was disappointing. The critics were not happy. But, the deed was done, we were locked in.
Anyone visiting London, or New York for that matter, is always told – go see a show - preferably a musical (West End if in London, Broadway if in New York). We have seen a few and, while the productions are simply stupendous by Indian standards, after a couple, the musicals seem to get cliched, at least for us. Once the dullness had set in we decided to see plays [or ‘dramas’ as Gujjus call them or ‘theatre’ as our Sobo culture vultures refer to them] as opposed to musicals.
Over the years we have seen quite a few plays, most recently a brilliant production of Julius Caesar at the fabulous new Bridge Theatre. Others include, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest with Christian Bale, The Producers with Danny DeVito, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Sienna Miller and many many more. The production of Julius Caesar at the fabulous new Bridge Theatre has been recorded and will be shown at the NCPA in April 2018. You absolutely must watch this.
Motown is a record label founded in 1958 by Berry Gordy, who is still alive. The years from 1960 to about 1980 were its greatest years, and when I use the adjective greatest, I use it in its true meaning. The singers signed by Motown include Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Four Tops, The Temptations, the Jacksons, the Commodores with Lionel Ritchie, Rick James, Michael Jackson and countless others. There are stories of the songwriting factories in Motown writing hit songs, the Funk Brothers being a collection of brilliant studio musicians who played behind all the songs, the quality control departments and the grooming and choreography teachers who ensured the success of the label as well as its stars. All this was true.
The question was, how would all this be captured in a play, albeit a musical without it becoming a sort of “Ek Shyam Kishore Kumar Ke Naam” or “Mohamed Rafi Ke Sunhere Geet” kind of mindless rendition of hit songs?
The play is what can be called a “jukebox” musical tracing the life of Berry Gordy. Some 50 odd songs are performed, though most are truncated. The play is based on Gordy’s autobiography and starts in 1983 with Gordy contemplating whether to attend the recording for a television special to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of Motown. This was, in reality, a recording of performances by some of Motown’s biggest stars performing live at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in March 1983. This show was hugely important and significant in music history, not just for Motown, but for a person known as Michael Jackson. The “moonwalk” dance step was debuted at this show by Michael Jackson. That dance step, along with John Travolta’s dancing in 1977 to “You Should Be Dancing” in Saturday Night Fever are two hugely influential bits of choreography in modern times. I don’t know how something performed 41 years ago can be called modern, but you get my drift.
For those of you who want, you can watch the performance here. It is 5 minutes, but worth a watch. The magic starts at about 3.30 seconds.
Our fears of watching a disappointing or subpar show vanished within the first 5 minutes of the musical starting. The punch with which the show started, the opening songs, the dancing, the singing and of course the live band made a huge impact. This was captivating magical viewing. But the question still stands. How do you keep this from becoming “Ek Shyam Kishore Kumar Ke Naam”?
The question was more than answered. As I have written earlier, Motown’s finest moments were the decades 1960 to 1980. This was a tumultuous time in America. The development of Motown, the types of songs written in those times, the juxtaposition of events with the lyrics, the development of the artists and the evolution of the music were all there to see against the backdrop of historical events. You may ask what happened in those times? Plenty did. Remember that Motown was primarily a Black music label with almost all participants being Black. There were just a few people in the business end of Motown who were White.
To start you learn how the defeat of Max Schmeling the White Aryan by the Black African American Joe Louis had a deep influence on Gordy. This was in 1938 at the height of the Nazi powers. It was said that an Aryan could never be beaten by an African American! Now shifting the time line to the late 1950’s - remember you had segregation in the USA – white record labels played only white music. Music was segregated. The Race Riots. Equality, Black Power. Then you had the rise and, in 1963, the assassination of J F Kennedy. The influence of Martin Luther King and his assassination. The Vietnam War and its effects like the antiwar protests, the rise of the drug culture. These were huge events and Motown and its artists lived and sang thru them all. These events literally shaped Motown.
You see the music and appearance of Marvin Gaye changing thru the show. From someone who sang simple love songs like ‘Stubborn Kind of Fellow’, to the passionate duets with Tammi Terrell such as ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’, to the socially relevant pot influenced song ‘What’s Going On’ to the tormented outright sexual song ‘Sexual Healing’. Similarly, the hard-hitting psychedelic songs, complete with Wah Wah Guitars mixed high, like antiwar song called, “War” were performed on stage with appropriate lighting and costumes. The musical ended with screens showing concluding scenes from the 25th Anniversary Show. Watching the screens and the actors on stage, I thought brought a most pleasant conclusion and neatly ended the show.
The show was for me quite emotional and I did shed a few silent tears. The audience was old, many were older than me. Towards the end when it was time to join in the singing, and clap ones hands, there was much enthusiasm in the audience.
In the end, both HRH the Queen of Kutch and I wondered that if critics were disappointed with the show, and in our view the show was fantastic, how good would a really good show be? Probably the answer will be revealed after we see Hamilton which has received rave reviews.
In the end we were happy very happy. If you do like soul music, do see Motown.