In part one of two interviews with the Motown the Musical leading cast, we chat to Cedric Neal; Berry Gordy in the show.
The story behind Motown the Musical follows music mogul Berry Gordy as he sets up the now legendary Motown Records. In its time signing the likes of Diana Ross, played in the West End by Lucy St Louis with whom we have also spoken to, and her Supremes, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson, and Stevie Wonder, Motown Records celebrates a look back through 25 years of influential history on stage at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre.
The vibrant cast deliver many of the label’s favourite tracks, including Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Dancing in the Street and I Want You Back, as well as three purpose written new songs.
As Cedric Neal, who plays the label’s legendary founder, explains, there’s a serious amount of history, art, respect and love in the show’s two and half hour running time. We chat to Cedric to find out more about the show, a year and half since it first opened its doors in the West End.
How are you?
I’m doing great. It may be autumn outside right now, but it feels like summer in my life. I’m in the best health I’ve been. I’m celebrating my birthday, and I’m in a hit show in the West End.
How do you think the show has developed?
When we went into the show we were all so overwhelmed with the material, and the artists and icons we were playing, that nerves got the best of us. Now we’ve settled into the Motown story and legacy. Mr Gordy has approved of the show and the performances over and over.
It’s like anything in life; the more comfortable you get doing it the better it gets.
How do you think the way you portray Berry Gordy has changed over the course of the show?
I definitely understand what I now call the Berry Gordy mentality. I think he’s the most unknown superstar to have ever lived. I understand how this man changed the lives of so many artists, and the world, with very little appreciation. I now deliver the character with empathy for recognising that.
It’s easy to overlook his contribution to music, to the world, just by focusing on who he discovered. But he himself was an artist, and he needs to be appreciated. I can relate to that, so I take that empathy and the love he has for all of his artists into the show now. That wasn’t present at the beginning of the show. I was trying to be Berry Gordy, now I’m trying to express him to everybody else.
Have you spent much time with him during the build up to the show, or over the last year and a half?
Everyone who’s been involved with the show knows that Mr Gordy is very hands-on, from rehearsals to co-writing the script. I initially met him at my very last recall.
They’d told us that Mr Gordy and some other people from Motown were over from London, and wanted to sit in on the final audition. I’m in the hall before my call and there’s a guy in the room auditioning for the Jackie Wilson character. By this time Mr Gordy hadn’t come to the theatre, so I asked when he was supposed to get here. I was told they didn’t think My Gordy would come as he had something else to take care of.
I thought “oh cool, I can do this audition and be done with it”. Then the guy comes out of the room and they stop the audition. And in walks Mr Gordy into the building, into the room, and the audition manager says “Cedric, are you ready?”. I’d just wrapped my mind around him not being there, and now I’m sitting in a room with Mr Gordy. He asked me to perform Can I Close The Door. That was my introduction.
During the rehearsal process he took myself and Lucy St Louis, who beautifully plays Diana Ross, to one side and told us where he was in his life, where he was mentally, financially, spiritually, personally. All of the things that involved him and Diana, and even him and Marvin Gaye. It was comforting to know that this man had been there, and it was all true.
I affectionately call him “pops” now, which is what he calls his dad, because it’s that sort of relationship. On our press night he said something I wish I could say to myself. He said: “Cedric, you are the best me ever.”
We still get notes to this day from him in Los Angeles, about how he thinks the show could improve. Lines that need to be changed and songs that need to be clipped. So he’s still very hands on.
That could be in equal parts terrifying and supportive, right?
You try to do your best. One of the things that was beautiful for me… I don’t believe in artistic plagiarism. Trying to recreate a character that has already been created doesn’t sit well for me. The first days of rehearsals our director Charles Rudolph-Wright asked if I’d seen the show, and I said I saw it on Broadway. He said he couldn’t tell because I wasn’t playing it like it was never done before, and he liked that.
Mr Gordy agreed, and said I was doing the role like he wanted it to be done. He gave me artistic licence, as long as I’m telling his story with integrity and intent, to develop the character of Berry Gordy to my own artistic style.
How are you finding the West End experience more generally?
I live in Brighton, so I marvel every day when I get to Victoria Station and I’m in central London, in one of the hottest shows. I will say this, the first year of the contract was a learning experience for me. Things are kind of different over here from Broadway, so I had to adjust to that and realise that this was where I was supposed to be. Everyone involved has taught me so much. It has been a big adjustment but I’ve been doing well.
What lessons have you learned so far from doing the show and performing in London?
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that it ain’t that serious. I hate when people say things like musicals aren’t Shakespeare, but I do get what they are saying. We’re not curing cancer, or performing brain surgery. The stuff that I took so seriously just ain’t that serious. Life is going to keep going. Let’s just have fun and tell the story.
Do you have a favourite moment of the show?
One of the first songs that the Berry Gordy character sings is To Be Loved, which he originally wrote for Jackie Wilson. The lyrics for that are: “Some with to be a king or a queen, some wish for fortune and fame, but to be truly, truly loved is more than all of these things.”
To be performing that on stage, by myself, telling the story about what really matters… It’s not the material things. It’s just to be loved. I love that moment on stage.
And the duet You’re All I Need To Get By that I do with Lucy St Louis is really special to us.
What’s the best thing about working with Lucy St Louis?
This is coming from the purest part of my heart. I have never met a person so driven, so consistent, so beautifully talented in my life. Like I said, I’ve gone through a lot since signing this contract, and Lucy has been a sounding board and a rock. She has been Diana to my Berry. She’s a superstar. I actually think she’s a musical theatre artistic robot. She’s always at one hundred. I appreciate her for that.
Motown the Musical continues at the Shaftesbury Theatre, currently booking to 5 January 2019. Tickets are available now through Ticketmaster.co.uk.