Every social progression has a musical soundtrack that is characterized by the era. Conversely, the songs then define the era from which they originated, allowing us to trace our social history through the sound and lyrics of the works of popular musicians. In the last century, social shifts have been delineated and represented by associated artistic movements that include the fearless modernity of jazz in the early 20th century; the patriotic big-band sound of the WWII era; the rebellious spirit of rock ’n’ roll in the ’50; the mind-expanding experimentation of the ’60s; the embracing of African-American culture through the rise of funk in the ’60s and ’70s; and various forms of rock and hip-hop today.
This season, Theater League brings a series of musicals to the Granada stage that re-create key musical moments in history. Last month’s Jersey Boys, for example, illustrated the doo-wop culture of the ’50s and ’60s; the upcoming Let It Be celebrates the psychedelic peace-and-love vibes of the 1960s; and Kinky Boots honors the more recent shift toward gender nonconformity and LGBTQ inclusion.
And, on January 9-10, Theater League presents Berry Gordy’s Motown: The Musical, a show about the groundbreaking performers who set the tone for a changing cultural tide in the ’60s and ’70s. A celebration of the legendary African-American artists who brought funky urban beats to mainstream audiences, Motown presents acts such as the Commodores, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson Five, and Diana Ross and the Supremes, telling the story of producer Gordy’s rise to prominence as he transformed Detroit from “Motor Town” to a city at the forefront of the musical revolution.
Directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, the show’s title refers to Gordy’s Detroit-based record label, Motown Records. The musical takes place in 1983, at a 25th-anniversary party for the label and its artists. As they celebrate a quarter century of influential music, Gordy recalls his story, from the old neighborhood to platinum sensations that moved the nation. The show features medleys of the label’s greatest hits that remind audiences of both the fun and forward thinking of this generation of music. The performance brings the memorable voices and personalities of the era back the stage, and audiences can expect to relive (or experience for the first time) the specific sounds of the funk and soul made famous by Gordy’s stable of artists.
Based on his autobiography To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown, the musical follows Gordy to the big-time in Detroit as he brings an expression of the African-American experience into the Top 40. Beyond the nostalgia factor of enjoying a concert of best-loved songs, Motown delves into concepts of racism and activism. Ensemble member Eran Scoggins describes Gordy’s work in the musical sphere as telling the story of the African-American experience as the civil rights movement steeped through a segregated society. “Gordy wanted to bring the voice of the culture to a broad audience,” said Scoggins, and described Motown as a history lesson that illuminates the culture that created the music. With the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and the strides of the civil rights movement in recent cultural memory, Gordy’s message of love and unity is played against the background of a society shifting toward inclusion and equality.
Motown: The Musical runs Tuesday-Wednesday, January 9-10, 7:30 p.m., at The Granada Theatre, 1214 State Street. Call (805) 899-2222 or see granadasb.org.