Motown: The Musical


The sixties were a glorious time, unlikely to ever be repeated or rivalled. The fifties had been a cautious decade, where women stayed home after marrying to take care of their men, kids didn’t sass parents, and no one questioned authority in the family or in their country. Well, at least on the surface.

hitsville USABut the sixties were all about breaking free of rigid expectations. The kids were loud, and demanding that their culture be not only accepted but respected. Feminism, the civil rights movement, and counter culture in general flourished. And into this heady mix, Berry Gordy, a guy from Detroit, working out of a house on W. Grand Blvd, brought his own dream to life by creating MotownHitsville U.S.A.

Trailer 

Motown: The Musical is a heady ride, a pastiche of the songs that mirrored and urged on a youth culture chitlin circuitexploding in front of our parents’ shocked eyes. The story, written by Gordy, traces the determination , grit and greed that was necessary to bring the music of young, black performers out into the open , and into the spotlight, after decades of being relegated to touring under Jim Crow laws and on the Chitlin’ Circuit.

Much of early rock and roll was unacceptable to a white, uptight audience in North America. The music written and performed by black artists was routinely filtered through clean cut and very white vocalists who better exemplified what the society of the day wanted to see and hear. As Sam Phillips, the man who discovered Elvis once said “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.”  

The charts of the day were wide-ranging; a radio station’s top ten might include everything from rock to country to instrumental movie soundtracks, to a song scooped from a Broadway musical. And into this blessedly catholic mix, Gordy dropped the songs that exploded minds once closed to racial diversity.

hot100 1960When I first heard Motown songs, they were often filtered through the music of The Beatles, and other British groups who were eagerly seizing upon this new form, a rhythm and blues concoction that stepped all over early rock and roll structure, and brought attention to lyrics with heart and soul, accompanied by dazzling melodies and angelic harmonies.

The Beatles, always hip to finding hits where others might not have looked, recorded three Motown hits for their second album, With The Beatles, in 1963; “Money”, Smokey Robinson’sYou’ve Really Got A Hold On Me,” and The MarvelettesPlease Mr Postman.”

Money (That’s What I Want,) “was the first hit for Gordy, on the Tamla label operated pre-Motown, and released in 1959. And right from the beginning, Gordy was ruthless. “Singer Barrett Strong claims that he co-wrote the song with Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford. His name was removed from the copyright registration three years after the song was written, restored in 1987 when the copyright was renewed, and then excised again the next year. Gordy has stated that Strong’s name was only included because of a clerical error.”

But Motown’s legal scramblings and shenanigans didn’t come to our attention until years later. What we were hearing and enjoying were songs that burst out of the radio, as Martha and the Vandellas called us to come “Dancin’ In the Streets.”

Gordy’s musical stable included The Temptations, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, The Marvelettes and Marvin Gaye. He loved to pit the performers against each other, believing that “competition breeds champions.” He was a showman who understood what the people wanted, and the young artists that flocked to his label soon learned that their street cred was about to be vigorously scrubbed off them.

Maxine Powell ran the only in-house finishing school at any American record label. Most people have probably never heard of Powell, who died this week, but music fans have unknowingly enjoyed her handiwork at Motown since the ‘60s.Maxine Powell finishing school for Motown

“When I opened up, in 1964, the finishing school, the purpose was to help the artists become class, to know what to do on stage and off stage, because they did come from humble beginnings. Some of them from the projects and some of them were using street language. Some were rude and crude, you understand, but with me, it’s not where you come from, it’s where you’re going.”

It was Powell’s job to teach the likes of Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, Martha Reeves, Tammi Terrell, The Marvelettes, The Velvelettes, and Smokey Robinson how to present themselves charmingly during interviews, performances, and off-stage public appearances. When they were in Detroit, Motown singers were required to attend two-hour session with Powell, learning public speaking, posture, walking, stage presence, etiquette, and personal grooming. Powell had studied African-American cosmetology at the renowned Madam C.J. Walker training school in Indianapolis.” (http://dangerousminds.net/comments/motowns_charm_school)

Motown: The Musical takes all of that background and lays it out beautifully at our feet. Over 50 songs from the rich catalogue are sampled, in small or large bites, and the audience visibly thrills, sitting a little taller in their seats, as their own musical memories are stimulated.

