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InDepth InterView Exclusive: Brandon Victor Dixon Talks MOTOWN, A CAPITOL FOURTH On PBS, Plus SCOTTSBORO BOYS, FAR FROM HEAVEN & More


Last night I had the privilege of taking a look back on an incredibly impressive recent string of major musicals starring the phenomenally talented Brandon Victor Dixon with the leading man himself, ranging from his work last year Off-Broadway in RENT as well as the Williamstown Theatre Festival mounting of FAR FROM HEAVEN, both directed by Michael Greif, through to his acclaimed performance in Kander & Ebb's THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS and the Ray Charles solo show UNCHAIN MY HEART all the way to his new role portraying music titan Berry Gordy himself in the audience hit of the 2012-2013 season, MOTOWN. In addition to eloquently expounding on his various starring roles in those major musicals and reflecting upon his time spent in each production, Dixon also opens up about his passion for performance in general and the importance of collaboration in the creation of any musical from the ground-up - and otherwise. Dixon also comments on his experiences originating a prominent part in Oprah Winfrey's recent stage venture THE COLOR PURPLE as well as recounts his association with COTTON CLUB PARADE - set to premiere on Broadway under a new title later this year - as well as the various incarnations of his ever-evolving stage piece based on the life and career of Ray Charles. Most importantly, besides all about MOTOWN and his work with Gordy and the cast on the hit show, Dixon also previews what we can expect on tonight's A CAPITOL FOURTH PBS concert extravaganza, featuring Dixon alongside MOTOWN standout Saycon Sengbloh and many more notable names from Broadway, Hollywood and beyond. All of that, first news on Dixon's upcoming self-penned solo album project, thoughts on a potential James Brown musical, memories of working on THE GOOD WIFE, opinions on GLEE and the modern performing arts revolution, the place of the N-word in contemporary art and much, much more!

More information on MOTOWN: THE MUSICAL is available at the official site here. More information on Brandon Victor Dixon is available at his official site here.

More information on A CAPITOL FOURTH tonight on PBS at 8 PM is available here.

Dancing On The Street

PC: Susan Stroman spoke so kindly about working with you when she recently did this column. Was THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS a project you were proud to participate in from the very beginning?

BVD: Oh, yeah - and, I love Stro. She's wonderful. That show was incredible.

PC: Did you, too, have encounters with family members of the actual Scottsboro Boys during your time in the show?

BVD: Yes, I did. I remember that a few family members of the boys actually came backstage. I know that, specifically, Clarence's family came by. I've been able to meet quite a few people involved with the case - unfortunately, none of Haywood [Patterson]'s family is still around that I know of. That show was very, very special in general, though - just, really, because of the story, and, also, because of the bond that we were able to create amongst ourselves.

PC: It was a special collection of talent to say the very least.

BVD: It was. You know, there are two sides to every story and obviously these boys were pretty anonymous in a certain respect - they were just "the Scottsboro boys" - but, because of that element of the story, we were able to use that anonymity to find ourselves within the characters we played and I think that made it into a particularly special experience for us. To create individual identities amongst ourselves using our own research and then to form that bond - that was actually one of the most special experiences of my life to date, if not the most special.

PC: THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS is one of the best musicals of the new century - on the level of Kander & Ebb's other masterworks. Did you know at the time it was an important show?

BVD: Absolutely. I mean... I felt like it was a piece of gold that had fallen into my hands when I read it! [Laughs.]

PC: What a way to put it!

BVD: To find material that is that powerful? That is what you look for as a performer! I mean, the team, as well - it was Kander & Ebb's last work together; Susan Stroman; Tommy Thompson.

PC: A dream team.

BVD: Exactly. And, I think we all knew that it was something that was going to continue on even after we had kind of had our own time with it, you know?

PC: It would be an enduring work of art.

BVD: Yeah - I think we were all aware of that when we were working on it. We were very aware.

PC: Do you feel a certain vindication knowing the musical brought so much attention to the case and the men in the case have been cleared of charges as of May 2013 - posthumous pardons which went into effect this week, actually?

BVD: Oh, really?! I wasn't actually aware of that. I didn't know that it was our show that brought attention to the case like that, but I'm glad that we could have played a part in kind of making the boys public figures again and reminding people what the case was all about in any way. That's really wonderful, though - I did not know that. That's wonderful.

PC: You and Joshua Henry have not only now both done this column (II: Joshua Henry available here), but you've appeared in three shows either replacing each other at different stages of development or co-starring in them - tell me about your association with him on those three different shows quite recently.

