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Broadway Motown musical features civil rights, love story

By Noreen O'Donnell

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. watched with approval on Thursday as the cast of upcoming Broadway show "Motown: The Musical" tore through the storied record label's hits at a 42nd Street rehearsal studio.

The show traces Gordy's rise from a struggling boxer and autoworker to a music mogul who made stars of Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Jackson 5 and others.

"So many other people were telling the story in different ways who were never there and never understood it, just for the sake of exploitation," Gordy, 83, a producer of the show, told Reuters.

The media preview featured hits ranging from The Contours' "Do You Love Me" - sung as a segregated audience in Birmingham, Alabama, breaks through a rope to hear the group - to "Dancing in the Street" by Martha and the Vandellas.

Director Charles Randolph-Wright, who grew up in South Carolina in the 1960s, said Motown was in his DNA.

"Motown opened the emotional door to the civil rights movement," he told Reuters. "Motown is the thing that brought people together. We started dancing to the same music and listening to the same music."

Gordy's relationship with Ross - the couple had a daughter together - is shown beginning in Paris, to the hit "My Girl" by The Temptations.

"That's the love story in our show," Randolph-Wright said.

The musical begins previews on March 11 and officially opens on April 14. It features a book by Gordy and music and lyrics from the Motown catalog.

Although the show is from Gordy's perspective, it doesn't duck some of the criticism that surrounded him, especially in Motown's early days, Randolph-Wright said.

As Gordy explained: "At one time, people were feeling that how could a black kid from Detroit do a Motown without being a crook, without being in the Mafia, without being something bad, because it was such a big endeavor."

Gordy, the creator of what was once the largest black-owned business in the United States, was an inspiration to him, Randolph-Wright said.

"Berry Gordy was someone who had his own company, who literally changed the world with what he did," he said. "And to see that, it gave me and so many people like me - black, white, whatever color - that gift of possibility."

Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Gordy, said it was "hard to have a greater honor than having Berry Gordy respect you as an artist."

Valisia LeKae, who appeared in "The Book of Mormon," plays Ross. "It is the soundtrack of people's lives," LeKae said of the music. "I definitely expect people to sing along."

(Reporting By Noreen O'Donnell, editing by Jill Serjeant and Xavier Briand)

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