BWW Interviews: Q & A with MOTOWN'S Nicholas Christopher
"Motown the Musical," the hit show detailing the life of Motown Records creator, Berry Gordy, has launched its national tour in Chicago, where it's currently running through August 9th. Nicholas Christopher, who was a member of the original Broadway cast and is currently playing Smokey Robinson on the tour, spoke with BroadwayWorld about his first Michael Jackson memory, performing in front of the legendary singer he portrays, and more:
How familiar were you with the Motown music and Berry Gordy's legend before getting cast in the show on Broadway?
It was huge. Growing up, music was a big part of my family. My dad is a singer in Bermuda, my brother is an Opera singer, and my sister was the head of her gospel choir at Boston College. So, it's definitely the family business. I don't even remember the first time I heard Motown music because it was just woven into the fabric of my life, of my culture. I do remember my first time seeing Michael Jackson. We had the VHS of Free Willy and at the end of the credits it was Michael Jackson singing "Will You Be There." I remember, I would watch the whole movie just to get to that point.
Have you gotten to visit the Motown Museum in Detroit?
Actually, yeah, I was on tour with "In the Heights," on the first national, and we played the Fisher Theatre in Detroit and a group of us went there. I just remember walking inside and there's this energy there, and seeing the hole in the ceiling where they cut out so that they could do the hand claps and everything. It was just phenomenal.
Oh man, I didn't feel any pressure playing Smokey Robinson and having Smokey in the audience. (Laughs) This songwriter who's written for everybody, who's phenomenal, is sitting in the audience and I'm singing his music in front of him. I was like, I hope I do him justice. But, it was wonderful, because when he came up onstage after the show, he gave me a hug and said I did a great job and that he gives me his blessing. So, after that, I was floored. And, after I picked my jaw up off the floor, I thanked him for that.
In regards to Berry, we got to work closely with him every day during the Broadway process, which was wonderful. Once he knew that the people he was working with on Broadway know exactly what it is that he lived, he trusted the creative team to be out here on their own and he would come in and check on us to make sure we were on the right track. I think he really, really enjoys the tour as well as the Broadway cast.
Have the Chicago audiences been different at all from the New York audiences?
You know, the response to the key songs like "My Girl" or "You Really Got a Hold on Me" and different things like that are in the same places, but on Broadway we're playing a 1500-hundred seat house. Here in Chicago I believe it's like 22 (hundred), so the roar and the energy of everyone coming to you is crazy! There's nothing like that. Chicago audiences have been great in that they're very vocal.
I've read past actors speaking about coming to Chicago and they said it feels like shows are rock concerts here.
Exactly! And, people sitting in the audience are thinking they're in the scene with you. They're answering questions, you start singing "You Really Got a Hold on Me" and everybody else finishes the song. (Laughs) It's crazy, nothing like it.
Did you have to approach your character differently than you normally would in any way because you are playing a real person as opposed to a fictional character?
I don't know if I approached it differently. It almost made it easier because I can go and I can look Smokey Robinson up on YouTube, I can listen to his music and his records. I can truly try to get the essence of who he is and see how he fits into the story and the way I can bring out different Smokey-isms throughout the story. But, then, also bring out my own isms throughout the story and try to find it. So, the great thing about portraying a real person is that all the information is already there. And then I can see the similarities between he and I and then where I can put a little twist on it and maybe do my own vocal styling in the same vein and the same essence of Smokey.
Between "Motown," "In the Heights," and "Rent" you've gotten to perform a variety of different musical styles on the stage. Do you have a favorite or one that comes more naturally than others?
I really love different types of music. Like I said, I was brought up with music. My dad sings everything from reggae to Motown to Lou Rawls. My brother's an opera singer, so I had that growing up, as well as my sister singing gospel. So, I've always had an eclectic taste for music. I don't really have a favorite. I would like to do a little more classical musical theatre. Something like "Man of La Mancha" or "Kiss Me Kate" or "Brigadoon" and things like that that I haven't had the chance to explore professionally yet.
What's your dream role?
Oh, wow. (Laughs)
I know, it's hard to pick. You can list a couple, if you need to!
Well, I already said I would love to play Don Quixote in "Man of La Mancha." I would love, love, love to play Coalhouse in "Ragtime". And then I want to do something that is written for me and something that I can really put my own stank on. Really create something. That's really what I would like my next venture to be: getting somewhere on the ground floor and really working it out and being able to really have input with the script and the music and everything like that.
Catch Nicholas in "Motown the Musical," currently playing at the Oriental Theatre (24 W. Randolph) through August 9th, 2014. Tickets range from $30 -$138 and are available at www.BroadwayinChicago.com or by calling (800) 775-2000.