BWW Interview: Producer Kevin McCollum of MOTOWN THE MUSICAL
I had a rare opportunity to interview a NYC producer -- someone who has not only produced some of the biggest hits ever on Broadway, but also spent some time living here in the Twin Cities when he was the leader of the Ordway Center for Performing Arts in Saint Paul. Kevin McCollum produced MOTOWN THE MUSICAL, which is playing in Minneapolis now at the Orpheum. Not only did I learn about this show's background but I got a little insight into an upcoming project. Enjoy!
How did you begin working on Motown the Musical -- how did that come about?
Yeah, it was a wonderful story. I got a call from the general manager who said, "Berry Gordy is in town and he wants to meet people who really know how to do new musicals because he's looking at writing a musical about his life and wanted somebody who had a lot of experience doing that," and I said okay.
So I went there and the meeting ended up being a five-hour dinner because we just had a chemistry and simpatico of how to tell the story, and so it really was one of those one of magical, magical moments. Where you just find yourself in a situation and you just want to keep being creative with this person. I mean Berry Gordy - he's assembled, written and also promoted artists that created the most transformative group of songs from the history of our country. That's actually the soundtrack for civil rights but more important is how to live and how to celebrate. Because he really did so much to soften up the emotional change that country needed to go through to then be followed by the political change.
On top of that, it's just wildly entertaining. So it was one of those sort of moments where there're so many different stories to tell about Motown...he chose to do music because he wanted to meet girls, and he loves music. He was a boxer, too, so he could continue to be a boxer and ruin his face or follow a second love - music. I just was delighted by how his perspective at his experience and age, he still had the energy and the youthful perspective to tell that story. So I said okay, let's do it, and that was I guess in 2010. I think even early '11, we've been on this journey together for close to seven years now.
Yeah the show is amazing. I saw the show last time it came to town and it's really a wonderful show.
Oh good, so you know the energy it has and this one -- he's actually made the show even tighter. Mr. Gordy never stops looking on it and so you will see a lot more. We keep learning, and he was famous for doing 99 takes of Michael Jackson's song! Because a lot of times people create a show and then it's gone. But this continues to evolve and at a time in our country where art forms that bring people together is what we're thirsty for. So the show is only getting stronger and stronger.
That's great. That actually kind of brings up something I was wondering. When a show has been in tour for as long as this one has, I was wondering if it kind of goes on autopilot or if it takes a lot of work and effort to keep it going year after year. Sounds like with him in charge, you keep it changing.
Yeah, I think part of it also is with Smokey and Diana and Barry, they're telling a story every day about living legends. You talk to any of these actors, who are brilliant of course, and there's such a wonderful talent a pool in the African American community and this is truly... this isn't just a show for everybody attached, myself included. This is sort of a statement of ethics of how we want to live -- and there isn't no mountain high enough, and how against all odds you have to form your family. Nobody in the late '50s, early '60s would've thought an African American boy in 1929 in Detroit could have the most powerful music company in the world at the time when Motown was in the '60s. It was unheard of.
It was because he really thought that if you had talent and passion and creativity and were willing to work hard, you could do it. So he truly was a promoter in the real sense of the word, he promoted not only individual acts but our entire culture to transform. When you really do the math on that, it's not this story that is just made up. It actually happened, so there's a commitment and an honoring of the shoulders on which we all stand on when we tell the story.
Well, you know the show obviously has such an amazing quantity and depth to the soundtrack, how did you and Mr. Gordy ever narrow down the number of songs that you would include in the show?
We started with 95 songs with our director Charles Randolph-Wright and Berry and myself, and we now have over 60. We can't play all the songs we wanted to play, we had a couple we had to cut, though they were just painful to cut because they were such wonderful songs. At the same time we had to cut them because we felt we already had that beat, we already had that moment. So in reality, Motown should be a 10-part miniseries because it's that much to cover in five decades.
So what we had to do is we just had to really talk about what emotional truth was at every scene, what music best satisfied that. Some we turned into narrative so "You're All I Need to Get By," is actually a narrative and "My Girl," which we see a performance of the song happen. But it also moves the emotional relationship with Berry and Diana forward. These are things we just do.
In the theater, we can have these parallel universes happening because, unlike film where you can train your eye, in the theater you look at the whole stage, so there's a lot of realities happening at the same time. We were able to compress that, but as a result, we did lose some wonderful songs from our wish list of 90, 95. But if you're really an aficionado you'll hear some underscoring of some songs and transitions, so we do honor some of the songs we don't actually sing. It's been a magical sort of puzzle but it's an embarrassment of riches, no doubt.
I remember when you were at the Ordway in Saint Paul and wanted to touch on that before we run out of time.
Great, I was going to tell you I know your town pretty well. You must have been in grade school. What did you first see at the Ordway?
I actually was one of those people that went and stood on the line to get to the front row seats of RENT numerous times so...
Good, in '97.
Yeah, when I was right about the same age as the characters and I was just enchanted with the show so I was there often.
We played the 13 weeks at the Ordway right after Boston. They got the show to us pretty quick.
