On June 17, Josh Tower played the lead role of Berry Gordy in Motown the Musical on Broadway for the first time in front of an audience. A few hours later, his wife gave birth to their baby girl — the first Motown baby, as director Charles Randolph-Wright calls her.
“The week was really crazy because I really had to sink my teeth into rehearsal and time was ticking down to that Tuesday night, so I was really focused on that,” Tower says about the birth of a new role and child in the same night. “For some reason, I didn’t have any idea that that baby was going to happen then. It was crazy, but it was great. At that point, when your energy is all gone, you have no choice but to fall into it and smile and run to the hospital.”
Tower’s daughter isn’t the only one celebrating a birthday. Motown commemorated its 500th performance on June 26 with cake. It also launched a national tour in Chicago in April. The musical tracks the history of Berry Gordy’s record label and how it produced some of the biggest artists in the world, including Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Michael Jackson, and Marvin Gaye. The show also deals with the cultural and political history of the time, including the civil rights movement.
Tower and Randolph-Wright attribute the show’s success to the far reach of the music, which brings in a diverse audience. “I think we have very segregated audiences in the theatre, unfortunately. You go see the show that is about you. I’m so thrilled that this show crosses those boundaries,” Randolph-Wright says. He adds that the mixture of ages and race and political preferences allows audience members to lose their inhibitions and sing and dance together, which leads to communication and a shared experience.
So what is the recipe to keeping a musical running for 500 performances and beyond? Motown is constantly auditioning new talent. Between the Broadway production and the tour, the show employs about 80 actors. “The problem is that when you have the talent that we have, everybody wants them. So I feel like Berry Gordy now because in the show, everybody leaves him. You don’t want your children to leave, but because they’re so talented, of course they go to other shows — and should,” says Randolph-Wright.
In looking for actors to take on such iconic figures, Randolph-Wright says, “I want people to evoke the essence of these artists. They don’t have to sound exactly like them or look exactly like them, but if they bring that true spirit of the characters, then you will feel like you’re seeing that.” Esosa’s costumes and Charles G. LaPointe’s wigs take care of transforming the actors to physically look like the artists, so Wright didn’t want the performances to be mere imitations.
When looking for a new Berry Gordy, Randolph-Wright says they were looking for someone who could channel all his sides. “At one point he’s an imp and he’s fun. He’s a self-described hustler. He’s a workaholic. He’s a mentor. He’s a teacher. But he has a childlike view where he’s also willing to learn,” he says. “All of those qualities have to come together to form the man. So we look for artists who can be all of those things.” Tower fit the bill.
When a new actor, such as Tower, joins the cast, he or she rehearses in the studio with associate director Schele Williams and stage managers. Randolph-Wright works with replacements when he can, but he is also balancing two casts and relies on his team to help keep everything running smoothly. Tower had about four weeks of rehearsal time. At nights he would sometimes watch the show. But the only chance he was able to perform the show in its entirety was his put-in — a replacement’s one shot in costume on set with the full cast and orchestra and technical cues. Tower had his put-in on a Tuesday afternoon and his first show was that evening.
Before that, he prepared by drilling the dialogue, music, and lyrics. “There’s other homework of learning the history of the show and about Berry Gordy himself and the ins and outs of Motown during the time of our show. A lot of work that you can do on your own that will prep you for the show and help to memorize at the same time,” Tower says. He has yet to meet Gordy, who also wrote the book of the musical, but he has seen interviews with him on YouTube. It’s an advantage that Gordy is not as recognizable as some of the other icons in the cast. “A lot of people might not know what he looks like or certainly what he sounds like. So there’s a little less pressure there. I don’t have to sound like anybody or do anything to my voice. I was really trying to get to his essence as a person,” Tower says.
Before Motown, Tower starred on Broadway as Simba in The Lion King, which he says gave him confidence for his current role. In Motown, Tower is onstage for about 90 percent of the performance. “In a lot of ways, every role that you do really helps you build as a stepping stone toward the next project,” he says. “I think playing Simba for as long as I did, being a black man in a principal role on Broadway for that long, was an amazing stepping stone, propelling me into a show like this and into a role like this.”