The legendary soul music of Detroit comes to Wilmington when MOTOWN THE MUSICAL takes the stage at The Playhouse from May 1-6.
Along with the production comes 27-year-old Justin Reynolds, playing the part of a young Smokey Robinson.
“It’s been one of my dream roles,” Reynolds says during a recent phone interview. “This is my first national tour, and I couldn’t be more excited.”
Although new to the national touring scene, Reynolds is certainly no stranger to the stage. He was recently a headliner for Vegas! The Show on the Las Vegas Strip. In his late teens and early 20s, Reynolds was part of The Young Americans, a performing arts group that travels to high schools and colleges to teach song and dance to students and perform shows.
Between his years with The Young Americans and his later work aboard two cruise lines, Reynolds has performed in more than 80 countries around the world.
“When I finally got the offer for MOTOWN, I was ecstatic,” he says. “I was working one of the cruises at the time, and on a beach in Italy. I got the email confirmation saying, ‘You are Smokey,’ and I was freaking out in the ocean.”
The experience of playing in foreign lands to people of different cultures has been helpful for Reynolds during the MOTOWN tour that has clocked close to 200 shows in cities from coast to coast.
“Playing for people all around the world, it’s really been able to help me relate on stage and give the audience what they need,” Reynolds says. “And [it’s helped me] be more in-depth on stage.”
He also points out how the Motown story itself is one about unity between peoples. Not only did the music come out of the Civil Rights era of the late ‘60s, but it also helped bring black and white cultures together – whether it was in concert halls or on dance floors.
“These musicians would go perform and one side of the crowd was white, and the other side of the crowd was black, and they weren’t supposed to dance together,” Reynolds says. “Then, because of the music, it was inevitable. A white person would dance next to a black person. And they’d realize it was okay [laughs] because we are all just people. So I’m really passionate about that aspect of what we do.”
Here’s Reynolds on playing Smokey Robinson, his thoughts about what makes Motown music special, and a meeting with Berry Gordy that went off-script.
O&A: How did you approach the character of Smokey Robinson?
Reynolds: I knew a lot about Smokey Robinson and Motown before the show. I grew up in the entertainment business, and Motown is actually my favorite genre of music. I used to sing “My Girl” as a kid.
But to embody Smokey, I would spend hours and hours on YouTube looking up videos of him performing or interviews that he had done, because he has that unique voice. I try to pay tribute on stage to his speaking voice as well as his incredible singing voice.
Smokey is the man. He’s not only a great vocalist, but he’s also a singer/songwriter and he produced a lot songs and albums for Motown.
O&A: That’s an interesting point. Unlike many other Motown performers and other singers of that era, Smokey Robinson wrote most of his own material and, like you said, he was integral in the studio. Does the musical bring that up at all?
Reynolds: That’s the great thing about Motown: Everyone knows – or hopefully everyone knows [laughs] – the classics by the Temptations, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.
They know all the songs, all these great hits. But, a lot of the time, they don’t know the backstory: how they were created or who actually wrote them. And we touch on that a lot, the story of Motown, the machine that created all these hits because it definitely was a group effort.
It was like a friendly competition to see who could write the best song for the group. So, yes, Smokey was in the Miracles, but he wrote “The Way You Do The Things You Do” and “My Girl” for the Temptations. You also had Holland-Dozier-Holland that were also trying to write songs for The Supremes and the Temptations.
We touch upon that friendly competition that helped create that unique sound of Motown.
O&A: It really is a unique sound. What it is about Motown music that makes it so popular and enduring?
Reynolds: Well, to start off, the bass line is one of the most unique things about Motown. For instance, the bass line to “My Girl” [vocally imitates the bass riff]. People hear those first few notes, and they start freaking out.
But, beyond that, the lyrics are so personable and so relatable, it just makes for a great tune: “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day.” It’s so simple, but it tells a story. And that’s what Berry Gordy was all about. Because he was a songwriter himself. He would say, “A song is like a short story with a beginning, middle and end. If you tell a short story in a two-and-a-half-minute song, you’ve got a hit.
O&A: Did you get the opportunity to meet Berry Gordy? If so, did he offer any advice?
Reynolds: Yes [laughs]. Every time someone asks me that, I’m still kind of in shock in that not only have I had the opportunity to meet him, but also have had one-on-one time with him, which is a blessing in itself. I’m so honored to be part of his legacy. And they fact that he has his hands on the show and is willing to work with the people who are telling his story is really great.
We talked a lot. He’d give me insight on Smokey. In the scene-work that we did, those raw emotions that happened in the moment, we recreated.
For instance, the whole show is centered around the time [in 1983] when Berry Gordy has decided he’s not going to go to the Motown 25 celebration. It’s a big deal obviously because he had built this legacy. They were doing a tribute for Motown’s 25th anniversary, and he didn’t want to go because everybody had left Motown at that point, and he was feeling a little hurt.
In one of the final scenes, Smokey Robinson goes to Berry Gordy’s house basically to convince him, “You gotta go to this Motown 25. This is your legacy that you’ve built.”
In one of our one-on-ones, I did that scene with Berry Gordy. By this time, I knew all my lines, and all the scenes. I could see that it took him back to that moment. He was reliving it like I was actually Smokey Robinson. He actually went off-script for a moment because we were having such an organic conversation. He said some stuff the director had never heard him say, and they ended up adding lines that he said in that moment to the script.
O&A: From this experience, what have you learned about Motown that you hadn’t known before?
Reynolds: Hmmm… that’s a good question. Like I said, I knew a lot about Motown going into this because that’s what I listened to growing up. It’s funny because the demographic that comes out to see this is older. They were teenagers when the music came out, so they tease me saying, “Oh, you know, you’re too young to know this.” But I actually do. I grew up listening to the Temptations and the Four Tops and Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. So I knew quite a lot about it.
I guess I would say how much of a family they were. They would have these quality control meetings where they vote on a song if they thought it was going to be a hit. They would write a song for the Four Tops, but it would end up sounding better with the Miracles. Just that whole process of writing the songs and figuring out who was going to sing them. And how it was so family friendly.