Between 1960 and 1969 Berry Gordy's Motown label manufactured stars the same way Detroit rolled out automobiles, placing an astonishing 79 top-10 hits on Billboard's Hot 100. Half a century after their original release, songs like Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Streets," Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," and the Supremes' "Stop! In the Name of Love" remain ubiquitous. And that's not to mention all the hits performed by artists like Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, and the Jackson 5. No single piece of musical theater could ever come close to including every major song to come out of Gordy's Grand Avenue studio, but with somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 titles mentioned in the program, Motown: The Musical does its absolute best to cover the waterfront.
Motown's music director and conductor Darryl Archibald is impressed that the original creative team was able to leave anything out. "When they were workshopping Motown pre-Broadway, you've got to think everybody wanted every song in the show," he says. "Only you can't do that in two hours and 40 minutes. The way it's been plotted out, you don't get complete versions of all the songs. You get a lot of snippets."
Motown: The Musical opens in 1983 as Gordy, a former boxer and auto worker, prepares for his record label's epic 25th-anniversary celebration. Then it flashes back to the label exec's Motor City childhood and works its way back to the future, introducing audiences to so many performers along the way it can be difficult to keep up.
"The Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder both perform full songs," Archibald says. "And Diana Ross sings the complete 'Reach Out and Touch,' when she's debuting as a solo artist at the Frontier Hotel. It's really spectacular, actually."
"Motown: The Musical" at The Orpheum July 14th-19th. $35-$135. orpheum-memphis.com