Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The worst Broadway musical you'll probably love

 In keeping with yesterday's theme -- success can come despite flawed scripts.  And because the Tonys are this Sunday (as if anybody cares)...

If there ever was a bulletproof Broadway show it’s MOTOWN THE MUSICAL. The Motown music is just so remarkable and timeless that you can put it with one of the worst books in the history of Broadway and it will still please. Those are HIT songs.

First off, I should admit I’m a mega-Motown fan. I own the complete collection of Motown singles (all the hits and many misses). I’ve read numerous books on Motown and Berry Gordy. I’ve made the pilgrimage to “Hitsville U.S.A.” and stood in the basement studio where magic was made for over a decade. No one was more geeked-out to see this show than me.

So when I saw that the roadshow was coming to the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood I ran right out and got tickets. Yeah, roadshows rarely have the original casts, but it’s not like you need Hugh Jackman to make this work. Maybe these “Temptations” aren’t as great as the ones from Broadway but so what? Plus, it seemed like everyone in the ensemble played four parts anyway. One guy played Jackie Wilson, Four Top, Contour, Brian Holland, Jackson 5, and Rick James. (In future low budget productions I imagine he’ll also play Supreme and Marvelette.)

Happily, the cast was terrific. They did every song justice – singing and dancing their guts out. I thought Allison Semmes sang Diana Ross songs better than Diana Ross (and she probably didn't sleep with half the ensemble). The production was top notch. Lots of screens and sets flying in and out.
The problem was the book. It was written by Berry Gordy. And from what I understand he refused notes from anybody. Besides being amateurishly written (sample dialogue and klutzy exposition: Berry: “I just quit my job.” His sister who should know this: “You mean from the auto plant?”), it is the most shameless exercise in self-aggrandizement I have ever seen. At least he left out the scenes where he brought peace to the Middle East and discovered a cure for Polio. But by act two even this wildly enthusiastic audience of probably 5,000 was laughing at some of the dialogue. It’s as if Charles Manson wrote a musical and portrayed himself as the Big Lebowski.

According to the musical, Berry Gordy was a loving father-figure to all these artists, a creative genius, a visionary, and his importance to the black community is the same as Joe Lewis’. And all of his artists and song writers betrayed him by leaving for better opportunities. He was “Broadway Danny Savior.” Everything he did, he did for them. If he had a fault it was that he cared too much. Yeah, and the Menendez Brothers deserve a lighter sentence because they're orphans. 

The truth? Not to take anything away from Gordy's enormous accomplishments and contributions to the music industry and popular culture, but he signed his artists to horrible deals. He demanded they signed their contracts as is right there in his office. They were not allowed to consult an attorney. They were not allowed to go out and make a phone call. And he sent them out on roadshows that were torture. Little wonder that when their contracts were up they fled for greener pastures.

The few white characters in the musical are portrayed as racists and money-grubbers. Ed Sullivan is shown in the best light – as a complete buffoon.

But the most cringe-worthy moment is this: He’s having a big fight with Marvin Gaye. At one point Marvin yells at him. “You’re not my father! I have a father!” Um… did anyone else in the audience realize Marvin Gaye’s father shot him to death? I might have dropped that line (not that he took any notes). And then the irony that when Diana Ross wants to leave him he argues she’ll just be surrounded by yes men. She needs someone to say “no.” So do you, Berry!

But none of that seemed to matter. Like I said, the music is so strong and even though the shit is piled high, there ain’t no mountain high enough to spoil that song catalog.


Anthony said...

Motown is one of the biggest examples of how the simplest of pulls can bring the masses into a Broadway show no matter how dire it may be. The saving grace was the music/cast but Berry Gordy's "Book" was a true trainwreck and couldn't save the show at all.

At least with BEAUTIFUL: The Carole King Musical, the book was serviceable to having some nice moments while having a very respectable, eclectic songbook in its own right and solid performances (although I feel Jessie Mueller should give her Tony to Kelli O'Hara....she will give much stronger performances in the near future, I am sure).

Jersey Boys was probably the strongest artistically of the jukebox musicals in recent years, but it is a shame it won over The Drowsy Chaperone.

VincentS said...

I guess Berry Gordy chose not to depict himself as being a businsssman. As far as Diana Ross's sleeping around, come on, Ken. You gotta do what you gotta do. I've know women who slept with guys to get apartments.

ScottyB said...

Nobody can argue the hitmaking goliath that Motown was, but I have a bigger place in my heart for Stax Records.

Igor said...

Ken wrote: "At one point Marvin yells at him. 'You’re not my father! I have a father!' Um… did anyone else in the audience realize Marvin Gaye’s father shot him to death?"

Just a hunch, Ken, but maybe that's why Gordy put the line in...? To highlight that Marvin Gaye was wrong... because, after all, his father ultimately killed him...?

That would fit your other observations about the play putting Gordy in the best light and everyone else not.

