The biggest challenge to staging "Motown: The Musical" on Broadway, according to those involved, was corralling the riches of the blockbuster Motown catalog. It's one thing to base a jukebox musical on the hits of ABBA ("Mamma Mia!"), the Four Seasons ("Jersey Boys") and '80s hair metal ("Rock of Ages"), but it's another to package the culturally dominating and musically peerless work of Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross & the Supremes, Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Martha & the Vandellas, the Temptations and the Four Tops into a two-hour-and-20-minute spectacular.
"When I first got the script, there must have been a hundred songs in it, and I didn't want to cut any of them," "Motown" director Charles Randolph-Wright says. "How do you cut this music? It would have been six hours long, which I would have been fine with."
It's an enviable problem for a Broadway show to have in 2013. Audiences are sound-struck: From "Jersey Boys" to "Rock of Ages," shows bulging with hit tunes provide theaters with uncomplicated and often expeditious ways to fill seats. Having the hits does matter.
"Disney has become so successful doing huge shows based on their movies, because families know the songs," says Broadway producer Niclas Nagler (a backer of "Stomp" off-Broadway and "Hair" on Broadway) of behemoths like "The Lion King" (ruling the jungle with $936 million in ticket sales at the Minskoff Theatre since 1997, according to BroadwayWorld.com) and "Mary Poppins" (which has earned $293 million at the New Amsterdam Theatre since 2006). "When they do a totally new musical like 'Tarzan,' it doesn't work at all." ("Tarzan" ran for a year, between 2006 and 2007, and grossed $42 million, but the lavish musical closed at a loss.)
"A big musical needs at least $20 million to get up on its feet, and has to run at 85% capacity," Nagler says. "At least 50% of them don't make any money, 25% break even, and 25% make a profit."
Of those big earners, hit jukebox musicals tend to be some of the most enduring moneymakers on Broadway (and become even more lucrative when they tour regionally and are produced internationally). "Mamma Mia!" has grossed $529 million at the Winter Garden Theater since October 2001. "Jersey Boys" has had audiences singing along to the tune of $404 million since opening at the August Wilson Theatre in October 2005. "Rock of Ages" has grossed $91 million since 2008.
But mounting a show based on familiar songs is no guarantee of success: Just ask the producers of the Elvis Presley jukebox musical "All Shook Up," which flopped on Broadway in 2005, earning $14 million in seven months before closing. In 2011, a jukebox musical based upon a day of recording sessions at Memphis' Sun Studio, "Million Dollar Quartet," closed after little more than a year, earning $28 million.
Perhaps it's the potential riskiness of the genre that has the creators of "Motown: The Musical," opening April 14 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre (and in previews beginning March 11), emphasizing that their show--produced by Kevin McCollum, Sony Music Entertainment chairman/CEO Doug Morris and Motown founder Berry Gordy--is much more than the typical jukebox musical. "It's not a Broadway version of Motown--it's Motown on Broadway," Randolph-Wright says. "It's important that the music sounds the way people remember it--not with big Broadway orchestration. The songs sound like vinyl records when they should. A song can shift from moments of being created to being performed to telling a story, and the sound changes with that."
The music publisher's go-ahead was essential to the show taking flight. "Berry spent a lot of time, effort and energy to get this to happen," says Martin Bandier, chairman/CEO of Sony/ATV Music Publishing, which controls the rights to the Motown catalog. "We negotiated on behalf of all the songs, but all that was required of us is an understanding of how terrific the show would be, and how the music would fit into the show. You have to understand the nature of who Berry is. It's about his life, and he wants to make sure it is correct. He is a perfectionist, and that gives me great comfort that this show will be a smash."
Choosing which songs made the final mix brought elation and angst. There were the obvious selections: "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," "My Girl," "Do You Love Me." Beyond that, the creators faced tough choices. "The Smokey songs alone were difficult," Randolph-Wright says. "He wrote 'My Girl' and 'My Guy.'"
Cast members held out hope for personal picks. "We just added 'Come See About Me.' I love that song," says Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Gordy in the show. Producer Kevin McCollum sounds relieved that his favorite song was spared the ax. "In very early drafts, we had a hard time figuring out 'Tears of a Clown,' but we've now found a wonderful place for it." (It's in the second act.) Meanwhile, Charl Brown, who plays Robinson, is mourning the loss of "Tracks of My Tears" from the lineup: "We have this idea that maybe we should do a fund-raiser and sing all the songs that we didn't sing in the show."
Now trimmed to 60 songs, including numbers set in recording studios and concert stages as well as transitional snippets between scenes, the musical's plot line is the life story of Gordy, tracing his beginnings as a boxer and songwriter to his success in business, with a spotlight on his courtship with Ross.
