Interview - Natalie Kassanga on playing Diana Ross in Motown the Musical
A fresh cast are settling in to their new home at the Shaftesbury Theatre, as Motown enters its third year in the West End. Among them, Natalie Kassanga, who returns to the West End for the first time since she was a child to take on The Supremes leading lady, Diana Ross.
We spoke to Kassanga about being back on stage, playing Ross and the challenges that come with that, and what her dream jukebox musical would be.
Have you performed in the West End before?
I played Young Nala in The Lion King when I was around 10 years old for about a year, and then I went into Oliver alongside Rowan Atkinson as Fagin, so I was in the original cast.
But this is the first time for a little while?
It’s been about eight or nine years since I’ve been in the West End, but it’s my first time playing a leading lady. That comes with a lot more responsibility, playing Diana Ross is quite a lot to take in because she’s such an icon. It was definitely nerve-wracking, but it’s a lot of fun.
Have you always been a big Diana Ross fan?
My family love her and always listened to The Supremes back in the day. I do know quite a lot about her, but playing this role, I’ve learnt a lot more about her. I had no idea about her love life with Berry Gordy or her struggles with the group. I still study her movement and the way she speaks, so I’m still learning about her.
Were there any songs you really wanted to get your teeth stuck into when you started?
There’s one song that’s not in the show, "Baby Love", which I absolutely love. "Good Morning Heartache" is one of my favourite songs that she covers, I think it’s a beautiful song.
There are 50 Motown classics in the show, are there any you don’t get to perform that you wish you did?
I’m such a huge fan of Stevie Wonder and I’m always singing along with his songs backstage.
One of the things that might be quite surprising to those coming to see the show is how much the story delves into Black history in America...
With Motown, it represents Black history, the discrimination that happened back in the day it keeps the story alive. When people come to watch the show they come for a good time with the music, but the story is very strong and it’s important to remind people of those aspects of Black history: from Martin Luther King to Kennedy etc. That’s what makes the musical special.
It is a lot of fun though, too?
100%. On a weekend especially, when the crowds are a little crazier, the laughter and the roaring from the audience make it really exciting.
There’s a moment where Diana calls on two people in the audience to sing with her. Often, they’re brilliant singers, are there ever occasions when it doesn’t go so well?
I remember once we called on people who didn’t really speak English. They sang the song slightly differently which was really interesting, and when they leave they have that moment they will remember. It can be a bit challenging, but there’s never a dull moment in that part of the show.
Another aspect that seems quite challenging in the show seems to be the amount of costumes Diana wears in the show?
Off the top of my head, I’d say there are over ten costumes in total. It’s challenging when it comes to the quick-changes - that can be quite overwhelming. It’s great that there are different costumes for some of the big moments in the show, and they’re quite iconic, too, so people recognise them.
To be honest, even though it’s already up and running, I’d pick Thriller. It’s not based on Michael Jackson’s life story, but he’s such a world icon, when people go to watch that, they have an amazing time. Personally, I think Thriller is an amazing musical.
Even in Motown, there’s a little shift in the show when the Jackson 5 appear…
Definitely, it’s one of the benchmarks in the show. Act two is very music-heavy, and everyone’s aware of them in particular. The little one who plays Michael Jackson is so talented and everyone’s up in their seat or singing along which is an important part of Motown.