By Bill Hirschman
As the conductor of the pit orchestra at the national tour of Motown the Musical, Darryl Archibald is the person most accessible to the revved-up audience in the white hot afterglow of fans staying in the house after the last note has been played.
“They come up to me in the pit and I get to hear all their stories… ‘In Detroit, I remember standing in line to see….I met this particular person… I heard….’ ” Archibald recalls fondly.
He expects the same when Motown the Musical comes to the Broward Center for the Performing Arts Tuesday for a run through March 8 as part of the Broadway Across America season.
The lavish show is a jukebox revue of the now seminal R&B catalog created by a legendary group of artists led by entrepreneur Berry Gordy. In theory, this is a musical theater piece about Gordy’s development of the ground-breaking Motown Sound from 1957 through the mid-1980s, with a script based on his 1994 autobiography.
The show opened on Broadway in April 2013 to mild reviews but rabidly enthusiastic audience reaction. It received four Tony nominations but won none. It closed last January in Manhattan, but with the announced intention of reopening in July 2016 – something rarely done. This tour began in Chicago last March.
Gordy was the driving genius behind the Detroit-based recording studio that produced hundreds of hits delivered by Diana Ross with and without the Supremes, Michael Jackson with and without The Jackson Five, Little Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Even decades on, the music remains woven into the fabric of 21st Century life, sampled in hip-hop and providing the background for commercials.
Archibald said last week from a frigid stop in Durham, North Carolina, “I come home from rehearsal and there it is on the TV. You go into a store or a club or something and they are playing Motown music. It’s everywhere.”
The Motown catalog is too large to ensure that everyone’s favorite songs will be reflected, but it tries: about 66 songs, several performed in their entirety, but many more compressed into medleys. Gordy even wrote a new 11 o’clock number just for the show’s narrative climax, “Can I Close The Door?”
Archibald stresses that Motown the Musical is not a “legends” tribute show with a bunch of Las Vegas impersonators. That said, the show has striven to find performers who look somewhat like their characters and who sound precisely like them.
The orchestrations and arrangements by Ethan Popp and Bryan Crook were based on some archeology of Motown recordings and sheet music, trying to make the sound coming from a theater’s orchestra pit resemble the music you heard coming out of your car speakers or the amps in an arena. It encompasses the layered percussion instruments, multiple guitars playing simultaneously and later the smooth string sections alongside muscular horns.
The pit band comprises 15 musicians including Archibald on one of two keyboards. Ten are local musicians picked up in each city. Not all of them play on every track at once in the early stages of the show. The early Motown sound was much simpler; it became more sophisticated, lusher and fuller with more instruments as the sound evolved over the decades with The Jackson 5 recordings being one of the turning points.
Compared to other Broadway scores, Motown is obviously not as challenging, but the musicians have to be unusually talented because each has to be able to play a large number of instruments.
Recreating that sound is a daunting responsibility as well as a major challenge when trying to match in person what is still playing inside the audience’s head.
“The main thing also is to try to give the audience a flavor of what they remember, but it’s musical theater. They want to give that audience that experience. That’s what people are coming for. Otherwise, there would be a lot of disappointment,” Archibald said.
He remembers the sound as well. Archibald was raised in Los Angeles where his earliest Motown memories were hearing Diana Ross post-Supremes and the television cartoon series about The Jackson 5 in the early 1970s. “You couldn’t get away from it: My parents played it all the time; it was on the radio all the time.”
As much as he loves the music, his down time tunes are far different. “It’s funny. I grew up as a classical musician. So I’m listening in my dressing room Bach cantatas, Kathleen Battle singing Mozart arias, Marilyn Horne. Occasionally, I like to listen to what they were playing in 1960s clubs like Shirley Bassey or Henry Mancini. But a lot of times I play continuous Bach’s Cantata Number 31. It’s not to cleanse the palate; it’s just to have something different.”
In fact, Archibald has a solid musical theater resume built in regional theaters and on tours as musical director, conductor, orchestrator, arranged or orchestra player in shows like Memphis, Dreamgirls, The Lion King and Jerry’s Girls.
But this music is in his DNA as it is in the audience’s. When he leads the band in an auditorium, the energy crackles out to the audience and back to the musicians. “It’s a wonderful electrifying experience because this music you’re hearing is the music everybody grew up with from every walk of life all over the country and all over the world.”
He’s not exaggerating; One of the fans who came up to him in the pit after one show in Chicago said how he grew up with the music – in Manchester, England.
Motown the Musical runs Feb. 24-March 8 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts as part of the Broadway Across America-Fort Lauderdale series, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Performances are 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. Sunday. Tickets approximately $34.75 – $153. For more information, call 954-462-0222 or visit BrowardCenter.org.