Josh Tower plays Berry Gordy, whose long love affair with Diana Ross, portrayed by the lovely Allison Semmes, is pivotal to his life. Consequently, a large part of the musical is devoted to her work, first as a teen, and one of The Supremes, diana-ross-stylethrough her machinations to become the acknowledged star of the group, her foray into film, to her eventual break with Gordy and Motown.

But it’s tiny Michael Jackson, ably brought to life by Leon Outlaw Jr., (the role is shared between Outlaw and Nathaniel Cullors,) who steals our hearts. Outlaw plays the young Berry Gordy, and a young Stevie Wonder, whose over-bearing stage mom terrifies Gordy. But it’s when we hear Outlaw as the 10 year old Michael Jackson auditioning with the song, “Who’s Loving You,” that we’re galvanized.

jackson 5The song was written by Smokey Robinson for his group The Miracles, who recorded the song in 1960 for their first Motown album. The song was issued as the b-side to The Jackson 5’s first single, “I Want You Back” in 1969. And of course, Michael went on to extraordinary heights … we still feel his loss. But back then, that little kid with the big voice could be depended on to knock it out of the park pretty much every time he came to bat. The Jackson 5 were so huge in the sixties that they received the ultimate compliment of the time – their own animated TV series.

We dip, dip, dip through other artists and their contributions to the legend. Jesse Nager plays Smokey Robinson, a long time Gordy friend, while Jarran Muse plays a suitably conflicted Marvin Gaye, whose greatest songs were nearly never accepted by the label.

“The first Marvin Gaye album credited as being produced by the artist himself, What’s Going On is a unified concept album consisting of nine songs, most of which lead into the next. It has also been categorized as a song cycle; the album ends on a reprise of the album’s opening theme. The album is told from the point of view of a Vietnam War veteran returning to the country he had been fighting for, and seeing only hatred, suffering, and injustice. Gaye’s introspective lyrics discuss themes of drug abuse, poverty, and the Vietnam War. He has also been credited with criticizing global warming before the public outcry against it had become prominent.

Marvin_Gaye_What's Going ON… Gaye approached Gordy with the “What’s Going On” song while in California where Gordy had relocated. Gordy took a profound dislike to the song, calling it “the worst thing I ever heard in my life”. Gaye, who had also begun recording some songs that would later be featured on his later album, Let’s Get It On responded by going on strike from recording anything else for the label unless Gordy relented. Motown executive Harry Balk later recalled that he had tried to get Gordy to release the song to which Gordy replied to Balk, “that Dizzy Gillespie stuff in the middle, that scatting, it’s old.” Most of Motown’s Quality Control Department team also turned the song down, with Balk later stating that “they were used to the ‘baby baby’ stuff, and this was a little hard for them to grasp.” Gordy also felt the song was too political to be a hit on radio and too unusual compared with what was considered a part of the popular music sound of that time to be commercially successful.

With the help of Motown sales executive Barney Ales, Harry Balk got the song released to record stores, sending 100,000 copies of the song without Gordy’s knowledge, on January 17, 1971, with another 100,000 copies sent after that success.” (Wikipedia.com)

The musical is set in 1983, as the cream of the Motown crop returns for the 25th anniversary of Motown Records, held at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, Gordy, fuming over the slights and spats of the past, is determined not to attend the ceremonies. But his memories, and the cajoling of family and friends, including Smokey, finally get him to relent. He and Diana have a smoochy smooch, ‘we cool,” moment, and everyone sings.

The quasi happy ending, however, completely bypasses what many believe to be the high point of the show … Michael Jackson’s return to perform a medley of Jackson 5 hits with his brothers, followed by a solo performance of “Billie Jean,” that showed us that the kid had blossomed into a formidable man … with a mean “Moon Walk.”

I loved Motown: The Musical. I’d highly recommend it not only to those of us who lived through those halcyon days, but to anyone aspiring to a career in this business of show, as some of the trickiest moves and manipulations on the parts of both artists and managers are still in play today.

But definitely … come for the music. That ‘sweet, sweet music’ will get you every time.

Survivor : Worlds Apart – March 26, 2015 – Be Careful What You Wish For


Previously on, Survivor: After a surprise switch, Kelly was the only Blue Collar that landed up on the unimpressive new Red /Nagarote tribe with Will, Hali, Jenn, Carolyn, Max, and Shirin. The rest of the Blue Collars enjoyed a 4/3 advantage in their new Blue/Escameca tribe of Dan, Sierra, Mike, Rodney, Tyler, Joaquin and Joe. Sierra was not happy to be the only woman on the uber male team, as she disliked her former tribe mates. She hoped to connect with the three males of the former No Collar tribe.

