Motown the Musical - London

A musical based on the life on Motown founder Berry Gordy.

Cedric Neal on the Miracle of Playing Berry Gordy in London's Motown & What He Misses Most About NYC

Cedric Neal on the Miracle of Playing Berry Gordy in London's Motown & What He Misses Most About NYC
Cedric Neal in 'Motown'
(Photo: Alastair Muir)
'I get to play what Berry Gordy thinks he sounds like when he’s singing.'

Cedric Neal’s Broadway credits include After Midnight and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, but the Texas-born performer is now U.K.-based, to the benefit of audiences that can see him starring as Berry Gordy in the West End premiere of Motown the Musical, which opened this week at the Shaftesbury Theatre. caught up with the charming Neal to talk living legends and hitting that top B-flat.

How are you feeling as you make your West End debut?
Let me tell you, the whole thing has been a whirlwind experience! I got called into audition for Motown when it was in New York three times, and three times something came up. So it’s divine timing that my husband and I moved over to London and the opportunity came up here.

Was the offer always to play Berry Gordy?
In New York, I’d had one audition for Stevie Wonder and another for someone else, so I was sure in London that they were going to call me in for Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye but they said, no, it’s Berry Gordy!

Has Mr. Gordy seen your performance yet?
He came to previews and [was there] opening night. The night he was in, he came by my dressing room before the show basically to tell us, “You guys have this” and not to be nervous because he’s notorious for having notes. There’s even a line in the show where Diana Ross says, “Notes, notes, always notes!”

In which case, what were his notes?
He came backstage after the curtain call and—I call him Pops—I said to him, “So, Pops, are we getting our notes tonight or in the morning?” And he said, “I have no notes at all.” When I posted that on Facebook, a friend responded, “See? Miracles do happen!”

It must be daunting playing a figure who is also a producer and the writer on this show.
True, but I’m in an interesting position as against Charl Brown [2013 Tony nominee, who plays Smokey Robinson] or Lucy St. Louis [who plays Diana Ross] in that they are playing living legends who are recognizable by face and body, whereas nobody knows the temperament or physicality of Berry Gordy. They only know the artist. So I get to play what Berry Gordy thinks he sounds like when he’s singing.

Are you a good fit physically?
There’s definitely a resemblance! His longtime assistant Mario said at the last dress rehearsal that I was the one of this show’s various Berry Gordys who looks the most like him.

How would you describe the part if you had to do a character breakdown of it?
A charismatic, charming, vision-driven male who can sing up to a B-flat—and who happens to be Berry Gordy!

You’ve got easily the biggest part in the show—is it a tough sing?
The first song he sings in act one is “To Be Loved” which is an emotional roller-coaster right off the bat, and then more than two-and-a-half hours later I’m singing, “Can I Close the Door (On Love),” which is one of the two songs Berry wrote for the show. I call it my Jennifer Holliday moment.

What about that inimitable Motown sound: was that part of your DNA?
Definitely! My parents had three boys and my younger sister and all of us sang. My dad would be singing The Temptations with me and my brothers as the background singers, while my mom was singing Gladys Knight. It was a very loud household.

The music is so infectious that it must be hard to shake off.
It is a part of my life, yes. Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life is one of my favorite albums of all time and is always in rotation in my iPad—but one thing I do when I get to the theater is to refuse to listen to any of the music from the show so that it’s fresh when I am in the show.

So many of the same musicals are running here and on Broadway: do you feel as you never left home?
In a way yes, but in a totally opposite way, I’m very well aware that I’m not in New York anymore. London has been nothing but receptive to my talents and the gifts I have to offer. I’m well aware of divine positioning and believe that I am exactly where I am supposed to be.

And in a bigger role than you have so far got to play on Broadway.
Well, it’s no secret in New York when casting agents and directors see you as a certain thing that it can be hard to get past that. I was getting wonderful featured ensemble roles in New York, but I don’t think it was easy for them to see me as the leading man because they didn’t know me as one.

You’ve been in Dreamgirls before in the U.S., and the show is now coming to London at the end of the year. Any interest in reprising it here?
I’ll just say this: I’ve done Dreamgirls three times in the States, twice as James “Thunder” Early and once as C.C., and I think I’ve had my fill of Dreamgirls. I love that show and wish the London production nothing but success, but there are some other roles out there.

Do you miss New York?
The thing I miss about New York is that I can’t celebrate all the things happening this season with the Shuffle Along cast and The Color Purple cast and the On Your Feet cast. I miss not being able to celebrate with them.

But this part surely represents ample compensation.
I don’t know how this is going to sound but London is keeping me from missing New York.