BWW Interview: Kenneth Mosley, 'Berry Gordy' of MOTOWN THE MUSICAL at Wolf Trap, Filene Center
MOTOWN is not just a company. It is an icon. It is the surface of a flawless vinyl record album just waiting to be placed on a turntable and release the sheer joy of The Jackson 5's "ABC", the angst of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?", or the sweet notes of Diana Ross and The Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go?" This was the soundtrack of decades of change in America and still serves as the inspiration for current innovators in music. So it only seems inevitable that someone would see that this needed to be adapted for the musical theatre stage.
Landing at Wolf Trap on June 26th, the cast is led by Kenneth Mosley in the role of the inimitable head of Motown Records, Berry Gordy. From the first words of his interview, Mosley's silken speaking voice just begs to be merged with this music. Indeed, Gordy is the center of the MOTOWN musical and is the driving force behind the company and the show (which also boasts a book penned by Gordy himself). Mosley describes the music producer as someone who came from a family of eclectic skills, including entrepreneurism, and chuckles as he describes an early scene that is one of his favorites and contains a story most people don't know. "He was a songwriter," says Mosley, whose early writing included for the musician Jackie Wilson. "He saw that record labels and managers could cut writers short. He wanted to start a company that was fair and equitable." Inspired, Gordy approaches his family and asks them for a $1000.00 loan, interpreted in a scene using the song "Money (That's What I Want)" by Barrett Strong. After some resistance from his business-minded sister, he is loaned a mere $800.00, and the rest is history. It's no accident that this very song became Gordy's first hit record and set the groundwork for Motown Records. "A lot of people don't know how it came about," comments Mosley.
Over the next decades, the music of Motown came to be the soundtrack of major historical turning points and the musical chronicles that time, leading to a anniversary concert. The founding of the company in 1959 pre-dates the peak of the Civil Rights movement during the 60's, took America through the assassinations of JFK, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as the sexual revolution and the protests of the Vietnam War. The artists behind the music went beyond scoring this period, but were ground breakers in their own rights. Motown artists were among the first to break racial barriers and Mosley pointed out that, "they performed at places in the South where the audience was still segregated", but were watching a Black performer onstage.
What was Berry Gordy's magic? Mosley thinks it was a three-fold set of skills: The mental capacity to spot talent, the ability to use your heart, and wisdom to follow your gut. Mosley said Gordy was able to say to himself, not only, "I can accomplish this feat", but, "This is wonderful, but how do we do it?" Mosley also says that Gordy had the discretion to be able to say this person is a great talent, but maybe not quire right for the Motown label.
At the center of it all is the music. In discussing what it is that makes the incredibly diverse Motown catalogue so memorable, Mosley said that it is about the medium of music itself that the art is transmitted through. Almost all of these songs are about connection and love and Mosley says that art makes a great vehicle for love. "the word 'art' is seeded in the word 'heart', he says, noting that art can transcend and go around political and social barriers.
Despite these events taking place decades ago, Mosley still thinks that the story and the music speaks to today's world. "In today's volatile time, we have such an intense political environment and the news cycle is always spitting out some controversial story", he notes. "You get to see that unity is something we still have to strive for today." Mosley wishes that we were in a place of unity where we could look back on history and admire the work of those that came before us, but points out that we are not. "We have to continually, on a daily basis," he says, with commitment in his voice, "be very diligent that our environment is pervaded with a message of peace and of love and of hope. Everyday, we all have a job to do when it comes to providing a place for everyone."
Just so you know, Gordy did pay his family back that $800.00.
MOTOWN can be seen at Wolf Trap's Filene Center, June 26-28, nightly at 8:00pm.