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How Do You Find a New Diana Ross? Inside the casting for Broadway's "Motown: The Musica

By JANICE C. SIMPSON

Casting a Broadway show is never easy, but finding the right actors for Motown: the Musical was especially daunting.

After all, the stars of the show not only have to sing and dance, but also have to capture the essence of R&B legends like Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. Since millions of people love these entertainers---not to mention the music they made for the Motown label---audiences will know if the Broadway performances are inauthentic.

To up the ante even more, Berry Gordy, the legendary producer and Motown founder, is heavily involved with the musical, which follows the story of his label and the people who made it succeed. Gordy wrote Motown's book and serves as a lead producer, and when it came to casting decisions, he had the final say.

Though an ensemble of 29 actors plays multiple roles, the musical, which is now in previews at the Lunt-Fontanne, ultimately hinges on five characters: Ross, Jackson, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and Gordy himself.

Casting director Bethany Knox and her colleagues at Telsey + Company drew up a short list of actors to play Gordy. Brandon Victor Dixon, who made waves in the off-Broadway production of The Scottsboro Boys, quickly emerged as a favorite. "He's gorgeous, he's an amazing singer, and he's an absolutely brilliant actor," Knox says.

Finding someone to play Diana Ross also proved surprisingly easy. The creative team had looked at only four or five actresses for the first reading back in 2010 when Valisia LeKae came in to audition. She captured not just Ross's breathy intonations, but her kittenish persona. "It was frightening," Knox recalls. "She was Diana Ross."

Soon after that reading, Charl Brown, who got his professional start in a European tour of Hair, came on board to play Smokey Robinson. Brown has the same caramel-colored good looks that made the young Smokey such a heartthrob, and he also mimics Robinson's raspy falsetto with striking accuracy.

The remaining leads were harder to find. The team looked at hundreds of young actors between the ages of 7 and 13 to play Michael Jackson during his Jackson 5 days. They needed a boy young enough to hit Michael's high notes, but mature enough to command the stage.

"It became very evident to the entire creative team why Michael Jackson was such an immediate star," says Knox.  After holding open calls in five cities---New York, Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta and L.A.---the team finally hired Raymond Luke, Jr. and Jibreel Mawy, both 12, to share the role at alternating performances.

Finding a Marvin Gaye was even harder. Gaye, who began as a clean-cut crooner and ended as a protest singer-songwriter, often clashed with Gordy and battled drugs. "Having someone who could evolve and follow that arc was as essential as having someone who was the right height or had the right physical look," Knox says. 

The actor playing Gaye also had to be sexy.  "Show me people who girls are throwing their panties at," director Charles Randolph-Wright told the casting team. "If they're not throwing their panties at him, he's not right."  Finally, three days before rehearsals began, Bryan Terrell Clark, a Yale School of Drama grad already hired for the ensemble, got the news that he would be making his Broadway debut as the man once known as The Prince of Motown.

"Putting this cast together was an enormous undertaking," Knox says. But, she adds, "it's immensely satisfying to get to see these people finally perform these roles because when it worked, it worked."

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Janice C. Simpson writes the blog Broadway & Me

Photo by Andrew Eccles