Yeah, I know. I felt like we were pretty lucky to see it that soon. So how did you transition from working at the Ordway to producing? I believe you did start producing before you actually left the Ordway?
Yeah, I know, I started... my first career... the first company I created was a company called the Booking Office which distributed musicals and I used to sell shows to the Ordway. Like I put together shows for the Ordway and I did the deal for VICTOR/VICTORIA with Julie Andrews. I knew your town and there's a gentleman who unfortunately passed away, Bill Conner, who used to run the series, so I would sell to Bill.
When Bill was leaving to go to Jujamcyn, someone suggested I replace him because Broadway is an important component that keeps the lights on for so many other art forms from the opera to the chamber orchestra. They really wanted a strong Broadway series (at the Ordway). So I was 33, and they offered me the job. In 1995 I was in development for RENT and I had produced some other shows, some tours and things. But I was working on this show and I told the Ordway I would come for two years but about 10 months into my contract, I might go back to New York because I'm in the middle of producing this show. They said okay and two-year contract ended up being seven years but after 9/11 and after I had kids, my wife and I decided I couldn't be both places anymore.
The last two years I was there, from 2000 to 2002, we were actively looking who would replace me because I was producing more and more things as well as directing the Ordway and building their programing and creating the children's festival that happens in the park. But it was the hardest I had ever worked and I loved it because I love the Twin Cities. But I needed to be in New York if I was going to continue to produce Broadway shows. I love bringing shows back to the Twin Cities. It's a great community and I'm a big fan of bringing shows there.
SOMETHING ROTTEN is also going to play there, which is another one of my shows that I produced last year. So, I'll be there a lot and it's great that MOTOWN gets to come back to such a terrific theater town.
I agree. I'm looking forward to seeing SOMETHING ROTTEN again. I actually saw it on Broadway. It's so much fun. So as a producer then, do you find the shows or do they find you?
For me it's all about story, so I knew the Motown story when I went met Mr. Gordy and the show wasn't written yet (at that time) but I knew the catalogue, of course. The same thing that happened on SOMETHING ROTTEN, if you interview me for that, I'll tell you this, as well. Writers come to me with an idea and if you have one or two demo songs that help show me the musical vocabulary, that's all I need because I'm really just looking for the DNA of storytelling. Part of what I believe in -- I think what caught me about Motown -- is that its core it is about building a family against all odds.
If you look at when AVENUE Q, IN THE HEIGHTS, DROWSY CHAPERONE, SOMETHING ROTTEN, it's particularly powerful DNA for me. I'm an only child from Hawaii; my parents died when I was young so I truly ... I think we sing because the stakes have to be high enough to sing. One of the highest stakes is feeling like finding your family and belonging and creating your home, whatever that means to you. So MOTOWN is a musical about finding home, as well.
I noticed online that you're looking at developing THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, which obviously got a bit of attention.
I'm excited about that.
Is it possible to talk about when we'll see that on Broadway? Is it a long process to develop something like that?
We're in the middle of developing it with Paul Rudnick, who's a wonderful playwright, and Elton John -- an up and coming composer -- that's a joke! We're in the middle of it. It's too early to tell. One of the things about the art of producing is knowing when it's ready to be seen and there's so much to be done when it's just a room and a table with four or five people: producer, director and authors talking about the show and rewrites and things like that. We're in that process right now. Paul is working on it. Elton is working on it. And I'll just say by the end of the year, we'll have some more information of what's next.
Great! Is it harder to produce a show that's an original, with brand new material or something like that, an existing film or a book or something you've taken a story from?
They're both hard. SOMETHING ROTTEN was a completely original musical. Usually you don't have a lot of groups (lined up to see the show) as they wait to hear about it. Whereas with MOTOWN, before we opened we had millions of dollars in group business. We had a wonderful Chrysler sponsorship. We had a lot of things that helped me sell the show from day one. On an original show, it usually has to be produced a little, well, a lot less inexpensively and often times it can be because there are no rights.
But your advertising is doing the show because you can't just take our word and expect people to come to see something they've never heard of, and that's what difficult. Obviously RENT, AVENUE Q, HEIGHTS, SOMETHING ROTTEN, DROWSY CHAPERONE are all completely original ideas. Luckily I've been blessed with writers who really write great material and I was able to sell it but it's a slower burn than just out of the gate like MOTOWN. So THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA and some of the other films I'm developing, they will be easier to sell from day one but they're equally as hard because the show has to be good. The show really has to be good and you can't just do a bad show just because you have a good title. You can do it for a couple of years but you can't turn it into a true international hit.
Thanks for your time and this fascinating conversation -- we can't wait to see you in Minneapolis and Saint Paul when SOMETHING ROTTEN comes here.
MOTOWN THE MUSICAL plays at the Orpheum in Minneapolis through July 16. There's still time to get your tickets at the State Theatre Box Office (805 Hennepin Ave. Minneapolis), by calling (800) 982-2787 or by clicking to HennepinTheatreTrust.org.
- Kevin McCollum, via Alchemation, http://www.alchemation.com/
- Chester Gregory as Berry Gordy (center right) & Cast - Photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Hennepin Theatre Trust