Igor said...

Ken, I agree that Gordy is Mr. I.M. The-Center-of-the-Universe, but the line does serve the story's goal. Dare I say it - With subtext.

Hamid said...

As a fellow Motown fan, Ken, may I recommend Going Back, an album of covers by Phil Collins. And before any tiresome haters start ranting that they don't like Phil Collins etc etc, he got some of the surviving Funk Brothers to record the album and it also has the endorsement of Lamont Dozier, with whom PC co-wrote Two Hearts and Loco in Acapulco.

The title track, written by Goffin and King, is beautiful,and he also does a great version of Going to a Go-Go by The Miracles.

Check it out!

Alex said...

I've heard GOING BACK. Nope, sorry, still don't like Phil Collins. If that makes me a tiresome hater, then so be it.

Tudor Queen said...

Yeah, I'd see "Motown" if it came here - the Original Broadway Cast album is great - even if the book is amateurish, because that music...!

For the record, though, Ken, I do care - very much - about the Tony Awards this weekend. Haven't lived in New York in decades, but I'm still a Broadway Baby at heart.

Oat Willie said...

Lerner & Loewe are gone, Rodgers & Hart are gone, but Broadway can still pack 'em in with Lennon & McCartney! What? Lennon & McCartney are gone too?

VP81955 said...

I admire Berry Gordy and his achievements with Motown, but truth be told, essentially he was doing in the 1960s what Ahmet Ertegun and Atlantic Records was doing in the 1950s (Temptations, Miracles, Stevie Wonder vs. Clovers, Drifters, Ray Charles). Interesting how relatively few people make that analogy.

Ken, I know you'll be cheering on that diminutive dynamo Kristin Chenoweth on Sunday for her role in "On the Twentieth Century," playing the Lily Garland role the lady in my avatar made famous on screen and one of Kristin's idols, Madeline Kahn, did likewise on Broadway. (Ken directed Kristin on her short-lived sitcom nearly 15 years ago.) Anyway, a few years back, Kristin gave scandal-ridden Anthony Weiner some advice through music on "The Tonight Show" -- and it's the type of bawdy humor Carole Lombard herself would have loved:

Paul said...

Wow, Ken, spot on with this post. I work in marketing and PR for a presenting theatre here in CT and we have MOTOWN coning next March. They sent us down to FL to see the tour last March and boy, did I have the same reaction as you -- loved the music, hated the show, but can't wait to sell it to our audiences because they'll eat it up. Also sat through a day-long seminar on best marketing practices for the tour and the Gordy ego was in full force. By the way, we were told never to call him "Berry." It's either "BG" or "Mr. Gordy."

Unknown said... you know, I lived the real thing. Your take is spot on and here's why. So much of the legend and greatness came from the individual artist/writers themselves. Berry did "invent" and put and held it together in a sensational way, but I cannot tell you how many experiences I had over the years where people took the opportunity to "fall upward", when anywhere else they'd simply fail downward and crash and burn... and that would be that. The "less than pro" environment was almost like the "crazy like a fox" syndrome. Hard to explain, but there was always a brilliance that permeated the whole deal, in spite of/ because of the home grown characteristics. Pretty fascinating stuff.

canda said...

Jersey Boys was a perfect example that if you have a strong book, you can run 10-plus years on Broadway, have national and international tours running all the time, and make a ton of money.

Frankie Valli was smart enough to know that. Gordy was not.

Motown had a short run on Broadway, when it could have run forever. Music alone can't keep a show running.

Anonymous said...

Since we are discussing music, here is a friday question: I know you have to get rights and pay royalties when you use a song in TV or movies. But what if you just used some of the lyrics, as a character might say "goo goo g' joob" do they have to pay someone? Of if they only have to pay if they use more lyrics like someone describing their mother as "There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold
And she's buying a stairway to heaven."?

Anonymous said...

Berry Gordy was an exceptional judge of talent who made a lot of money off many extremely talented people.
Almost none of those people made a lot of money despite their talent.
And most of them didn't realize it until it was too late.

Anonymous said...

It's fashionable to talk of the history of rock and roll and tell how white businessmen ripped off black artist.
Yeah, that happened. But Berry Gordy ripped off black artists as bad or worse than any white businessman and that includes Mo Levy. You just don't hear him talked about like the white guys.
Motown dominated the airwaves in the 1960's and early 1970's. the Supremes had more #1 records than any group except The Beatles. But look around at the Motown artists who are still alive or the families of those who aren't. Don't forget the Funk Brothers. You can count the number of wealthy artists on one hand. Sure Smokey Robinson -but he was so prolific even Berry Gordy couldn't take his money away (altho I'm sure Smokey got the wrong end of many deals). And Diana Ross - but there were extenuating circumstances. Maybe a couple more, but not many. One hand.
Out of all those performers.
You can put 2 and 2 together and figure out what kind of guy Berry Gordy was. And it looks like he is still doing it.

