The original Motown headquarters in Detroit wasn’t nicknamed Hitsville USA for nothing. The record label founded by Berry Gordy Jr. in 1959 helped create an indisputably unique sound, launch the careers of dozens of unforgettable artists, and spur social change.
It’s a daunting task to do justice to the man and music in a mere two-and-a-half hours, but Motown the Musical, at Majestic Theatre May 3-8, gives a peek into how the legendary producer and songwriter created a catalog that transcends generations.
As music director of the tour, Darryl Archibald is in charge of ensuring audiences walk away musically satisfied. Archibald and his team of 15 musicians lead audiences through the history of Motown and some of the record label’s most memorable releases.
“It’s like you’re actually there at the concert, so people get very caught up in it, which is the point of the show,” says Archibald. “It’s to celebrate the music and to give you a glimpse at how all this came about.”
The main storyline follows the relationship of Gordy and one of his greatest discoveries — and greatest loves — Diana Ross. Audiences also meet Motown’s cornerstone artist (and Gordy’s best friend) Smokey Robinson, as well as Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, and Stevie Wonder. Archibald describes the show as a hybrid of a musical and a concert. Through snippets, medleys, and complete songs, the audience is treated to 60 unforgettable tunes.
While it’s impossible to tell the whole Motown story or play every hit song, the show reinforces what a powerhouse Motown was and reflects on historical events for which the music served as a soundtrack.
Archibald says part of what made Motown music so special was that Gordy purposefully sought to create a sound that appealed to everyone, regardless of race. “It had to have a specific kind of sound and a specific hook, and the artists were groomed so they could appeal broadly ... That was Berry’s goal and that’s why the music transcends.”
A talented group of musicians named The Funk Brothers also helped Motown music standout. The group, which over the years included a roster of some of the most talented musicians around, played on Motown’s biggest hits and created the musical moments that made many of the songs so identifiable, using innovative techniques such as overdubbing and melodic baselines people hadn’t heard before.
"Before the songs even start you can hear one of the iconic baselines or guitar lines for 'My Girl,' for example ... people automatically know, oh that’s 'My Girl' without hearing the lyrics. That was a really cool thing about the music from Motown."
To recreate The Funk Brothers sound, Archibald has a regular cast of five core musicians (himself included) and picks up 10 local musicians at each tour stop. The locals learn the music in advance and have four hours to practice with the core group the morning of opening night. Luckily, the local musicians are already familiar with most of the music.
That universal familiarity allows Motown the Musical to appeal to such a wide audience — from 9 to 90. “This is a wonderful journey that gives the audience a peek behind the Motown curtain.”
Tickets are still available to Motown the Musical, running May 3-8 at Majestic Theatre.