BVD: Yeah, you see, what happened was that, after I did SCOTTSBORO, he came in and did that, and, then, after I did COTTON CLUB PARADE, he came in and did that, and, for a while, he was doing the Marvin Gaye role in MOTOWN with us. So, yeah - we have directly overlapped twice so far and we were both in MOTOWN together at the same time for a while in workshops of that. [Laughs.] Josh is such a good guy and it's so great that he had been able to come in and give life to these roles and make them his own after I have done them or whatever. I look forward to the day that Josh and I actually work together on something again because Josh is really smart and I'd love to work on something with him.

PC: You've landed starring parts in five major musicals in the last two years - besides SCOTTSBORO BOYS, COTTON CLUB PARADE and MOTOWN, there's also the revival of RENT and the Williamstown production of FAR FROM HEAVEN. Do you especially feel lucky right now?

BVD: Oh, yeah, man - it's been a great, great run so far! I feel so, so lucky to have jumped into so many different palettes of things the past few years.

PC: What American history covered in those five shows, too!

BVD: We've got it all - twentieth and twenty-first century, Pat!

PC: Without even mentioning THE COLOR PURPLE before that - and the Ray Charles show in between.

BVD: That, too! That, too.

PC: Was that a difficult decision for you - pursuing the Ray Charles project, UNCHAIN MY HEART, over SCOTTSBORO BOYS on Broadway?

BVD: To be honest, it was difficult - it was very, very difficult. [Pause.] I mean, I love SCOTTSBORO so much - and I especially love what I learned on it. It made me a better, superior actor than I had been before I got involved with it. You know, at the time, we were only a week away from moving directly [with SCOTTSBORO] that Spring and it really broke my heart that it didn't happen. So, leaving that to do the Ray show was very hard for me - both shows meant a lot to me. But, you know, the work that I was doing with the Ray Charles material was very important to me and I had a whole family involved with that, too. [Pause. Sighs.] In talking to you now and looking back on it a few years later, I still wonder if I somehow could have made a different decision and made it work somehow, but I don't know how that could have happened.

PC: An impossible situation.

BVD: It was. I wish that I had had more time with THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS, though. You know, they took it to LA and they are in London with it right now and I really looked at if I could go out there to join them, but it couldn't work out with my schedule with MOTOWN. But, yeah - it was a hard thing to do. I look back on SCOTTSBORO so dearly and I love the family that we formed and the bond that we all have still - you know, so many young men have gotten to come in and do it as their first show and we all learn and grow so much through the brilliantly written parts in the piece. It's so wonderful what John and Tommy and Stro have done and what they continue to do to push the piece forward.

PC: What are your thoughts on the use of the N-word in theatre in general - particularly its use in that show, as well as the more controversial racial elements in THE COLOR PURPLE and others you've done?

BVD: I mean, look - it's a word. It's a word that has a particular meaning in a particular context, but it exists. That's not to say that there is a valid place and time to use this word, but the history of it and the power of it is something that people need to acknowledge and take responsibility for - and not just those who grew up in a certain culture and grew up a certain way and might not feel that they are being racist by using it in certain ways or saying certain things because the culture they are in accepts it. But, you know, it is even used among young people today - a great deal.

PC: Without question.

BVD: It's just a regular thing to them, kind of, it seems - maybe it's been perpetuated by rap music and stuff like that; I don't know. I think that in general, though, everybody needs to be aware of the power of words and how we choose them.

PC: Have you and Berry Gordy discussed its use in MOTOWN and whether it was neccessary?

BVD: Well, it's used in the show - it's used in the scene where we are down in the south performing for a segregated audience. And, I mean, Berry responds to it basically how I just did - MOTOWN is about how Motown came about because of the changing of the times; it tells the history of our culture through the music of the time that he created. He personally changed our social fabric with the music that he made with Motown Records. So, to look at that time and see how we depict it - this is how people talked at the time and this is how people were treated; that's how it was. I myself can't even imagine the things that these artists went through - but, they did, you know?

PC: They made it through.

BVD: Yeah, they persevered - they made it through. And, because they did, they opened the eyes of a great many people. Berry Gordy is a music legend and we all know that, but I don't think Berry gets enough credit for his involvement with the civil rights movement. Berry is right up there with the Martin Luther Kings and Malcolm Xs of the world as far as his impact - because, what Berry did was not only put out a beautiful and positive message about social connectivity, but, also, Berry really transformed the way that we saw each other and the way that African Americans saw themselves at the time.

PC: An instructive point.

BVD: You know, Berry introduced images of black people into homes across the world that people were not really used to seeing - well-dressed, well-spoKen Black people; that's not how we were represented in the popular culture at the time. Berry really, really changed things through music - he changed people's willingness to accept; he made people fall in love with what they thought they hated.

PC: Ray Charles also was an important culture-crossing figure around the same time. Have you two spoken of Ray - particularly given your research and familiarity with him?

