Preview: ‘Now That I Can Dance – Motown 1962’
The original Motown sound comes alive in world premiere production by Mosaic Youth Theatre
The “once-forgotten” girl-group of the early 1960s that gave Motown Records its first number one hit is making a comeback of sorts this month, thanks to the talented young performers of Detroit’s Mosaic Youth Theatre and the Motown Historical Museum.
The result of their collaboration is the world premiere of “Now That I Can Dance – Motown 1962,” an original play about The Marvelettes and the early days of Motown, that opens May 13 on the stage of the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
It’s an idea that started with the museum, Kate Peckham, the director of Mosaic’s Acting Company, recently told Curtain Calls. “They wanted to find a way to bring more young people into the museum, and they suggested that since this is an anniversary year for the museum, we should think about doing a show,” she said.
As an enticement, Mosaic was promised access to all of the surviving artists that were interested in assisting with the project.
So for three months last year, Mosaic founder and playwright Rick Sperling, along with several of the troupe’s teenage artists, met with and interviewed many Motown greats, including Martha Reeves; original Vandellas Rosalind Ashford Holmes and Annette Helton; Bobby Rogers of the Miracles; Sylvester Potts of the Contours; and Cal Street of the Velvelettes. Not to be left out, various Motown insiders were also interviewed, including Maxine Powell, Motown’s legendary “personal development” instructor; Ted Hull, Stevie Wonder’s tutor; and songwriter-producer Sylvia Moy.
“There were so many people that were interested in speaking to us that it was really a challenge to narrow the focus,” Peckham said.
One story the researchers uncovered, however, stood out from the rest – and ultimately it became the show’s primary storyline.
“We were the once-forgotten,” Kathleen Anderson Schaffner said of The Marvelettes, the girl-group that made it to the top of the charts with “Please Mr. Postman” in 1961. “We had been forgotten about for many, many years.”
The group – originally called the Casinyets, “which means ‘we can’t sing yet,'” Schaffner revealed – got its start when Gladys Horton assembled fellow Inkster High School students Juanita Cowart, Georgeanna Tillman, Georgia Dobbins and Schaffner to sing in a school talent show. The first prize was an audition for the recently formed Motown Records.
“Of course, we did NOT win,” Schaffner – often referred to as “the tall one” of the group – chuckled.
But that didn’t stop them from getting an audition. Impressed by what she observed, teacher Shirley Sharpley convinced Motown representative John Oden to also extend an invitation to the five talented young ladies who she felt showed great promise.
The girl-group was signed to a contract, of course, and its first song was recorded only a few months later.
The Marvelettes eventually went on to earn 10 top-40 hits before internal problems and the dominance of Diana Ross and The Supremes at Motown caused the group to disband in 1969. And for a while, it seemed, the group’s contributions to the media empire were all but ignored. “How the hell can you forget us when we had their first number one record?” Schaffner asked.
The family-oriented Schaffner – she embraced motherhood after leaving the entertainment industry and never looked back – gladly agreed to help Sperling with the production because of the kids. “They are doing something positive,” she said, promising to do whatever she can to promote the show to help counter the negative images of Detroit and its young people. “There are so many positive things going on in Detroit, and this happens to be one of them.
“And the best one, of course!” she added.
Mario Lemons, one of the 50-plus teenagers involved in the production, wasn’t born until long after Motown’s glory days were over. But like most young Detroiters, he was familiar with the company and many of its stars. He had little knowledge of The Marvelettes, however. That is, until he interviewed one of its members.
“Gladys Horton was great to interview,” the animated actor recalled. “It was quite an experience. She seems like a down-to-earth kind of person.”
Lemons, 15, plans to pursue acting as a career after completing college. For now, he’s trying to keep straight the many roles he plays in the production. The part by which he’s most intimidated is one for which he’s the understudy: Stevie Wonder. “He’s Stevie Wonder, you know!”
With only a week before its premiere, director Peckham – who, like Lemons, came along many years after Motown’s golden age – is both excited and intimidated by this massive undertaking. “Only time will tell how the artists will actually feel about seeing themselves portrayed,” she said, noting that certain liberties were taken with history for the sake of the overall story.
It’s a safe bet that Schaffner won’t mind the changes.
“When we started out we had no idea whatsoever that Motown would be so big as it was, and that 40 years later, I’d be sitting down discussing what it was like for us,” she said. “I’m totally amazed by all this attention. I really am!”
“Now That I Can Dance – Motown 1962” Staged Friday through Sunday by Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit on the stage of the Detroit Film Theatre at the back of the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit, May 13 – 22. Tickets: $18. 313-833-4005. http://www.mosaicdetroit.org.