Interview & written by: Melody Charles
“The Sound of Young America.” It’s a legendary story that the world now recognizes as one part ambition, two parts ingenuity and multiple parts soul—–the creation of Motown Records. With a few hit songs to his credit, an $800 loan and a vision of success, Berry Gordy Jr. took his assembly-line experience with sales and skill development, applied it to the young raw talent he was surrounded by in Detroit and changed modern music with the label, elevating soul to the top of the charts and around the globe as its stars reached unprecedented heights of wealth and super-stardom.
Motown: The Musical (MTM) is a stage adaptation of Gordy’s memoir, To Be Loved, and depicts many of the highs and lows of the game-changing entertainment enterprise, including the discovery of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, The Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson and the other iconic artists (The Temptations, Mary Wells, The Four Tops, etc.).
Shortly before MTM made its Dallas debut, Knowshi.com landed an exclusive chat with Charles Randolph Wright, the director of the Tony-Award-nominated play since its Broadway debut in 2013. As the musical played in London, Wright spoke by phone about the goal of MTM, the honor of working with a genius and what audiences should remember about it all once the final curtain drops.
Knowshi: Thank you for squeezing us into your hectic schedule Mr. Wright. I’m glad to see MTM becoming such a popular show, did you feel a lot of pressure to make the vision work?
CHARLES RANDOLPH WRIGHT (Wright)– “When I was a kid, I was actually obsessed with Berry Gordy Jr, a man of color who had his own company. The fact that I get to do this journey with him is amazing and when someone believes in you to do your very best, you shine. I understood the entrepreneur, the B’s sides of the records, all of it was such a part of me, so I wasn’t nervous, it’s a part of my life. I feel so proud of doing it all over the country and I’m excited about sharing the message and the stories. Audiences come together and have such love this music. Art heals.”
Knowshi: How do the original Motown superstars feel about their younger acting counterparts and how they’ve been portrayed?
Wright – “They’ve been incredibly supportive: the man who wrote songs and produced for them was there when they were teens, so having that is my secret weapon in having it feel authentic, his insider knowledge and perspective. Mary [Wilson], Smokey [Robinson], Stevie [Wonder], Diana [Ross] have all seen it, it feels authentic although every one of them has a personal view and saw things a different way. I’ve spent time with so many of them, and the actors got to hear about their feelings, to talk to Suzanne de Passe [Motown creative director and executive] about how it happened and gained that insight.”
Knowshi: What qualities were you all looking for in those players to make it to the stage?
Wright – “Those actors had to already have a unique style and come into the room with their own point of view. You’ll see people imitating, but real actors evoke; they find, in their muses, what relates, what motivates them and what they already have in common with the artist and then they create an interpretation of that energy in themselves. That’s how they’re able to re-create ‘the it factor, that sense of identity and charisma.”
Knowshi: What do you consider you duties to be as a director?
Wright – “My job as the director is to interpret what the writers did in the screenplay (Gordy, Dick Scanlan and David Godsmith) and to tell the story they way Mr. Gordy wanted it told. Seeing it in color is very necessary,we usually can’t get a lot of us [African-American actors] in the shows. This influences our children, we give people young and old permission to dream: don’t stop at a certain age, don’t give up. Go after you dream, do what you believe in. When people email me about how the show moved them, resonated with them and changed their lives, it means so much. I studied here in London when I was 19—-that’s what Motown did, it taught us to dream big and I’m proud we can deliver that message. Younger audiences don’t know the story, of how Berry persevered despite all of the odds against him, he rose above. It’s just imperative that this story is told.”
Knowshi: To wrap it all up Mr. Wright, what makes the grueling work, schedules, traveling and rehearsals all worth it to you and Mr. Gordy?
Wright – “There’s a t-shirt that we sell that says, ‘Live It Again’: people go back again and again to watch the journey unfold and to remember their own times in life when they hears those special songs. The key is getting the audience to make that room for their memories, so that they become, and then create, the important element.”