BVD: We have, actually - we've spoken about Ray. You know, I have dealings with a JAmes Brown project, as well - I am very interested in his life and in his music - and that's another important figure at that time we've talked about. But, it's funny - he did tell me a story about Ray. When Smokey & The Miracles were doing their first shows at the Apollo, they were really a mess - their music was written on sheets of paper with notes scribbled everywhere and stuff - so, the musicians used to refuse to play for them because of that and Ray actually was there and helped them put together charts and talked to the band people about how to play the music right. So, yeah, there is a relationship there - Berry always attracts great talent.

PC: What about the JAmes Brown project? Have perhaps you and Berry considered it as a follow-up show, especially given your success with MOTOWN?

BVD: Well, I think Berry might be a little preoccupied staying focused on the three companies of MOTOWN out now or soon, but... [Laughs].

PC: Indeed!

BVD: But, seriously, the JAmes Brown project is something I have been talking about with a director for a while now and we are having a meeting next week to discuss some potential opportunities in the future for that. I don't know that I will be involved with it moving forward as a performer, but I will be involved as a producer, certainly.

PC: In addition to performing and producing, is it true you are writing songs for a new solo album project?

BVD: That is certainly true. I have been working on some material recently and I've been having a great time doing it - I have been working a little with Ryan Shaw, who plays Stevie Wonder in our show; we've been working on some songs together and stuff, too.

PC: Are there any immediate plans for the project?

BVD: For right now we are still working on material, but I do plan to have it out later this year - by December, I hope.

PC: Who would you cite as your major musical influences?

BVD: Oh, well, I have a wide range of influences - I mean, first of all, I am a big, big fan of old soul music. Then, there's people like Donny Hathaway, Elton John... a diverse array of music. We're Jamaican, so growing up I listened to a lot of reggae and Bob Marley, but I've always loved Elton John and Patsy Cline and Vince Gill and so I listened to them, too. Marvin Gaye, too. Michael Jackson was probably my biggest musical inspiration, though, I'd say. There's been a wide range of musical influences that play in my head. Oh, yeah - and Bill Withers, too! That cat was bad! [Laughs.]

PC: Indeed. Is "Can I Close The Door?" your favorite moment onstage in MOTOWN or do you have other moments that your enjoy most? Also, has any musical material been cut along the way that you especially miss?

BVD: Well, there was a time in the show that Diana and I did sing all of "Remember Me" - when Diana and I say goodbye for the last time, right before "Can I Close The Door?". So, I do miss that. But, yeah - my favorite moment that I have in the show is "Can I Close The Door?" It's a tremendous song and it is the perfect song for the show at that moment and what it represents in general. That song actually came up because of a conversation that Berry and I had a couple of years ago - so, because of the genesis of the song and everything, it's very important to me, too, and I think it's a very special song.

PC: What did you sing at your audition for MOTOWN?

BVD: I didn't audition for MOTOWN, actually. The director, Charles Randolph Wright, has long been a mentor of mine and he called me and said, "You'll never believe whose house I am leaving right now - I land in New York tomorrow at 7 o'clock, meet me at Chipotle." And, so I did. And, he told me: "I was at Berry Gordy's house last night and I am now directing this musical and I want you to be in it. We are doing a reading in two weeks and we need to polish the script and figure out how to tell the story best and figure out what elements we want to include." And, so, then we just got started!

PC: The journey began - a breakfast with champions!

BVD: Exactly! [Laughs.] Exactly. And, champions they both are.

PC: Do you think MOTOWN would be a good candidate to be filmed for release?

BVD: I don't think so - at least not at this point. I think that there is such power with the live performance of it - so much of what MOTOWN is about is the live performance aspect, really. The power of our production is really the music and the performances. So, I feel like it is hard to translate a live performance onto screen and a lot of the time it doesn't translate very well, but there might become a time when I think MOTOWN should make that move. But, right now, I think that people should come and experience it live.

PC: The show certainly came across well on the Tony Awards this year.

BVD: Yeah, that was a lot of fun for the show to be able to do.

PC: A CAPITOL FOURTH is certainly a sensational live performance opportunity, as well - on national TV, no less!

BVD: Yes, it is! It definitely is. We are doing some great stuff on the show this year...

PC: What will the cast be performing?

BVD: We are doing "Stop! In The Name Of Love", "My Girl", "Get Ready" and "Dancing In The Street".

PC: Saycon Sengbloh is so astonishingly talented - tell me about working with her on MOTOWN.

BVD: Oh, Saycon?! Oh, well, Saycon is always fantastic - she's so fiery and so talented.

PC: What's your favorite moment onstage with her?

BVD: Oh, I love dealing with her as Edna, Berry's longtime right-hand woman - and, when she gets into "Dancing In The Street" there is just no stopping her! None!

PC: You can say that again! "Can't forget the Motor City!"

BVD: Oh, yeah! [Laughs.] The quality of her voice - the strength and the tone - is just incredible. Saycon is incredible. Everybody watch out!