Hamid said...

Anonymous @ 9.27:

I think you still have to get permission and presumably pay for the right to make reference to the song. A funny example is Cop Land, in which Harvey Keitel's character mocks Stallone's character by saying a suggestion he made was akin to saying everyone should hold hands and sing We Are The World. It was just that one reference but the end credits listed it with "Written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson". 

Dixon Steele said...

Right on target about MOTOWN: THE MUSICAL.

But for me, the most cringe-worthy moment was when Gordy takes Diana Ross to Paris and can't perform in bed. Diana zings him with "I guess you can't control everything".

Now why would Gordy put such an embarassing moment like that in the show (and from what I heard, insisted it stay in)?

So he could point to it and be able to say how honest he was about the whole show. If not, why would he include THAT?

Frank said...

Berry was so caring toward his artists he moved Motown from Detroit to L.A. without even bothering to tell any of the great musicians that made the records hits. They found out Monday by a sign on the former studio window. I was hoping he would lose his shirt with the Broadway play but I guess I underestimated his comedy writing ability.

Anonymous said...

He was especially brutal with his female artists.
Here is the basic historical progression of his biggest female hit makers:

The Marvellettes (with Gladys Horton)
Mary Wells
Martha Reeves and the Vandellas
The Supremes
Diana Ross

As each one rose, the one before fell off quickly and within a few years was completely done.
In every case before solo Diana, there was a fallout with Gordy. In the Supremes case, Flo was dumped and Mary Wilson knows the score.

Unknown said...

THANK YOU! I'm a high school Drama teacher, and every spring, our performing arts department (Drama, choir, band) takes our graduating seniors to Chicago for an "arts weekend." We go to the symphony, Blue Man Group, and try to catch a professional musical downtown. Two years ago, it was Motown. Yes, the music was terrific, but the director in me was just cringing at the dialogue and the weak storytelling. There's a great story to tell about Motown, but it has to be told by someone outside the fray. (I still maintain there's a great show in the story of Marvin Gaye.)

Unknown said...

THANK YOU! I'm a high school Drama teacher, and every spring, our performing arts department (Drama, choir, band) takes our graduating seniors to Chicago for an "arts weekend." We go to the symphony, Blue Man Group, and try to catch a professional musical downtown. Two years ago, it was Motown. Yes, the music was terrific, but the director in me was just cringing at the dialogue and the weak storytelling. There's a great story to tell about Motown, but it has to be told by someone outside the fray. (I still maintain there's a great show in the story of Marvin Gaye.)

Irv said...

I couldn't agree more. Saw it on Broadway and it was a huge disappointment. Two insipid lines of dialogue, song. Two more insipid lines of dialogue, another song and on and on for three hours. (And is impersonation actually "acting" by the way?). Great community theater (maybe), but a real Broadway ripoff.

Anonymous said...

Didn't see this on tour but loved Movin Out which was an all-out musical. No stupid dialogue, just the songs.
Janice B.

Ron Rettig said...

You forget Cindy Williams in "The First Nudie Musical"

Johnny Walker said...

Ironically, it sounds like the production of the play says just as much about Berry Gordy as it would have if it was honestly written. Rather than cementing his legacy as a "great man", he's created an embarrassing testament to his ego. Poetic justice :)

Johnny Walker said...

Ken, I'm jealous of your singles collection. Wow. To have the complete set is awesome.

Jo Jo said...

Barry Gordy did NOT write this book alone. The major force behind it was Dick Scanlan who I believe wrote Thoroughly Modern Millie and Everyday Rapture with Sherie Renne Scott.

Pleading the fifth. said...

@Johnny Walker: A few years ago, Hip-O-Select reissued all the A's & B's on a series of boxset CDs, about 12 sets, one per year. Expensive limited editions. I dare say a complete set of lossless CD rips can be found languishing around the internet.

Mike McCann said...

I see that the book -- and its distance from the truth -- has not changed since the curtain first rose in New York.

Johnny Walker said...

@JoJo David Goldsmith and Dick Scanlan are billed only as “script consultants”. The book is solely credited to Berry Gordy.

@5th I wouldn't know anything about such things.

cadavra said...

I saw it on Broadway and my sentiments mirrors yours. (I don't normally go to jukebox musicals, but it was the only thing playing that Sunday night and it was right next door to my hotel, so what the heck?) The thing that impressed me the most was the astounding energy level the cast maintained despite the fact that this was their FIFTH performance in 48 hours!

@Canda: It was not a "short run." It ran for almost two years (738 perfs + 37 previews) and will return upon conclusion of the tour.

Anonymous said...

Although Dick Scanlon was only mentioned as script consultant,it is known in New York that he was much more and single handedly re-shaped the story and became Barry's right hand man throughout the production. And still is. FACT.