Here's a musical quiz every Detroiter should be able to answer: Who recorded the first No. 1 hit single for Motown Records?
A. The Supremes
B. The Temptations
C. Stevie Wonder
D. Someone Else
The answer, of course, is "D." That "someone else" was The Marvelettes, the teenage Inkster girl group whose song "Please Mr. Postman" soared to the top of both the pop and R&B charts in late 1961. That heady moment, and the glorious innocence and energy of the label's earliest days, are captured in Now That I Can Dance — Motown 1962, the original musical from our acclaimed Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit returning as part of Motown's 60th anniversary celebration for six performances at the Detroit Institute of Arts beginning at 8 p.m. Friday.
Undeniably the most popular show in Mosaic's 27-year history, Now That I Can Dance revolves around the formation of the Marvelettes — especially the little-known story of Georgia Dobbins, the group's initial lead singer and co-writer of "Please Mr. Postman" whose parents refused to approve her recording contract — but also includes the early hits of the Contours, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and other Motown legends. Yet it hasn't been produced since 2012.
It has been missed.
"I've never had an experience like this, but it feels like every week for the last seven years someone has asked me, 'Hey, when are you bringing back Now That I Can Dance? That's my favorite!" marvels Rick Sperling, Mosaic creator and founding artistic director who wrote the script for the musical in 2005 and directs its latest revival. "Rochelle Riley (the City of Detroit's new director of arts and culture), her daughter was in the original production. She said to me back then, 'You should just do this show every year. Don't do any other shows!'"
A tempting suggestion, but Now That I Can Dance has been closed up tight and out of sight for seven years due to being upstaged by another Motown salute.
"We had a handshake agreement with Motown that we could use their music as long as it was for nonprofit purposes," Sperling explains. "But they gave us a caveat in 2007: they said if Mr. [Berry] Gordy ever does this musical he's been working on for the last 10 years, we're not going to allow anyone else to do a Motown musical. But they said it like, 'It will never happen, so don't worry about it.'"
"It was understood we couldn't do the show while Motown the Musical was on Broadway," says Sperling. "I kept going back to [Motown Museum CEO] Robin Terry when it was off-Broadway, and again when it was in its London production, and she kept saying, 'No, not yet.' We had to wait for Berry Gordy's musical to calm down enough so that we could do ours again."
Now produced in cooperation with the museum — auditions were held inside Motown's historic Studio A — the revived production boasts a cast of 40, ranging in age from 11 to 50. It includes not only Mosaic's youthful performing troupe but also members of the community and Mosaic alumni — people like Glenda Washington, who was in the original 2005 play as well.
"I played Gladys Horton in the original production, the lead singer for the Marvelettes," Washington recalls. "And now I'm playing one of the Vandellas, Rosalind Holmes, who was one of the sources for writing the play. It has meant so much to me, I had to find a way to get back on the stage or in the show this time around."
It's fitting the Motown Museum is involved in this production, since it played an integral part in the play's creation. Sperling says he was escorting out-of-town friends through the museum years ago when he spotted a photo in the gift shop. "It was a picture of the Marvelettes, and when I saw it I said, 'This looks just like the kids I'm working with now!'" he says. "They looked a little more free than the other acts, a youthful kind of exuberance. I bought that photo and had it on my wall for 10 years as inspiration."
Sperling eventually was inspired to spend nine months writing the show's initial script, striving for accuracy by interviewing dozens of Motown alumni like original Marvelette Katherine Anderson Schaffner.
"He and I worked together on it at first," says Schaffner, who has begun singing and touring again for the first time in decades with three other women as the Marvelettes. "We had some of the kids from Mosaic at my home. As Rick began to relate to our story, I kept thinking, 'I was 16 back then. Damn! That's a long way from where I am today.' I don't know where it all came from, but praise God that it did."
The arrival of Now That I Can Dance is also a departure: it is the last Mosaic production Sperling will direct before leaving the organization he founded to become lead consultant for the Detroit Public Schools' DSA (Detroit School of the Arts) Pathways Initiative Sept. 1.
"It feels perfect," Sperling muses. "You know, this show, really more than any other we've done, represents what my work with Mosaic was all about: telling the stories of Detroit young people while highlighting the incredible talent we have here in this city. I couldn't think of a better show to be my last."
Now That I Can Dance —Motown 1962, presented by Mosaic Youth Theatre in cooperation with the Motown Museum and the Mosaic Alumni Partnership, will have weekend performances Aug. 9-11 and 16-18 at the main auditorium of the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays. VIP tickets on Friday, Aug. 9, include a pre-show reception with Motown luminaries. Tickets are available at mosaicdetroit.org/tickets. For group sales, call 313-872-6910, ext. 4006.
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