"A lot of artists have written their own books about Motown," Randolph-Wright says. "There was a Temptations miniseries, a Jacksons miniseries--everyone has their own view. 'Motown: The Musical' is Berry Gordy's view of how it happened--the good and the bad. It's through the eyes of the person who created it, not an outside source imagining it."
Earlier jukebox revues like "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Smokey Joe's Cafe" seem increasingly dated as the genre evolves into shows that do more than just showcase the best of an artist, group or era, some winning critical acclaim along with way. ("Jersey Boys" nabbed the 2006 Tony Award for best musical.)
"The jukebox musical is part of the integration of Broadway, and it's getting stronger and stronger," says Kirsten Holly Smith, who dons a bouffant nightly to play Dusty Springfield and sing all the hits in a popular off-Broadway bio-musical, "Forever Dusty," playing at New World Stages' Stage 5. "Art is the experience that you take from it, and I think there's room for everybody. There's room for the jukebox musical and there's room for the new musical to shock, move and inspire us. A new musical can be harder to break, but the payoff can be fantastic--look at 'Wicked.'" In less than a decade, the "Wizard of Oz"-themed musical has grossed $714 million.
In the case of "Kinky Boots," opening April 4 at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, the music by Cyndi Lauper is brand-new--bright with hook-rich, crowd-pleasing, celebratory tunes like "Sex Is in the Heel" and "Everybody Say Yeah"--while the story is based on a low-budget 2005 indie film about a man who inherits his father's shoe factory and saves it from ruin by manufacturing boots for male cross-dressers. Harvey Fierstein pumped up the book for Broadway; together, he and Lauper took a Payless flick and made a Manolo musical out of it. While the film "Kinky Boots" featured songs made popular by James Brown ("It's a Man's Man's Man's World") and Nancy Sinatra ("These Boots Are Made for Walkin'"), those jukebox chestnuts were scrapped once Lauper got onboard.
"Sweetheart, if they wanted to do those songs, why would they call me?" Lauper asks with characteristic frankness. Writing original lyrics and melodies for the Great White Way, she says, was as easy as reaching back to childhood memories of attending Broadway shows and falling in love with "West Side Story," "South Pacific" and "My Fair Lady": "They were my bibles." How did she adapt her contemporary style to the show-tune format? "It was a balance between making it very pop-sounding and making sure the audience hears every lyric," Lauper says. "Also, I wanted to include hooks, so that if people could sing along, they could, easily. I just try to make it catchy, because I remember them catchy when I was little." Mission accomplished.
Another Broadway show that melds new music with an obscure story line is "Hands on a Hardbody." Opening March 21 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, the show is based on a 1997 documentary about a group of financially struggling Texans who enter an endurance contest to win a Nissan pickup truck. Co-written by Trey Anastasio of jam band Phish (with Amanda Green, who contributed lyrics and some music), it's filled with numbers that have the folksy tenor of his rock tunes and the broad, "Glee"-ful sounds of Anastasio's pre-fame days listening to the original cast albums of "Gypsy" and "Oklahoma!" and starring in a school production of "Anything Goes."
"This is an art form that predates what I do--it has an astounding depth of tradition," Anastasio says. "Writing for a musical is entirely different from writing pop music. In pop music, you can make purely musical decisions. You can venture off into a motif for a couple of seconds. You might add a few bars because it sounds cool to hold out a long note. In a musical, choices are determined by the lyric, story and intention of the character. There can't be any extraneous musical ideas. It may seem like a limitation, but it's actually the opposite. It's a completely different kind of discipline and focus--it has to come 100% from the story."
The tunes keep rolling out this spring with "Once Upon a Dream," the Rascals musical, which showcases the talents of those other Jersey boys (as themselves) in a jukebox musical co-produced by "Little Steven" Van Zandt. It will play at the Richard Rodgers Theatre for 15 performances April 15-May 5. This summer, producers of "Flashdance: The Musical" hope it will kick and splash into the theater district following a U.K. debut and U.S. tour with a mix of five songs from the film soundtrack, 16 original songs and Joan Jett's "I Love Rock N Roll" thrown in for good measure. (Here's hoping that it does better than the Broadway run of "Saturday Night Fever," which grossed $37 million after a year-long run ended in 2000.)
Proof that the jukebox musical is still evolving can be found in the last-minute tweaking of "Motown: The Musical" to include new songs by the company's founder. Faced with a few plot points that not even thousands of hits could directly address in the storytelling, Gordy put his composer's cap back on and penned four new tunes for his magnum opus. "It's what we call 'the 11 o'clock number,' when the character makes a decision," director Randolph-Wright says. "I think it's going to be a new classic."