Interview with Motown's Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson, Kayi Ushe and David Albury
Audiences have been enjoying the music of Motown at the Shaftesbury Theatre since last May. Featuring the music from the likes of Diana Ross and the Supremes, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder, the musical tells the tale of Berry Gordy and how he founded the Motown record label with an $800 loan from his family. We caught up with Kayi Ushe and David Albury, who play Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson in the musical.
Were you a fan of Motown music growing up? What are your past experiences with the music?
David Albury: I've always been a huge fan of the Motown music. I have so many memories of my dad and my uncle playing the hits all the time. Every birthday we give my dad a new volume of the Motown complete singles. I think we're up to volume 12B (1972).
Kayi Ushe: I was, I actually thought of Motown as a genre more than as a label. And so many of my inspirations are a part of the Motown family, they were and are the soundtrack to my life.
Have you learnt a lot about the characters as you’ve been playing them?
KU: I've enjoyed learning about Marvin and his life and how it all intertwines within the Motown family over the years. I've spent so much time listening to their music and appreciating their art. Learning about them as human beings has given me a newfound passion and understanding for the expansive Motown catalogue.
DA: The greatest discovery has been what a phenomenal song writer Smokey is. There are so many classics that he wrote for other artists that you would know until you started digging. A musical genius. It's no wonder Bob Dylan called him America's greatest living poet. I'd be inclined to agree.
What does it take to play Marvin andSmokey?
DA: Smokey was such a brilliant vocalist. To emulate some of his style and vocal qualities eight shows a week takes a lot of maintenance. I warm up and down before and after every show, and I try and get a good amount of sleep each night. If I'm particularly tired one night a good bowl steam also helps.
KU:I think the knowledge of his life, the affect he had on so many people and the effect they had on Marvin. The fact that this music of his and his peers changed peoples' lives, and in a big way it changed the course of history. So the knowledge of that and the respect of that legacy is key in playing him.
Do you have any favourite moments in the show or songs to perform?
KU: I love performing "I Heard it Through the Grapevine". It was one of my favourite songs growing up, so getting to perform it as on the Shaftesbury stage is very special to me.
DA: One of my favourite moments in the show is performing "Shop Around." It was the first Motown number one so I always feel like I'm recreating a special piece of history. I also love the final scene between Berry Gordy and Smokey. You really get a sense of how these two legends are the best of friends.
If you could perform one song a different character in the show performs, what would it be?
KU: Probably "Dancing in the Streets" it's so beautifully upbeat and it's message for everyone to shake off their inhibitions, prejudices, hesitations and come together and dance is a resounding message that is still relevant especially in current times. That and it's an incredible piece of music.
DA: I would love to perform "To Be Loved". Although Berry Gordy sings it in the show, it was recorded by Jackie Wilson who is one of my favourite all time vocalists. He completely annihilates that song, but I'd love to have a go.
Pick one modern-day artist you’d like to see the subject of a jukebox musical and why would you pick them?
KU: I'd say Gregory Porter, his music is gorgeous. I don't know much about his life but that mesmeric, textured, live jazz sound coupled with a well-written story would be a show I'd love to be in and watch every night.
DA: John Mayer's songs would make for a great jukebox musical. His country roots mean that a lot of his songs are like stories. Some are intimate and some have bigger production but as the majority are guitar-led, they could all be done in either way. They're incredible.
Which songs get the biggest reaction from the audience during the show?
DA: Obviously all the Smokey songs get the biggest reaction! Only joking. You Really Got A Hold On Me gets a great response, and the audience also really like Close The Door, and What's Going On. It's hard because every song is a classic, the audience know and love them all!
KU: We have such a wealth of talent, and such a catalogue of nostalgic, powerful music in this show that it's impossible to say. The one I always notice however is after "War/ What's Going On?" I notice it because there are such varied reactions from the audience: singing along, applause, sobbing. It's an emotionally rich moment in every show.
What’s the best thing about performing in Motown?
KU: . It all comes back to the music. Music that has touched so many people and a label that has produced so many house hold names. That and working with so many talented people. On stage and off stage. It's by all the individual talents in this show that we can collectively do what we love.
DA: The best thing about performing in Motown, is knowing that you are legitimately part of this incredible legacy, and that you are bringing people joy in the process.
If you could say one thing to your real life character, what would you say?
KU: Thank you, for all their contributions to the music industry and for leaving such big boots that I can only hope to fill eight times a week.
DA: If I could say one thing to Smokey Robinson, I'd say thank you for everything!
Motown the Musical Tickets are available now.