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BWW Interview: Broadway-Bound Allison Semmes Is Living Her Dream as MOTOWN's Diana Ross

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MOTOWN: THE MUSICAL has wowed audiences across the country, and after an exciting run on Broadway and a national tour, the magic of MOTOWN makes its way back to the Nederlander Theater for a limited 18-week engagement. BroadwayWorld sat down with the lovely Allison Semmes, who, after two and a half years in the MOTOWN family, continues to sparkle in the role of Diana Ross.


How do you prepare to play such a legendary woman on stage?

A thing that took a lot of the pressure off for me, because, disclaimer: there is only one Diana Ross, the creatives really took the pressure off us by telling us they didn't want impersonations of people. They wanted for us to capture their essence. That just relieved so much pressure. Of course people are coming in and expecting to see these people, these legends that have lived, and for us to capture their essence allows us to bring our own truth to who they are, and there's a lot of freedom of expression and wiggle room in that interpretation.

On top of that, preparing to play Diana Ross, even just after two and a half years [of playing Ross], I like to go back to what I call YouTube University. There's just so much footage of all The Supremes- footage from the sixties and all the way to Diana Ross performing at the Hollywood Bowl in LA, there's all this yummy footage online. So I just study her movements, her voice, listen to recordings before the show. I've read her autobiography, and watched some of her movies, just to absorb just as much as I could of Diana. And from there, I have my pot of Diana material, and I bring my truth to that and my interpretation of it.

Do you and Diana Ross share any similarities?

Yes, definitely! I find that more and more, as I play her. When I watch her perform, and how I feel when I perform... there's a joie de vivre. I don't know... but there's such an abandonment, a joy, almost like an innocent, sexy, joy, that feels like a kid, sparkling, free and happy. She loves to connect with the audience, and those are all sensations that I feel too, every time I step on stage. This has always been a dream of mine, to live as a performer, and so this is a dream realized. and I still feel that little six year old girl that's celebrating that moment and I recognize that in Diana Ross as well. Even in her diva-hood, there's always that spark of innocent joy.

What's been the most rewarding part of MOTOWN so far?

You know, it's really the audience. Especially, playing Diana Ross, I get a chance to go out into the audience and interact with the people that come to see the show, and a lot of them are reliving their childhood. A lot of people grew up in the Motown era, and a lot of young people, too, who are experiencing Motown for the first time. Seeing their reactions, seeing how much they're enjoying the show and going along for the ride... that really fuels me. Not going to lie, after two and a half years, after like the seven hundredth show, you have to keep going, and really search for the things to keep it fresh. For me it's really seeing the audience, hearing them enjoy the show. There are cases where we don't see them because of lighting, but then going to meet them after, seeing them and hearing their reactions... It just refuels us and makes it all worthwhile to see them enjoy it so much!

You're going back to Broadway with MOTOWN, is there a difference between the audiences you experience on Broadway versus those you do on tour?

Absolutely! There's nothing like a Broadway audience! There's nothing like a New York audience. There's a sense where theatre is in the blood, in the bones, the energy of the people here [in New York], while a lot of times, the other cities that we go to, like Appleton, Wisconsin... they don't have a lot of shows going through there. A lot of shows will travel through, but it's not really ingrained in the city as much. There are a lot more conservative audiences that really, strictly adhere to the theatre etiquette, which is amazing, but the show doesn't really call for typical theatre etiquette. We encourage people to sing along, and clap along.

A lot of times each city will be different, like in Georgia and Washington, DC, they were yelling back at the stage like we were all in their living room, it was very loud and interactive [Laughs]. The thing is, every city has a different energy and the audiences are different, but at the end of the day, we still feel that love, and see them enjoying the show. That was challenging for me because there's a sense of consistency going from city to city, yet still wondering how people are going to receive you, and every city receives us differently. That really challenged me, regardless of what city were in, even the social climate, too.

We were in St. Louis during the time of when Ferguson was happening, and at the end of the first act, after the curtain fell, we were all sobbing onstage. We were really asking that question, in the social climate, what was going on? There were riots, people being killed, racial tension just miles from where we were singing, it was like history was repeating itself. And it reminds us, all the more, how music, in spite of social tension or climate, that music, motown music, music in general... it's what unifies us.

You're no stranger to this role, how do you keep the show fresh and engaging every night?

The people that I'm working with. I have to say, over two and a half years, I've worked with maybe four or five different Berry Gordy's. Chemistry is everything. Everyone is different and you have to adjust and be flexible with all the different choices. It's a play at the end of the day. Nothing is really set in stone, and if it ever does feel too structured, it's not a play. There has to be a sense of fluidity, and the chemistry I have with each of the actors plays a huge part in it.

I have to say, I am so grateful for Chester Gregory [currently playing Berry Gordy in MOTOWN]. We were friends before we started working together, so there's a chemistry already that's so dynamic. We just love each other, and we joke around so much off stage. That chemistry is palpable onstage, and it's fresh every day. We're discovering new things. Because this is my first leading role and first time being onstage eight shows a week from being a swing, there's infinite possibilities of saying a line. There's infinite possibilities to a scene, and to have a scene partner who's flexible and willing to travel with you and explore with you, that's what makes it refreshing each time.

What kinds of theatre do you hope to see in the future?

Theatre where there are unconventional worlds being created. I'd love to see, not just what reflects what's happening now, or a full spectrum of experience, but fantasy worlds as well. I want to see theatre that breaks what is expected. Especially now, we're in a really exciting time in society politically, socially, and what excites me is that everything! A lot of things are bubbling to the surface and things are as, I guess, politically correct or safe, and so I want to dive more into alternate realities and stories of what's happening in society, politically, and even artistically, that reflect life. One of my absolute favorite quotes in the show is said by Marvin Gaye is: "I don't wanna reflect the times, I want to effect the times". And that's really what art does- not just reflect what's happening, but a power to effect things, to create possibilities of new thought.


Allison studied opera at UIUC, M.M. NYU-Steinhardt. Broadway: Motown The Musical (Florence Ballard & Diana Ross u/s), The Book of Mormon (Swing, Nabalungi u/s). Regional: Dreamgirls, Bubbling Brown Sugar, The Wiz, Candide, Violet. Tours: The Color Purple (Squeak). Allison has sung with Erykah Badu & Stevie Wonder. Proud to be a part of the Motown legacy & Proud AEA member @ladysemmes & www.allisonsemmes.com


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