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Celebrating its second birthday earlier this year, Motown The Musical recently revealed new cast members including Natalie Kassanga and Jay Perry as the leading pair, Diana Ross and Berry Gordy.
With music and lyrics from the Motown back catalogue and a book by founder Berry Gordy, the Shaftesbury Theatre production features a 16-piece orchestra playing 50 Motown tracks, including Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, I’ll Be There, Dancing in the Street, Stop! In The Name Of Love, My Girl and I Heard It through the Grapevine.
The story follows the first 25 years of the record label, as featherweight boxer Berry Gordy borrows $800 from his family to found Motown Records – growing it into a heavyweight music powerhouse and launching the careers of Diana Ross and the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and many more.
Through the musical journey of classic hit records, Motown the Musical uncovers the true story of the legendary record label that changed music history and created the soundtrack of a generation.
We caught up with Natalie and Jay to find out more about taking on the iconic roles, and starring in Motown The Musical.
How are you finding the Motown The Musical experience?
Natalie: Amazing. It’s still obviously overwhelming because it’s such an amazing musical, but everyone is just amazing and so talent. To be part of such an amazing musical is incredible. It’s so lovely.
Jay: I’m having a good time. It’s such a crazy experience being part of something with such a history and such a legacy. I’m having a blast, taking each day as it comes and really trying to enjoy the experience.
What is it about it that you’re enjoying so much?
Natalie: I think it’s the whole atmosphere of it, and obviously the music and the telling of the story. The costumes especially as well, which are just amazing. I love being in that environment.
Jay: Obviously the music is sensational. It’s the stuff I grew up listening to. Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder… these types of artists were always playing in my household. That is the main draw, knowing that you’ll hear quality music that even now stands up against anyone.
Having my dad in the audience on opening night was a crazy moment. It was a full-circle moment. It feels like a huge deal for me, both personally and looking at the faces of the audiences. Everyone remembers the first time they heard those iconic songs.
How does it compare to your other West End shows?
Natalie: Obviously when I was younger, being part of The Lion King, it was a different mind-set. I was just having fun with it and didn’t have as much of a responsibility as I do now. There’s a big difference between being a child and being a leading lady.
This time I’m playing an icon that is actually a person; I’m not just playing a character. Diana Ross has obviously made such a huge difference to this industry, and the music industry especially, so it’s a totally different feeling.
Is it daunting playing such an iconic real-life character?
Natalie: It can be. Everybody knows exactly who Diana Ross is. They know her music, the way she speaks, and the way she treats her fans. When you’re playing that role you want to be as much of her as you possibly can. When people do come to watch the show it’s as if they are coming to watch her. It can be a lot of responsibility when playing the role.
Jay: There’s a bit of pressure in that. Playing somebody so iconic who is still alive, it’s a big deal. I feel like a lot of people who come to see the show don’t actually know Berry Gordy’s story, so it’s wonderful to retell it. The audiences leave really knowing the story of Motown. It’s nice to be able to tell his story.
Was there a particular way you had to prepare?
Natalie: Before I took the role I was a huge fan of Diana Ross anyway. I used to study her music and who she was. When I was cast I had to then study her life story. I never knew about her relationship with Berry Gordy. I learned how she treats her fans, and how she speaks to people. It was about getting into character and really studying her as a woman, her persona, emotion and mannerisms. It took quite a lot to study who she is and to become the role.
Jay: Obviously there’s a lot of documentaries you can watch, and a load of stuff on YouTube. I read Berry Gordy’s book which the show is loosely based around, his autobiography To Be Loved. It gives a lot of insight into him as a person. There’s a lot directly from the book you can see in the show. It’s great to get that type of insight.
The rest is trying to tell the story with an element of truth. This is a real man with real feelings; you just try and put yourself in that position throughout the show.
Do you have a personal favourite moment of the show?
Natalie: My biggest moment has to be Reach Out And Touch. That part of the show is so special. It’s the part when the vulnerability comes out. That moment of going out into the audience and getting them all involved, it’s absolutely amazing. Just really having that inner personal moment on stage.
Jay: I really enjoy My Girl. Not only do I get to sing a little bit as Berry Gordy, but also the audience’s reaction to that show is incredible. From the first eight bars everybody knows what is coming. You can feel that excitement in the audience. I just love that moment. It’s really special.
What’s your favourite part of working with each other?
Natalie: I couldn’t have asked for a better co-star. Jay is such a lovely guy and very talented. Our emotional connection on stage has become so much stronger. I think it’s incredible working with him.
Jay: Natalie is fearless. She’s never uptight, she’s never afraid to try something new. I love the fact we get to do it every night. We both approach the roles from a fresh angle, and we get to find it together, which I really like.
We’re giving away a free £25 or £15 Ticketmaster Theatre gift card when you buy selected tickets to Motown the Musical at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre. Find out more at Ticketmaster.co.uk.