Critically acclaimed Broadway’s Motown: The Musical is at the Boston Opera House for three short weeks! I’m very excited (if you couldn’t tell), so I got to speak with two of the leading stars of the show Allison Semmes (Diana Ross) and Clifton Oliver (Berry Gordy).
Allison shared about transforming into Diana Ross, what she craves while on the road and what she thinks about the resurgence of Blacks in theater.
Boston Fab: What did you draw from in order to become Diana Ross? Have you met her?
Allison Semmes: I grew up listening to Motown and was very much drawn to the harmonies. I grew up in the church listening to the harmonies…doo wop. I feel like it is in my blood. Later in life, I studied opera and the elegance of opera you could find in The Supremes…how they carried themselves. They raised the bar. No, I haven’t met Diana yet, though we’ve crossed paths. There’s still time.
BF: What would you be doing if you weren’t acting?
AS: Singing is like my first language, so I would probably be a singer.
BF: What is your least favorite part of touring?
AS: My least favorite part of touring would be living out of a suitcase. You never know how the hotels are going to be. It’s the gypsy life. So, I miss the stability and consistency. On the other hand, that is kind of like what the musicians of Motown went through. They were on the bus traveling, and in a sense we are reliving that, so it helps with doing the show.
BF: What is your favorite aspect of the show?
AS: I love the fact that I get to see Diana Ross’s journey from a young girl of 17 when she ran up to Berry Gordy to sing for him, to The Supremes, to her solo career. I of course also love the music and the stunning costumes…the wigs, wardrobe and different styles. We go from the 1940’s and 50’s all the way up to the 80’s.
BF: What are some of the difficult aspects of the show. Is there a certain scene or aspect of the show that is challenging?
AS: Well, during “Reach out and Touch Somebody’s Hand, ” I break the 4th wall and connect with the audience, and every audience is different. In some cities, it feels like crickets are chirping. You are very vulnerable, and it’s daunting with a shy audience. So, I’m learning how to deal with those dynamics.
BF: You’ve had the pleasure of working with greats like Erykah Badu, is there someone else that you dream of working with?
AS: My dream person would be Stevie Wonder. He is truly a genius, and I would love to work under him. I also love jazz, so Herby Hancock would be among them as well, but Stevie Wonder has such a classic sound.
BF: As Black actors feel like they got snubbed in the Oscars, it seems like they are getting more acclaim in the Tony’s and on Broadway. Do you think that this is another Great Migration to Broadway?
AS: Yes, I do think we are in a Renaissance. There are new shows popping up; they are shows that they [Black actors] can be proud of, and the entire Black community can be proud of. Motown shows the work ethic and a pride that musicians had; that was even a resurgence of Black artists and writers. I mean now with Detroit coming out of bankruptcy and the arts there are being saved…I think there is resurgence everywhere. Hopefully this will cause there to be more dialogue about creating new works to open minds to the full Black experience.
BF: What is next for you?
AS: The show is touring through 2016 after that there will be a UK leg, and there is a possibility of it opening up again on Broadway. I love the show, and I love playing this icon, but I am also open to new works. I’ve never done TV, so I’d love to explore that world. I’m also in the works of putting together an album that will be inspired by the Motown music and legacy.
BF: What can audience members expect from the show?
AS: Motown is a show for all generations. We’ve had “boomers” say that we’re bringing them back to a certain moment in time. We have teenagers and young adults who love the discovery. It’s not just entertainment, it tells the story of Berry Gordy’s dream and with only a few hundred dollars, he made a hit factory. We see it grow, and we also see the challenges. It is a story of talented artists and their history.
Motown: The Musical is playing at The Boston Opera House (539 Washington St, Theater District) through February 15th. Tickets range from $56.00 – $282.00. To purchase yours click here!
Stay tuned for our interview with Clifton Oliver who plays Berry Gordy!
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus