NEW YORK -- Motown history is ready for its new future.
Fifty-four years after its humble beginning on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, that legacy will get bathed in Broadway's bright lights as Motown: The Musical opens for previews Monday at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.
The red carpet will be rolled out April 14, when the official premiere is expected to draw a crowd of VIPs from Berry Gordy Jr.'s star-studded Rolodex.
The show's arrival culminates a long labor of love by the Motown founder, who conceived the idea a decade ago and enlisted showbiz heavyweights Doug Morris (Sony Music) and Kevin McCollum (Rent) as co-producers in 2010.
Gordy, who wrote the initial script and has been hands-on throughout the process, said the show could become his greatest career accomplishment.
"I think it's magical. It's different," he said. "Motown has a way of spanning around the world, and that's why I did the play in the first place. It's not just for me to feel good. It's for the fans around the world who believed in me when everybody was saying a kid out of Detroit could never do a Motown."
Punctuated with vintage hits and energetic dance numbers, the musical will portray Motown's first 25 years through the eyes of Gordy, played by Tony-nominated actor Brandon Victor Dixon. More than half of the two and one-half-hour show is set in Detroit, where Gordy's courtship of a young Diana Ross (Valisia LeKae) becomes a key source of drama.
"We have Detroit on our mind," said director Charles Randolph-Wright, who has visited the city several times for inspiration. "I've been very aware of what Detroit means -- what was unique about that place, that time, that person. I wanted to be sure I have that essence."
Motown is one of the highest-profile shows to hit Broadway in recent years, accompanied by heavy news media interest and a multimillion-dollar national campaign by marketing partner Chrysler Group LLC. If all goes as producers hope, the show could secure the megahit status of jukebox musicals such as Mamma Mia! (ABBA) and Jersey Boys (the Four Seasons).
It could also bring new life to Motown's music catalog, akin to the resurgence sparked by the soundtrack for the 1983 film The Big Chill.
"We have very high expectations for the type of boost we'll get and the type of audience we'll gain," said Bruce Resnikoff, president of Universal Music Enterprises, which manages the Motown Records catalog. "It's an opportunity to introduce another generation to some of the greatest music in history."
The show seems to have hit ingredients: a repertoire of classic songs, a timeless American success story and a roll call of famous characters, including Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye.
A story heard through the grapevine
The story arc will be familiar to anyone who knows the basic Motown tale, from the $800 Gordy family loan that got it started to the triumphant Motown 25 show in 1983. Scenes revealed at a private preview in September included a young Gordy cheering boxer Joe Louis, a race-mixing Motortown Revue, a Paris love scene with Gordy and Ross and an Ed Sullivan Show gig by the Jackson 5.
Driving the plot is Gordy's quest to succeed and a "careful-what-you-wish-for" angst, as co-producer McCollum described it.
Still, the musical has faced some skeptics since it was announced last summer.
Some theater insiders have questioned Gordy's playwriting credentials. Others wonder whether he can grant his own story the juicy conflict it needs to be compelling. News media reports out of New York claim the script has been relentlessly overhauled in recent months, refined with help from veteran writers Dick Scanlan and David Goldsmith.
McCollum said such doubters are familiar challenges for Gordy, who fought for credibility in a racially charged era.
"Brian Epstein found the Beatles, and he's known as a genius," McCollum said. "Compare that to Berry Gordy. How many (stars) did he have to find before somebody finally said, 'Oh, you know what, he might know something'?"
The project has also elicited mixed reactions from some hard-core Motown fans, who are happy to see the music in the spotlight but who worry that Motown's artists will amount to extras in the Gordy-focused plot.
Gordy defends it as a chance to tell the Motown story his way.
"I've seen so many other versions of what it was," he said.
Let's get it on Broadway
Engrossed in what could be a final hurrah, the 83-year-old Gordy has been eager and recharged - a life of long rehearsal days and late-night brainstorms.
"His energy is like a teenager," said actor Bryan Terrell Clark, who plays Marvin Gaye, "like he's had this amazing second wind."
Motown is Broadway-big: A 19-piece band will put gloss and grandeur on Motown's songs, with full-scale dance numbers from a colorfully costumed cast of three dozen.
In Broadway terms, Motown has been a quick process: It was summer 2010 when Randolph-Wright first met with Gordy at the Motown icon's California mansion. Three years earlier, another Gordy musical - Ain't No Mountain High Enough - had been quietly shelved before a scheduled L.A. debut. This time, Gordy was intent on getting it right.
"I picked Charles over some very renowned people," Gordy said. "He turned out to be the most incredible director you could find."
Over lunch, lead actors Dixon and LeKae talked about their two-year immersion in Motown and each other.
At 6 feet, Dixon's got half a foot on the real-life Gordy. LeKae carries a quiet elegance, and with her coy voice and delicate manner, the Diana Ross vibe is almost startling.
The chemistry between the two romantic leads is crucial to "Motown."
"These two people really loved each other," LeKae said. "I mean, (Gordy) still loves her unconditionally - he never forgets to remind me about that. But she has such a strong belief in him that she shares the same feelings. When it's time for us to do a scene, it becomes very natural for us to fall into that place."
Gordy said the Gordy-Ross relationship made a natural centerpiece to his story "because that was the thing that inspired me to do almost everything else I did," he said. "And I was a sucker for anybody who believed in me, because growing up, nobody did."
A hit: Signed, sealed, delivered
The show will be accompanied by a pair of albums: Motown: The Musical - The Classic Songs That Inspired the Broadway Show, in stores Tuesday, features the original recordings of tracks such as My Girl, Shop Around and I Want You Back.
A Broadway cast album will be released by the end of spring.
Universal's Resnikoff said the company is embarking on "a massive marketing campaign" tied to the show, which it sees as a unique opportunity.
"If you think about it, the classic Motown songs have been marketed to some extent through nostalgia," Resnikoff said. "This really helps us bring it current, and gives us a new story to work with."
Chrysler's chief marketing officer, Olivier Francois, said he's "convinced that this show will be a very important piece of Broadway history."
As for Gordy - there's a new working definition for success.
"I'm not really looking for glory, honors, even money or fame," Gordy said. "That's all passed. When I give back to people, especially those who believed in me, I feel good. And that's way more important than the money or fame. I'm just looking to do good work. To do great work is an art."