Survivor WA MaxMax won the battle for most annoying tribe member, and became the 5th person voted out of Survivor: Worlds Apart. 13 are left – who will be voted out tonight?

Shirin is devastated to have lost Max, her closest friend and confidante. She had spent all of her time with Max, until the new players arrived on the team, and now, her efforts to woo the newbies to their side has angered her past team members. No one wants to play with her, she pouts. “Is there something wrong with me?” Shirin tells us about growing up in a rich, Orange County suburb amongst kids that were white and prettier than she. She’s going to have to do now, what she did then; deal with it, adapt, fix it.

On the Escameca beach, Rodney’s looking for a new BFF. He’s sick of Dan’s stories, and even Mike, who had been his bestie last week, has been found wanting this week for not being a big enough partier. Mike goes to church on Sunday, doesn’t drink, and doesn’t have sex. So Rodney decides to start a bromance with Joaquin. Joaquin’s good with that.

Survivor WA joaquin and rodneyWith a new bestie and ally, Rodney feels like he’s king of the world. “All the fools out there who think I’m dumb and ‘oh, he talks like an idiot’—wait till you see what I have planned for this game.”

The players greet Jeff Probst at the Reward Challenge site. This week, the teams will race up a giant tower and through a series of obstacles. At the top, they will launch sand bags, one at a time, at targets out in the field. First team to hit all six targets wins reward – a trip to a turtle sanctuary, where they’ll watch turtles migrating from the sea, back to the beach where they were born, to lay their eggs deep beneath the sand. While watching, they’ll feast on beef stew, mac & cheese, and hot chocolate. Survivors ready?

Both teams race through the beginning of the trial, but things get tense when Escameca takes a 4-2 lead. Determined to win, the Nagarote players dig deep, rally, and win the challenge!

Shirin hopes that their win and reward will help her to find a way to bond with the other players. Everyone else is just excited about eating real food with real utensils! After their feast, they take flashlights to the beach where the migration of the giant turtles occurs. Out of 120 eggs lain, only one will survive. Jenn is excited by the sight and the lesson. “It made me realize that a turtle’s chances in life are way worse than me winning Survivor. I do have a 1 in 14 chance of winning as opposed to a 1 in 100 chance of living. So that’s cool.”

When Joe, Dan and Mike head off to Escameca’s beach to fish, Joaquin approaches Sierra about forming an alliance with himself, Tyler and Rodney. She’s interested, but doesn’t trust Rodney. But if she has to work with Rodney to work with Joaquin, then so be it.

survivor WA RodneyRodney now thinks he’s got the game under his control … he can already taste the win. His first move will be for the tribe to throw the Immunity Challenge, so that they can vote Joe off the island.

Rodney sells this plan to Mike, who doesn’t think it’s a great idea; historically, throwing a challenge always backfires. But he doesn’t care about the current tribe, as his real alliance is with Kelly and some other players on the other tribe. If his team throws a few challenges, Kelly’s odds of being safe on the other side increase.

So, everyone troops off to the Immunity Challenge, which is a memory tester. There are a series of items in a specific order that two opposing players need to memorize. Once they have, they pull a lever to drop a curtain on the items, and then race back to put them in the right order before their opponent to score a point. First team to three points wins immunity, and the Immunity Idol, which to me looks like a rather dissolute Mr. Peanut ™. Survivor WA Mr Peanut

First up is Rodney vs Caroline. Caroline wins easily, especially as Rodney is a bad actor, who makes little effort in pretending to score the point. Hali wins the next point for Nagarote as well. The game continues, with Escameca coming back, bringing the score to 2/2, with Mike vs Kelly as the potential tie breaking bout.

Kelly is first to close the curtain, but Mike lingers, staring at the closed curtain. But Kelly can’t remember the order of the items. Mike purposely puts his items incorrectly, and they both have to go look at another set of items. Mike whispers to Kelly, “listen to me, I’m giving it to you. Listen to what I say.” He then proceeds to name all of the items, before they race back to solve the test.

