Berry Gordy built the record label Motown, so it makes sense the jukebox musical about the company is actually his story. “Motown: The Musical,” which comes to Sacramento on Wednesday, May 18, for a two-week run at the Community Center Theater, spins off from Gordy’s 1994 autobiography “To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown.”
The musical premiered on Broadway in April 2013 and ran for 738 regular performances, closing in January 2015. The national tour began in April 2014, and the show returns to Broadway this summer. A London production opened in February and is still running.
163Motown Billboard Top 20 singles, 1961-’71
Gordy’s rise and the entertainment empire he created are a legendary American show business tale. In 1959 he borrowed $800 from his family to start Motown in Detroit where they lived, famously christening his headquarters “Hitsville U.S.A.” The company had its first hit in 1960, and in the following decade Motown placed 163 singles in Billboard’s top 20, with 28 songs reaching No. 1.
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Gordy also discovered and established the careers of numerous artists including Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations and Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5. At one time Motown was the most successful African American-owned and -operated business in America.
When Gordy first thought about bringing his story and music to the stage, he contacted the veteran theatrical producer Kevin McCollum to gauge his interest in working on the project. McCollum has received three Tony awards for producing “Rent” (1996), “Avenue Q” (2004) and “In the Heights” (2008) and has produced other major shows including “The Drowsy Chaperone,” Baz Luhrmann’s “La Boheme,” the revival of “Ragtime” and the 2009 revival of “West Side Story.”
“I got a call saying ‘Mr. Berry Gordy’s working on a musical about Motown, would you be willing to meet him?’ ” McCollum said by phone from New York. “I always knew about Berry Gordy and admired what he had done – of course I said ‘yes,’ ”
What was scheduled as a one-hour meet-and-greet turned into a five-hour dinner at which the two men bonded over the vast richness of what Motown meant and what its story might be.
“There were so many different stories to tell about Motown, so one of the first questions I had was ‘Which one do you want to tell?’ ” McCollum said.
The story spans five decades, and there are more than 50 songs in the production, plus several outsize personalities who could be single subjects of shows themselves.
“It needed to be a 10-part miniseries, and it still might be,” McCollum said.
“The great news about theater is it doesn’t have to be linear. You can start in one place and jump back and jump forward. You can also have two realities happening at the same time.”
Gordy was ambitious and very smart. He started out as a songwriter, but once he met Smokey Robinson, he realized what great songwriting really was. He decided he should manage Robinson to make sure his music reached the public.
He changed music forever
Theatrical producer Kevin McCollum speaking about Berry Gordy
He melded soul and R&B with pop to create a new form of universal pop music – the Motown sound. But Gordy also broke down barriers in distribution and touring as he brought his performers around the world. “It’s not Black music. It’s music by Black stars,” Gordy wrote in his autobiography. “My music is Pop. Pop means popular.”
His lasting art was in assembling and presenting the overall product. Motown became a finishing school, turning out slick, accomplished, live musical products. He created the idea of “crossing over” as he moved his black acts out of black radio markets into the white pop stations.
“I find these songs to be the most transformative collection of music in our nation’s history,” McCollum said. “It was entertaining but also socially significant, economically significant, and artistically significant. Berry was aware of all three of these things at once, and he changed music forever.”
Motown: The Musical
What: California Musical Theatre’s Broadway Series production
When: Opens Wednesday, May 18; continues through Sunday, May 29, at 8 p.m Tuesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, May 22.
Where: Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., Sacramento
Information: 916-557-1999; 916-808-5181, www.californiamusicaltheatre.com