As successful as music labels like Sun, Chess, Stax and Volt might have been, there’s only one that’s a genre all to its own: Motown.
With its deep roster of talent, rich production and distinctive sound, the Motown Record Corp. was a musical juggernaut in the 1960s, and played an important role in the integration of popular music. From his original Hitsville U.S.A. headquarters in Detroit, founder Berry Gordy Jr. grew his company into a record label that included the likes of Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5.
It’s Gordy’s story of founding and running the label that inspired “Motown: the Musical,” coming to the Altria Theater next week. The jukebox musical rehashes a whopping 66 Motown favorites, including four that will be sung by actor Jarran Muse as he portrays soul legend Marvin Gaye.
The musical begins with a 1983 performance to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Motown before flashing back to Gordy’s youth. The show then follows Gordy as he forms a record label and records the music acts that made him famous.
“Not only is ‘Motown: the Musical’ the story of how Berry Gordy created the stars that we have grown to love,” explains Muse, “but it’s also the love story between Berry Gordy and Diana Ross.”
Muse says portraying Marvin Gaye is unlike any role he’s ever tackled.
“People are expecting a lot,” says Muse, who has been involved with the musical since 2011. “This man existed, so there’s a lot of research I had to do. Not only that, but the D.C.-Virginia area is where he’s from, so it’s even more of a big deal for me to give this part of the country a great performance.”
In bringing the role to life, Muse says the hardest part is “trying to portray this man without trying to be an impersonator. It’s not like this is a Vegas show act; this is a musical, and I’m an actor,” he says. “Mr. Gordy says he sees Marvin in my eyes, that my natural instincts are correct, so I just have to trust that, and that is hard.”
Muse says the show will please both those who remember Motown’s glory days and younger audiences that know them as oldies.
“For this new generation that may be familiar with the music but not really familiar with the history, they’re going to get a great history lesson, a magic joy ride, and it’s just a feel good musical the same way Motown makes you feel good.”
Muse says his two favorite numbers are the big production number “Dancing in the Street” and “What’s Going On.”
“It’s where the show takes a bit of a shift,” he says of the latter, which was inspired by an act of police brutality. “So many issues that America was going through in the ’60s we’re still facing today.
“That’s a moment where you see that history is repeating itself and we’re still asking the same question: ‘“What’s going on? And how can we change it?’” S
“Motown: The Musical” plays Jan. 5-10 at the Altria Theater, 6 N. Laurel St. For information, visit altriatheater.net or call 1-800-514-3849.