Motown the Musical: Reality Bites
The music in Motown the Musical is fantastic: a thrill in every number, the music of our lives. But the overall experience was downright weird and something I have been pondering ever since. The audience was up for the show before the curtain went up and I was too. The audience felt like it was getting the inside story of Motown and its founder Berry Gordy and I did too. After Act I, I felt convinced that it would be impossible to hear better music and feeling pretty good about the show even though the frame narrative was predictable and the book pretty thin: would Berry Gordy decide to go to the celebration of Motown’s 25th Year or would he stay home, disgruntled? Suspense, there wasn’t.
Intermission raised the question: when does an audience get so out of control that it’s like calling “Fire” in a crowded movie theater like the one we were sitting in. A huge mob of people began crowding the part of the theater behind me and shooting pictures (cell phones stayed out for the rest of the show). After 40 minutes, security convinced enough people to sit down so that Act II could begin. What had caused the disturbance? Gordy Berry was in the audience: charismatic even now, his appearance has occasioned near hysteria. For the rest of the show, I wasn’t sure whether I was seeing theater in its purest form or the corruption of the theatrical impulse by something that I decided might be reality TV.
From the start, the audience had seemed amazed, AMAZED, that the actors playing Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and the other Motown stars could sing like Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, and the other Motown stars. More strangely, people around me of various ages and demographics sang along with every song—out loud—and greeted the actors on stage as though they were the original singers. Putting that together with the overreaction to Berry Gordy’s presence, it seemed to me that I was witnessing something unusual in our time: an utterly un-ironic musical and audience response to a musical, in which audience and illusion almost seamlessly bonded.
At the finale, back at that 25th reunion (no spoiler alert needed; the program tells you we will end there), a figure rushed from the back of the theater to the stage. People all around me gasped and shouted out: ”it’s her! she’s really here!” But, of course, Diana Ross was not rushing to the stage though the actress playing Diana Ross was. Strange.
I could tell from conversations around me that the people in the audience went to the theater often and saw plays as well as musicals. Yet something about the material overcame the basic fact of the theatrical experience: there’s an audience; there are playwrights and directors, often present at previews; there are stars, on the stage and sometimes in the audience too. At the worst moments (and Act II has some worst moments as well as some terrific ones), I felt that reality TV had reached a tipping point not just on TV, where it’s been with us for some time, but in the theater too. Motown, I will always love you. It would be fascinating to know whether the show happens this way at every performance!