PC: I was curious if your COLOR PURPLE producer Oprah Winfrey has come to see you in MOTOWN yet?

BVD: Oprah has not come to see MOTOWN yet, but Gayle [King] has and she said she really enjoyed it. So, let's hope Gayle opens the door to Oprah coming to see us sometime soon.

PC: Who have been some of the most dazzling stars to visit you backstage?

BVD: Oh, Diana [Ross] came to our opening and she's been back a few times. Al Sharpton. Robert De Niro. So many.

PC: Just prior to MOTOWN you participated in the Williamstown Theatre Festival tryout production of FAR FROM HEAVEN. Was that an enjoyable experience in general for you or was it difficult getting the show up on its feet at such an early stage of development?

BVD: Oh, I had a great time at Williamstown with FAR FROM HEAVEN. I love Michael Greif in general and I think that the score that Scott Frankel developed and wrote for that piece is a sophisticated work of genius. I really do. It's so beautiful and moving - it really is genius, I think. So, yeah - I just loved working on that project. It would be a great joy if we all got to come together again.

PC: Would you be open to returning to the show in the future?

BVD: Oh, yeah - I'd certainly be open to it.

PC: On that note, how long is your contract with MOTOWN right now?

BVD: Well, I am contracted with MOTOWN through next spring, but I think that if the right project comes along the producers would be willing to let me do what I need to do.

PC: You also recently participated in the Off-Broadway revival of RENT, also directed by Michael Greif. Did the disappointing run cast a pallor on the experience or are you glad you did it?

BVD: Oh, it was perfect for me - RENT was actually the first professional show that I ever auditioned for.

PC: That's some history, then!

BVD: Yeah! So, you know, that was the show that I didn't get when I auditioned for it when I was 19, so... but, yeah, I had so much fun. The cast was so extraordinarily talented and I loved working with each and every one of them - a few of them actually ended up in our show now, so it's great to reconnect on this. But, no, RENT was a show I always wanted to do and Collins was one of those roles that I always wanted to do - and we had a really great time doing that show. I know it seems like I say that for every show, Pat, but it's really true. You know, I've been so fortunate to have worked with so many wonderful people on these amazing projects. It's really been a great, great couple of years so far - and I am not going anywhere anytime soon, either!

PC: Yet, you have recently dipped your toes in some TV - THE GOOD WIFE, in particular. Was that a worthwhile experience for you?

BVD: Oh, yeah - THE GOOD WIFE was a lot of fun to do. It was a short scene I did, but Josh Charles was very nice and Julianna Margulies was so sweet. We had a very good time. You know, it was just a short scene, but they were very welcoming to me and it was a really nice experience. As far as TV goes, though, I am actually looking into a couple of other things right now, so we'll see. It's all a progression - step by step.

PC: Since Darren Criss from GLEE and Megan Hilty from SMASH will be joining you on A CAPITOL FOURTH, I was curious what you think of the recent performing arts popularity in pop culture? Additionally, would you be open to appearing in a project like GLEE or SMASH in the future?

BVD: Well, you know, I have no preference with a project because I get to sing in it or not - if I am interested, I am interested. I think it's fantastic that musical theatre is getting more into the culture and people are more aware of the performing arts, though. I think that what makes it really important is that it brings attention to the necessity to nurture that development in young children, especially. Unfortunately, things are a lot about popularity in our culture, but if you make the right things popular then it will be great for education - and I think GLEE is a good example of that and there is good stuff going on right now.

PC: Popular can be good - certainly MOTOWN is the most popular new Broadway show this season, sales-wise, it seems.

BVD: Absolutely! Absolutely. There's no question. We're really, really proud of our show.

PC: A big fat hit is very rare these days, is it not?

BVD: It is, it is - we are very lucky.

PC: I wanted to add that your recent rendition of Adele's "My One And Only" is absolutely spectacular. Was that fun to do live?

BVD: Oh, yeah! Thanks for saying that, Pat. I can't believe you saw that. I loved doing that - you know, how it came about was that they gave me a few options on what songs they were thinking about me doing for that and once I heard that song I was like, "That's the one! That's it." I was like, "Yeah - this could be pretty great."

PC: And it definitely was.

BVD: Yeah, we had a lot of fun - it was great fun to do. Corey Mach is the one who produced it and Joshua Stephen Kartes did the arrangement - that was a great night and I think all the events they have been doing have been great; the BROADWAY SINGS series with Beyonce and Michael Jackson and everything. I wasn't able to make the last two ones, but I am going to try to make the new one, whatever it is.

PC: Thank you so much for this today, Brandon. All my best wishes on your continued success.

BVD: Thanks so much, Pat. All my best to you, too. I hope everybody enjoys the show. Take care. Bye.

Photo Credits: Walter McBride, etc.

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