Motown the Musical tells the story of music legend Berry Gordy. With just $800 borrowed from his family, Gordy founded Motown records and launched the careers of Diana Ross and the Supremes, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and many more. We caught up with Obioma Ugoala, who plays the iconic Smokey Robinson in the show to talk icons, nicknames, and singing until 3am.
Who or what inspired you to choose a career as a performer?
As a kid, I grew up around a lot of music and drama. My dad led the music at school and my eldest brother performed in a lot of the school plays. There was definitely a light bulb moment when I read his copy of Arthur Miller’s “A View From The Bridge”. It read so easily in such a filmic fashion and spoke to me on a very personal level. I thought “this could be me”.
You’ve worked at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre with Dominic Hill and at the Donmar Warehouse with Josie Rourke. How did those experiences compare to rehearsing for and performing in a West End musical?
Josie and Dominic are both fiercely intelligent and forensic with the text and design of a show and are great storytellers. And to be honest, rehearsing for a West End musical is just the same. You’re telling a story, just with a bit more singing and choreography. Ultimately it always comes back to “does this tell the story we want to tell in the best way?”
Motown is a feel-good show – how do you feel the reaction from the audience affects the cast on stage? Do you get a buzz from performing those Motown classics?
There’s a moment towards the end of the first half when Marvin sings “What’s Going On”; with the cases of police shootings in America recently, there was definitely a different energy from the audience which seemed to say “This is a record from 1971, why is it still so relevant?”
Smokey Robinson was a keen athlete at school but chose a musical path. If you hadn’t chosen theatre, what other avenues might you have explored?
I was in the regional Under 18s for rugby as a No. 8 so I know about the tough choice between theatre and sport. Unfortunately a broken leg at an inopportune moment seemed to be a sign that I should give my other passion its full attention. I still get itchy feet when watching England tour to Australia or the Six Nations. In another lifetime.
What are the challenges of playing a real person as opposed to a fictional character and how closely do you try to imitate the vocal style of Smokey Robinson?
Smokey is an icon and everybody knows how effortlessly cool and laid back he is. Sometimes a character has a suggested vocal or physical quality in the writing or direction but with Smokey, I’d say you ignore it at your peril. So many people come to see and hear those songs you can’t do it in a completely different vocal style. That being said you do have to make it your own and tell the story as best you, the actor, can.
Smokey is a nickname. Do you have a nickname and if not, what might suit you best?
I once taught a drama class when a six year old said to me “Obi, if your mum is white and your dad is black, why aren’t you grey?” I couldn’t fault the logic. My friends have since called me Grey.
If you could duet with any Motown Artist, living or dead, who would you choose and what would you sing?
As a cast we went to see Stevie Wonder perform at Hyde Park. The man is 66 and still blew away that crowd for four hours. If I weren’t too intimidated, that would be amazing. He’s just jaw-droppingly talented.
8 shows a week is a demanding schedule. How do you keep fit both vocally and physically?
I go to the gym pretty regularly (not as much as I should to be honest) and try to eat well and not go to bars. I love a dance and when my song comes on, I’m far too tempted to sing along until 3am. Not good for the old vocal folds.
We’re still looking for the next James Bond. Would you ever consider a move to the big screen?
Would I be the next James Bond? They have always seemed to go for left field choices haven’t they? I would love to, but I’m sure Idris will beat me to it. Should I go for the next Doctor Who instead?
And finally…What advice would you give to someone entering the profession?
Artists respond to the world around them. See as much art as you can. See as much of the world as you can. But most importantly, form an opinion. That is what makes you interesting and unique as an artist. Have a political take on what you think about the world; how does the world affect you and how do you want to affect the world?
Motown the Musical at the London’s Shaftesbury Theatre is currently booking until 28 October 2017. Book your tickets with us today.
By Niall Palmer