Motown the Musical
Shaftesbury Theatre, London

West End interview with Motown the Musical cast

Motown the Musical prepares to officially open this week at the Shaftesbury Theatre following three weeks of preview performances. The musical comes direct from a Tony nominated run on Broadway, and is shaping up to be one of the most exciting productions in the West End, attracting audiences thanks to its familiar score of Motown hits.

We sat down with some of the lead cast members from the show to talk about the process of playing real life iconic characters, as well as finding out what London audiences can expect from the show.

DOH: What makes Motown the most exciting musical to open in the West End in 2016?

LSL: I think it's the fact that we're telling the story of real life people and absolutely incredible icons. There's a lot of truth. A lot of people think it's a jukebox musical, which – you know – we're trying to put in all the songs, as many as we can. It covers around 60 songs of Motown but that includes scene change music too. There's a really hearty story and a lot of truth. Not many people know the story of Mr Gordy and how he created Motown and how he created legends, and I think it's amazing. Everyone knows these icons, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, but not everyone knows where they came from, and that's what this show is all about, telling that story.

DOH: Cedric, is it conflicting to work so closely with the character that you're playing?

CN: It's a blessing and it's positive. Unlike Lucy who has the daunting task of playing Diana Ross, the icon, the legend who everybody knows, I'm playing Berry Gordy the icon, the legend who very few people know. So there's freedom to be artistic in the interpretation of his life. The musical is based on his autobiography 'To Be Loved' which I read three times before rehearsal. I got the chance to meet him at the final auditions and it was so amazing. This past week he's been hands on in the rehearsal process saying "Cedric, I love this but this...not so much", "this is how this happened, this is how that happened", and he takes us in the room and it's an amazing thing to have the person who was going through the experience to tell it to you. I'm humbled and blessed every time I have a conversation with him - the man who introduced us to legends.

DOH: Lucy, you're playing one of the world's biggest icons, what aspect of Diana Ross's story surprised you the most?

LCL: Nothing really surprises me I guess. It's more the fact that she's very ambitious, and what's wrong with that? A lot of people may have perceived Diana as a diva and a big personality and character – that's what you've got on stage. You've got those incredible performances. Backstage, she's working so hard, she's always at the front, always trying to better herself, always trying to make the element of her performance the best. She always tries to take care of the people around her too, which you don't always see. You see the glitz and the glamour on-stage and also the relationship between her and Berry Gordy. She met Berry Gordy when she was sixteen, and the story tells her life from 16 to late 20s and early 30s. She goes through a massive journey and it's her persistence that I must love. Her hard work and her drive that got her where she is, and the chemistry between the two is what made her an absolute star.

CN:I think Berry Gordy and Diana Ross's professional and personal relationship is the definitive partnership and it's clear in how the story is told that at a certain point they both agreed – this is what it's going to take to make you a star and for us to love each other. And to this day they're still the best of friends and acknowledge each other in everything they do.

DOH: What is it about Motown as music and a legacy that helps it define a generation?

LCL: Music today wouldn't be the same without Motown. It created a path and a stage for artists today. If we didn't have that music and that sound and that groove and that love and what it creates, we wouldn't have music as it is today, I truly believe that. He's an absolute genius in what he achieved and in what he created, and he created these stars. Motown is just incredible for how it has paved its way around the world.

C: It's impossible to go anywhere in this world without recognising those golden arches. It's impossible to go anywhere in this world without hearing that “” you know that's The Temptations. “Stop in the Name of Love” – you know that's The Supremes. It's impossible to not know Motown unless you've just been born. And that's all because of Berry Gordy.

DOH: As a stage musical what's it's defining factor for London in 2016?

CN: For me and our creative team – they were told that they would not be able to find a black British cast for Motown and that it would be a challenge. But when they came over here and they auditioned they found their Lucy St. Louis and their Sifizos. 98% of the cast is British and the one guy who is playing the lead who now lives in London is an American. Berry Gordy always tells this story of 1961/2 when Motown came to London and how it opened up the world for Motown and the superstars, and I think this show is doing the same thing for the British talent that's in it. I don't think London is ready for it, but as we say in the show – you better get ready!

DOH: How does it feel to be in the West End with such a prestigious new musical?

CB: I'm very excited to be in the West End – this is my West End début, having done the show on Broadway I'm very excited to reprise my role here. I'm looking forward to getting to perform for London audiences and getting to explore London a little bit more when I'm here.

DOH: How does the London company compare to the Broadway company?

CB: It's different! They're so talented and so excited to be doing this American story. The kids here are just wonderful and it's a great group of people. They always cast the show very specific to the people who they're playing which is very interesting to see as it's now in is third incarnation from Broadway to the Tour to now. I'm loving each and every one of them, just as I did my Motown Broadway family.

DOH: Do you feel the pressure having not only been in the show before but being nominated for a Tony Award for the role, do you find the other cast looking up to you?

CB: It does carry a certain amount of pressure to be reprising a Tony-nominated role in the West End, but I'm just looking forward to doing it. I know I can do it now, and rehearsing it here and making those few little changes has inspired me to go even further with the role and find things I hadn't seen before.

DOH: What changes have been made for the London production?

CB: The thing about Motown and Mr Gordy is that he's always tweaking things to make them just right. Things have changed a little bit, the book has changed a bit even from doing it on Broadway to the tour. Basically I think he wants to give everyone their own unique experience of the musical depending on where it is in the world. There are some references only Americans will understand and some things in there that only UK audiences will understand. Also Mr Gordy is something of a perfectionist which is how it's so successful because he's always making sure that the quality he's putting out there is always the best. He wants to do the same with the musical presenting it to the UK audiences for the first time to make sure it's the best.

DOH: You've had the longest time with your character, what new things have you found out that have helped you?

CB: I found out about his songs and how they've sold around the world. I went and did some research on how well the music had sold in the UK and I had no idea that it wasn't until they did their first UK tour that they had the presence here with “My Guy”, which was a number 1 hit in America but was also a number one hit here. It's been interesting to find out the correlations with how the music has sold in the UK and USA.

DOH: What's your favourite thing about Smokey Robinson?

CB: My favourite thing about Smokey Robinson is him being a wonderful person – I've had the chance to meet him a few times and he's so loving and such a kind hearted and giving person that I get to portray. Also I love the fact he was such a business man, he was the Vice President of Motown Records at the very beginning, so I get to play the authoritarian Smokey Robinson on-stage and also the loving Smokey Robinson on-stage so he's a great person to get to embody.

DOH: As an actor is it more liberating to play a real life person rather than a character who has been dreamt up?

CB: Playing a real life person has different challenges because they're living and breathing. I remember the second time Smokey saw the show he sat on the second row of the Broadway audience – I was like, really? So it's a little intimidating at times because you know that they clearly know who they are, but also it's wonderful because I get to celebrate him in front of him.

DOH: And how did it feel that very first time you auditioned for Berry Gordy?

CB: The first time I auditioned for Berry Gordy was truly a dream come true for me. Here was a man and a legend who created these stars, not just stars, superstars – and to now be in a room for him singing for this man who created all these amazing people, to get the chance to play his best friend and business partner at the time as an actor it only happens once in a lifetime if you're lucky – and I'm so glad it's happened.

DOH: What will Motown mean to West End audiences?

CB: I think West End audiences will get a chance to relive their past. They'll get a chance to go back in their minds and think about where they were when these songs first came out and they'll get a chance to experience love all over again.

Motown the Musical is running at the Shaftesbury Theatre London.

- Edited by Dom O'Hanlon

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