Interview with Motown The Musical's Cedric Neal

Motown The Musical is one of the most eagerly awaited shows to be hitting the West End this year and starts preview performances at the Shaftesbury Theatre today, with an official opening night taking place on 8 March 2016.

We caught up with show's male lead, Cedric Neal, who plays the role of Motown founder Berry Gordy.

Cedric Neal is a US actor/performer, originally from Texas and has been a UK resident since October 2014. His theatre credits include 'After Midnight' (Broadway), 'The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess' (both Broadway and Regent's Park Open Air Theatre), 'Dreamgirls' (for the Signature Theatre, for which he won a Helen Hayes Award). Television credits have included a recurring character in the NBC series 'Friday Night Lights'.

As Cedric will be playing a living person, who is also the producer of the show, we were interested to know how well he has got to know Berry Gordy and if this has presented Cedric with any challenges. He says, “Mr Gordy is very hands on with the project. You might think that this will make the performers uncomfortable, but it's actually comfortable because he knows exactly what he was going through in the country [when he founded Motown] and in the world of music and with his musicians at that time. He asked me to challenge him actually.”

Cedric goes on to say: “I'm humbled and I’m blessed to be able to approach this piece, while he is still alive. He said to me at my last recall: 'Cedric you are one of the last people I picked'. That means a lot to me – I'm coming in the same line as The Commodores and Gladys Knight and the Pips and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and he is saying that to me – it makes me feel kinda special.”

The names that Cedric mentions, such as The Commodores (Lionel Richie was their lead singer), Gladys Knight and Smokey Robinson are huge legends and I was intrigued to know if Cedric had met any of the Motown artists from the past. “Not yet” came the reply, but Cedric is hoping to put this right during the show's run and he is hoping that many stars will attend opening night. But he may get a little excitable: “I'll probably freak out when Stevie Wonder comes in, as he is one of my favourite vocalists of all time. As well as Diana Ross!”

I wanted to have another go at finding out how difficult or challenging it was to work with Berry Gordy, but Cedric had nothing but praise: “The best thing about him is that he is a visionary and you can't help but see the vision in his work and in the artists that he's worked with. This is a man who introduced crossover music before there was even a term for crossover music. He introduced black artists to white audiences. That was just a part of his vision.”

Cedric went on to explain how it all started for Gordy: “He worked at a Lincoln Mercury auto plant for three years where he said that he saw something come through one door where they got a bare metal frame and then from another door they got a brand new car. That's what he wanted to do with Motown and its artists. That was the basis of his co-founding Motown and having a whole department set aside for artist development. He would have choreographers there, as well as stylists and etiquette teachers. ”

Fair enough I thought! But what of the negative things that have been said of Gordy over the years? Cedric is protective: “There are many things that have been said about Mr Gordy, but the one thing that hurts him the most and that he will spend the rest of his life to prove that is not true – that is that he cheated his artists. He is a man of integrity and takes a lot of time with his artists to prove that he never cheated on them because they were like family to him. So I think in playing him on stage I take on the role of taking care of every actor on that stage - they have become family to me already.”

One of my colleagues had told me that he had seen Motown The Musical on Broadway and thought how admirable it was of Berry Gordy to keep a bedroom scene between Diana Ross and himself in the show. To describe that scene in any detail would spoil things for anyone going to see the show, but Cedric did confirm that this scene would also be in the West End show, which is great news for all of us.

So what did Cedric think when he first read that bedroom scene in the script? He laughed and said, “Of all the pivotal things to have in his life, why is this in the show? And the answer came down to because it's a true testament of life. If everything is going right for you, if everything is on the up and up and then there is one thing that reminds you that you are human, that you're no superman, and brings you back down a peg or two. And I totally get it – the whole dichotomy of life where you're on top in one area of life, maybe professionally, but you're personal life can't get it right.”

Cedric went on to explain that the musical is based on Berry Gordy's autobiography, 'To Be Loved', “and there is a whole chapter in the book about that scene and I admire Mr Gordy for keeping that scene in the show. And it's also the one scene in the entire show that I’m most nervous about, because as an African American black actor, we don't get too many bedroom love scenes on stage. So what you will see on stage will be so real because that scene make me nervous.”

Cedric has given us an interesting insight into his role and how he has embraced any challenges that have come his way, and I ended the interview by asking him why we should see the show. His answer: “Because it's a celebration of the music that changed the world all because of a single man. And you'll have a damn good time!” I don't doubt that for one moment, and can't wait to get over to the Shaftesbury Theatre.

Motown The Musical is running at the Shaftesbury Theatre from 11 February and is taking bookings until 22 October 2016.

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