Spirit of Motown
Two weeks ago, my flatmate and I went to Leicester Square to see if there were any cheap tickets for an upcoming show. We asked what tickets were available on the day, and the woman offered two upper balcony tickets for Motown: The Musical that night. With the “Motown Sound” being my favourite type of music, I was ecstatic and eager to see the Motown singers come to life on stage and hear a collection of my favorite songs performed live.
When we arrived at the theatre, we were immediately drawn to the lustrous, massive, gold M that hung in front of the stage curtain, waiting to reveal the beginning and growth of the famous record company. Not knowing the full history of Motown Records, it was interesting to see how the musical balanced and combined the story of Motown with the music itself.
After the show ended, we talked to a few people outside the theatre and learned that two of the audience members we met did not enjoy the actual play and spent the conversation complaining about the show’s script and the lack of writing.
I agreed that the songs took up most of the play’s showtime, however, I felt that this added to the Motown story rather than take anything away from it. I understood what these two were saying, but I also felt they missed a major point of the music in Motown. When watching the show, I quickly noticed and appreciated how each and every song was carefully selected in the musical to demonstrate what was happening, not only in Motown’s history but also in the world in that era.
Throughout the play, founder of Motown Records Berry Gordy talks about semantics, or the importance of the meaning behind what you say rather than the words themselves. This idea is exhibited through the musical numbers, all of which individually represent the success, heartbreak, war, and love that occurred throughout Gordy’s career at Motown.
In some cases, using these musical numbers to express the history of the company also gave new context to the songs. With others, the original meaning of the songs were more easily conveyed by seeing and hearing them in the era and context they were originally released in. For example, I had heard Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” at least 100 times before seeing this show, yet never really listened to what he was saying nor realised it was originally a controversial anti-war song. I also did not realise that this one song, with very few lines of dialogue surrounding it, could so powerfully captivate a crowd. Not only did it remind today’s audience of the feelings surrounding Vietnam and violence of the time, but it also gave new emotional insight to Gordy by simultaneously making the song reflect the his struggle to keep the business afloat and maintain relationships with his artists.
Those two audience members also failed to mention that, overall, the show is about the spirit of Motown and the effect it has on the people who listen to its music. This effect was extremely noticeable when looking at how the audience responded to every number. Whether it was when Diana Ross chose a random man in the stalls to sing with her or when they had everyone stand and clap at the end, the audience was entranced and, for at least a moment, felt like they were part of the Motown family. I had never seen an audience enjoy themselves more than by the finale of this musical, proving that the spirit of Motown is still very much alive. The musical gave this music a new life and both a familiar and new audience to appreciate it. Though it may have been have more fun than plot-driven, Motown still managed to tell its story while making the audience happily remember why they love Gordy’s music, which was Gordy’s goal all along.