He’s What’s Going On
Berry Gordy Jr. is the backbone behind a chorus of groundbreaking musicians who made up the Motown sound and Detroit’s hit-making machine at Hitsville, U.S.A. Among them: Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder — and Marvin Gaye.
Gaye will be brought to life, impeccably, by Jarran Muse when Motown The Musical makes a stop in its tour April 18-30 at the Fisher Theatre, in the city where the style was launched.
“The biggest source for information about Marvin Gaye was from Berry Gordy, who was Marvin Gaye’s brother-in-law,” Muse says in a phone conversation from the road. “Marvin married Anna Gordy.
Just as Motown is having its second run in Detroit, Muse is having his second visit to the city with the show. He joined the Broadway production in 2013, doing swing as backup for the Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson parts. He moved into the tour as Marvin Gaye in 2014.
At the core of the play’s story is Gordy’s journey from featherweight boxer to music mogul, promoting the careers of many stars. Featuring more than 40 hits, such as “My Girl” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” the musical moves into the drama behind the hits and the way the songs broke through barriers.
“I love that we get to tell a fun and real story that is not just about a certain racial history but about American history,” says Muse, who is 33 and single. “It’s about the music that Berry Gordy got America to dance to.
“I was always a fan of Marvin Gaye, and it’s great to play a character like Marvin because a lot of his lyrics and what he stood for are just as relevant today as they were in the 1970s.”
Muse points to the song “What’s Going On,” which he sings in the production, as an example of commentary set to music. The song is about protests — then of the war and now connected, by him, with issues of racism and gender equality.
“I’m committed to being as real to Marvin as I can be,” says Muse, who has picked up Gaye’s style by watching performances available online. “I’m not just trying to imitate his voice or be an impersonator. I’m trying to tap into his vision.
“He was very political and active, and he did not hold back. He had to make sure he got his message out to the world. I try to make sure that the audience gets to see how passionate he was.”
Gordy also is the name of Muse’s traveling rescue dog — so dubbed to honor Berry Gordy’s influence and to represent the actor’s priority cause, animal activism.
“The only cause that I’m actively involved in is animal rights. I love animals, and mine was adopted from Broadway Barks — through the yearly adoption fair. I use my [show business] platform for raising awareness about adoption of rescue animals.”
Muse, who was raised by his Jewish paternal grandmother in New Jersey, loved to entertain since he was 7 or 8 — becoming a part of every band, choir and school play available. Because he didn’t see any Broadway shows until he was a teenager, it didn’t occur to him that that could be a goal. The idea of the stage eventually developed through mentors and choreographers as he became involved in community productions.
“I went to the University of the Arts [in Philadelphia] wanting to be a dancer,” he recalls. “I auditioned and got to perform on a cruise ship before going on my first national tour, which led to my first Broadway show, White Christmas.”
Muse has since toured with 42nd Street, Hairspray and Dreamgirls, which brought him to Detroit for the first time in 2009. As he traveled, his grandmother and father came to watch him in the spotlight.
“When I was very young, I went to synagogue,” Muse says. “There were different religions in my family, and I really didn’t practice any one of them.
“We did celebrate holidays, and we celebrated Passover with delicious seders. With technology, I’m able to Facetime with the family for holidays. Judaism has always been a part of me and always will be part of my life.”
Muse, based in New York, will have more family time after September, when this tour ends.
“I’m hoping to book something great,” he says. “I’m not against any opportunity that presents itself, and maybe that could be in Vegas or Atlanta. A new chapter is about to start.”
Suzanne Chessler Contributing Writer
Motown The Musical runs April 18-30 at the Fisher Theatre in Detroit. $39 and up.
(313) 872-1000; broadwayindetroit.com.