Despite Mike continuing to give the order of the items aloud, Kelly again gets the order wrong. So it’s back to the curtain for a last try, this time with just five items. This time Mike tells Kelly, “I will call out the order, but I will switch the bottles.” The only way Mike could be any more helpful would be for him to actually place her items correctly by himself. And so this time, Kelly wins and Nagarote is safe from the night’s Tribal Council.

Once Kelly realizes that Mike threw the challenge, she’s surprised, but feels she can really trust him. She can’t wait to get back to her Blue Collar tribe, where she feels she belongs.Survivor WA mike

Mike, on the other hand, feels like, “a little something inside of me died today.” And he’s beginning to see Joaquin as a bad influence on Rodney. Rodney, meanwhile, is confident that he has everyone in his pocket – they’ll be voting Joe out that very night.

Mike lets Joe know that Tyler and Joaquin are gunning for him. Joe tried to reach out to them, but neither was interested. If Joe, Mike and Dan want to be safe, they’ve got to get Sierra on their side. The problem is, Sierra is still angry at Dan for being rude to her after Lindsey’s blindside.

But Dan’s willing to grovel if that’s what it takes to get rid of Joaquin. Sierra, as the swing vote, is now being wooed by both sides, unsure of whom to trust, but aware that she’s protected no matter how she votes.

Survivor WA tribal councilAt Tribal Council, Jeff wastes no time laying out where the tribe stands since the switch up. They have 4 Blue Collars, 2 White Collars, and one No Collar trying to work together. He asks Joe how the Blue Collars acted when they returned to the camp. Joe notes that they seemed one big happy family – on the surface. But that hid certain cracks in the group – dysfunctions, as Dan mentions. Tyler says they noticed a lot of bad blood and animosity, most of which revolved around Sierra.

Sierra agrees, adding that she was accused of being bad at challenges and around camp. She felt picked on, and Mike was the only person who stepped in and told the others to leave her alone. She’s felt more appreciated by the three new camp mates (Joe, Tyler and Joaquin) in three days than in the first days she shared with her Blue Collar mates (Mike, Rodney and Dan.)

With those cards on table, Rodney still can’t see the split in the tribe. He’s confident that everyone is behind him, and that he’s in a great position. Joe says that things may be changing, but as far as he knows, he’s on the very bottom of the structure, with no allies.

Jeff notes that the decision made tonight could be a very big one. And now, it’s time to vote. Jeff reads out the names – three votes each for both Joe and Joaquin. The deciding vote is for Joaquin, who becomes the 6th person voted out of Survivor: Worlds Apart.

Although Joaquin was the one blindsided, Rodney looks as though he’s just found a half worm in his apple. He’s furious! If this was a movie, he’d turn into the Hulk™ or Godzilla™ and destroy a city.

Jeff tells the others, “Your success in this game depends on your ability to exploit or repair those cracks day by day. “

Survivor WA JoaquinJoaquin’s exit interview: “I didn’t see it coming, you know, totally got blindsided by the four, I don’t know who. I have a good guess. I’m sure, you know, Mike was obsessed with Sierra, and I was getting too close to Sierra, I was getting too close with Rodney. They were feeling like I was pulling their tribe away from them, and they were like, you know, let’s get this guy outta here. But this is my fate, and I’m gonna take it, with a smile on my face.”

Next time on, Survivor: Rodney feels betrayed by his Blue Collar family. “The people who did me wrong today are gonna pay for that ^*^%.” But in Survivor, there’s always time for revenge. The tribes merge, which prompts Rodney to decide, “I felt extremely disrespected by this group, so – me and numbers are donezo.”

My take on this episode: Throwing a challenge is bad game strategy. Has it ever actually worked in Survivor gameplay? Kudos to Mike for realizing that he’d crossed a line when he agreed to go against his own morals.

Survivor WA JoeWhy is Joe always being targeted by his tribes? Is it his hair, his laid back attitude, his athleticism, his great smile, his team spirit? Agreed, all of these things make him a threat, but also a great person to work alongside until closer to the end of the game. For the last several seasons, the players seem to always be working the last part of the game before they’ve understood where they are in the beginning and middle.

With the merge next week, everything may change. I think that smaller alliances will spring up, working together when necessary, but ultimately dividing the tribe further. Rodney may find himself targeted from several sides. Shirin and Tyler need to make themselves more visible with the tribe to stay in the game.