Monday, August 19, 2013


Mythology has been brought to the town that doesn’t sleep.

I had the opportunity to see several Broadway shows/plays recently.  The premise of this writing is to share my experience of Motown the Musical.  I was intrigued because Motown the Musical reviews have been mixed; however, it has been consistently sold out.  First, though, I want to discuss an etiquette issue about the Broadway Theatre as a modern day art form.  This should be two separate writings but I am going to combine the two thoughts.  Also, I hope to discuss these plays at a later date.

The issue of etiquette must be understood as a theme of respect in the theatre.  This idea of respect also indicates that one understands the American theatrical medium that is universally recognized as one of America’s most prized art form, or said another way --  Broadway.  We Americans created the American musical. We also have continued a tradition for the oral tradition in the spoken word in great theatre ranging from Tennessee Williams, to contemporary August Wilson and Christopher Durang to musical gems of Sondheim to Rogers and Hammerstein.  

I recently saw four Broadway plays.  A sad theme was a lack of respect for the artists and below-the-line support that makes this magical event happen.  In all of these shows/plays there was texting during the performances.   A cell phone rang during the climax of Judith Light’s Tony award winning performance in The Assembled Parties.  Candy wrapper cracklings were heard in three separate plays.  Sadly, this crackling of potato chip bags continued during Cicely Tyson’s Tony award winning performancein A Trip to Bountiful. Did these people realize that this is probably the last time we will see this American treasure on the Broadway stage as she is reportedly 88 years of age?   And inappropriate talking existed in all the plays.  The discussion is not just the disrespect of the artist and talent or the fellow audience members.  These individuals who commit these occurrences are also cheating themselves.  
In my youth I saw Angels in America (part 1- Millenneum Approaches and part 2-  Perestroka), and I believe it was about seven hours of straight theatre.  There was a time were plays were three full acts and people did not have attention deficits or poor concentration in the theatre.  The audience allowed the artists to be respected and appreciated.  To disengage in the theatre process is poor etiquette and just rude or disrespectful.  The millennium child could be raised as an argument here, especially if you read any of Larry Rosen’s work on the youth and technology.  However, this issue of disruption in Broadway occurred with all demographics. It becomes disheartening that there is an unaware of nuances missed or direct plots misunderstood by disengaging in the magical process of the imaginary world within the plays realm.  So with this discussion let’s segue into discussing Motown the Musical.  
Forget what I said about etiquette.  Or said another way, etiquette might be addressed by the time, place and setting.  What intrigued me was Motown’s musical had the same inappropriate issues mentioned above.  Candy wrappers, texting, talking.  However, there was something different in this observation.  The show’s first musical number basically happens early in the show and was one step away from getting the audience up on their feet to dance to the Temptations and 4 Tops.  Not an ovation, but Motown’s music and history had connected with the audience immediately.  There was an African Call Response that was organic and immediate.  As one person requested a person in her front to be quiet it seemed the person talking was so engaged with the events on stage that she had a need to fully engage with the occurrences of the play.  So, was this audience member presenting with poor etiquette or did the griot, nommo, and call response connect to this person forcing her to fully engage.  And if so, was her talking and being present through dialogue with her neighbors appropriate within the context of her experience.  The same person that requested for the audience member to discontinue talking also requested the woman behind her to curb her comments.  The second audience participant was verbal with her historical accounts and events in her personal life as the Motown story unfolded.  Although considered poor etiquette in the Broadway theatre, this possibly presents as completely appropriate.   

Several years ago, during my case studies and research for my dissertation on Motown’s impact on African American Baby Boomers some themes were presented that were parallel to my experience as an audience participant at the Motown Musical.  There is a key moment in the show where Valisia LeKae channels Diana Ross’ in which she helps us remember Ross’ power as arguably one of the most successful entertainers who introduced how a large venued entertainer can Reach Out and Touch through connecting to the audience on an intimate level.  For a second, LeKae, who really looks nothing like Ross was able to make us forget and be in the moment.  And the moment was the audience participating and actively engaging with the magic.  So, I might argue that Mr. Gordy, founder of Motown and creator of Ross’ image has shown consistency in his empire and musical vision.  He has always focused on bringing the audience and listeners to the music and bringing the music to the audience.  In the 1960’s he was instrumental in breaking barriers to merge Motown to top radio formats to now bringing the Motowners to Broadway.  So, now the discussion is who is to say how an audience engages and participates.  What is wrong with an audience member reconnecting to her lived experience and engaging with the griot, griotte?   

This call response might be the reason why Motown has regularly sold out audiences.  Whereas the other plays had 40% and 50% discounts at TBS with empty seating, Motown tickets were sold out and full price.  Motown the musical was not nominated for the coveted Tony award’s musical of the year, put people are coming.  Somethings don’t change.  Motown or its artist never received Grammies in the 1960; however, their records sales outperformed the other giant record companies.  Motown made its mark; on Billboard and on Broadway.
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  1. Great review, Reynaldo. Using that research!

    1. I wonder what "our dissertation" would have been like if Motown the Musical had been on Broadway while we were working on that 250 page APA formatted thing-a-ma-gig!