Some years ago when Motown Records’ in-house Funk Brothers band visited Montreal, I got to interview the coolest Funk Brother of all, the great Jack Ashford, who played tambourine at Motown.
Percussionist Ashford’s tambourine playing helped define the Motown sound. The music was recorded in Motown’s basement Studio A – affectionately dubbed the “Snakepit” by the Motown family – and Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. demanded assembly-line efficiency in the studio.
But, Ashford told me, “Berry didn’t think it would be this big. None of us did. You don’t know you’re making history.”
Almost 60 years after Gordy founded Motown in Detroit in 1959, his story and the music of Motown are being celebrated in the touring Broadway blockbuster Motown The Musical which makes its Montreal debut at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier at Place des Arts from June 19 to 24.
The musical features more than 50 classic hits such as “My Girl” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and goes behind the scenes with Diana, Smokey, Berry and the whole Motown family who created the soundtrack of change in America.
The cast includes Kenneth Mosley as Berry Gordy, Grammy-nominated American Idol alum Trenyce as Diana Ross, fellow American Idol alum Matt Manuel as Marvin Gaye, and Justin Reynolds as Smokey Robinson. I recently spoke with multi-talented rising theatre star Cartreze Tucker, who portrays Stevie Wonder.
What is it like to be on this tour?
Cartreze Tucker: It’s a dream come true in a really weird way because I grew up listening to this music, and now I sing it onstage every day. Motown was the sound of my childhood, hanging out with my grandma as we were cleaning and cooking. To me, it is the sound of togetherness.
You play a lot of roles in this musical. How do you portray Stevie Wonder?
Stevie Wonder was a challenge for me because he feels the music with his entire body and entire being. He becomes one with the music. And the reason he has the beads on his hair is so that he can hear the beat. So I had to figure all of that out, how to feel those beads on my body. We had rehearsals and my director was like “Cart, you look crazy! You look like you’re having a seizure.” Friends watched me practice in apartment, my boyfriend watched me. Now I’ve done it for nine months and I can do it in my sleep.
Over those nine months, any Motown stars come see the show?
Yeah. Martha Reeves came to see us. Of course, Berry Gordy saw us every night for a week in California.
What is like on the road – are you careful about your diet like you would be at home?
Absolutely not! But I try to work out as much as possible.
I love the specials skills section of your resume. Like, when was the last time you did cartwheels onstage?
I did them when I was cast in the musical Hair.
How loud is your finger-snap?
It’s really loud! You’re really reading off my resume, aren’t you?
(Laughs) It’s pretty loud, but I can only do a snap with my right hand.
You’re from Atlanta, but currently live in New York City.
There is definitely a difference between the cities, such as the pace. People in the south tend to be slower but the way of living is much easier as well. Meanwhile, in New York City, everything is fast-paced.
You have been cast in bookwriter and composer-lyricist Michael R. Jackson’s concept musical A Strange Loop, about a character called Usher, a Black, gay musical theatre writer who works as an usher in the back of the house at a long-running Broadway show.
You know about A Strange Loop and nobody else does! The musical will premiere Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizon (in May 2019). I got to workshop the lead. Artistically it’s the most personal thing I’ve ever done – a multifaceted person similar to myself, being Black, gay, Black family, and the music is absolutely fantastic. There are so many parallels.
What is it like to be an out Black man in the theatre world?
I do musicals, so nine times out of 10 most (actors) in the show will be gay as well. It is part of who I am, it is not what I am. I am not defined by the people I have sexual relations with.
Have you been to Montreal before?
I have! This time my goal is to find Céline Dion!
Motown The Musical makes its Montreal debut at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier at Place des Arts from June 19 to 24 nightly. There are also 2 pm matinees on June 23 and 24. For tickets, visit evenko.ca.
All photos courtesy Broadway Across Canada / evenko.