The irony of being in the original cast of a show like “Motown the Musical” is that although we helped re-create Hitsville on stage every night, I had to leave the show before I was able to visit the real one. Further irony is that the tour of another legendary musical icon put me in Detroit, home of the house where Berry Gordy made history.
Even the Uber cab ride had symmetry. The driver happened to be a black man in his 60’s who, long before realizing his gospel calling, auditioned at Hitsville for a recording contract. I didn’t have to tell him how to get there now.
A large party of teenagers, maybe twenty or so deep, were being ushered into the museum by their chaperones when I arrived. Figuring it would be a good idea to let them get sorted first, I waited until all admission had been paid before learning that tours happened every half hour on the hour and sold out frequently. The only one I could fit on (and still make it to the hotel in time for show call) was at capacity with the young ladies.
“No worries,” I said to the ticket window agent. “I probably don’t need the tour, I was in the show on Broadway. But it’s still worth it to come.”
I cruised the store instead, excited to see a few "Motown: the Musical" t-shirts that are still being sold in the lobby of the Lunt Fontanne Theater now. Just as I positioned my phone to take a shot of a shirt I wish cast members had access to back home, the woman from the window tapped me on the shoulder, explained the no-photo policy in the gift store too, and insisted that I join the tour.
“Since you were in the show it would be criminal not to see this.”
I stood in the back of the small theater packed with the teenagers, a few of them wondering about the tardy interloper.
The tour guide, an almond-colored woman named Peggy with skin much younger than she, gave us an extraordinary, rapidly paced but careful trek through the life of Berry Gordy, crash coursing us in his father’s print business and grocery store, the $800 loan from the family account and the corresponding paperwork framed on the wall, the Gloved One’s 1983 introduction of the Moonwalk along with the encased glove he donated. To listen to an oral version of the history I was once endowed with the responsibility of presenting on stage every night was fascinating.
I tried to remain incognito in this group so as not to disrupt the tour. I was doing fine until Peggy led us in “Rockin’ Robin” so that we could experience the value of bathroom acoustics that led to Gordy’s innovative recording studio rigging.
I had been singing full belt on stage every night with Cher, singing like nobody could hear me (because they couldn’t) during the last minute of “Believe." So Rockin’ Robin was cake.
Two of the young ladies turned around with that look, the one that happens when someone recognizes decent pitch and a smidgen of training.
I shut up instantly.
Then Peggy asked them about Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” The young ladies sang the song well and knew all the words better than I. One of the chaperones explained that this was the junior high school portion of a group of music students who would perform a full-scale Motown concert in a week.
What are the odds?
But by the time we got to the Hitsville lobby, where secretary Martha Reeves' appointment pad still sat, I worried I would need to leave early. I introduced myself to Peggy and explained that I was in the Broadway production and loved her tour, and not to take my exit as a lack of interest.
“Thank you so much,” she said. “What show are you doing now?”
“I’m here with Cher. The show is tonight, which is why I have to dash soon.”
“Well then I’ll see you tonight on stage!”
You’re kidding. What are the odds? “That’s fantastic.”
“There’s not much left of this,” she said. “If you’re still around, do you mind if I acknowledge you?”
“Not at all.”
With the same seamless flow we had enjoyed the rest of the time, Peggy segued her Studio A description into a discussion about Berry Gordy’s legacy continuing on Broadway. The students were excited to know that there was a performer from the show around, and that they…suspected all along?
“I knew you were in a show!” one of them said.
"And then I heard you make comments, and I thought he's really knows his stuff," another said.
Had my interior monologue made it out of its haven?
Then I figured out it was just a residual of this quite surreal feeling of having moved on from the musical without leaving the family or the legacy in the least.
I took several pictures with the students outside in front of the Hitsville sign before realizing that I could not leave without taking a solo shot. After all, here I was, marveling at the sturdiness of the tendon connecting where I am now with where I was a few months ago. It needed to be captured, and in a way that my extraordinary Motown dance colleagues would never forget...
But the kids had already boarded the bus, and they were the only ones born with the necessary in-brain microchip to capture with a phone the shot I had in mind. A lovely woman named Dishonda stood with her good friend and agreed to try.
I showed it to her one time.
It takes 1.8 second to do a standing back tuck.
Yes somehow, Dishonda caught me upside down, mid-flip smiling at the camera. Twice.
So the Hitsville serendipity had gone further: although she had no training in it whatsoever, her father is a noted photographer.
The entire experience, as well as this picture with the Temptations seeming to present me, was affirming. It reminds me that my purpose in Motown was spring water clear and carved specifically with me in mind, despite the fact that singing is not (as my co-dance captain Dionne put it) really my ministry at all. It cemented for me that my tenure there was and is still important, and that my foray back to Cher touring is right on time. It made the day as brilliant as the blue on the Hitsville marquee.
And, as promised, I saw Peggy after the concert.