Motown Tour

Motown: Talking About Motor City Music

Missing Event Data
Motown the Musical JULIUS THOMAS III (Berry Gordy) ALLISON SEMMES (Diana Ross) JESSE NAGER (Smokey Robinson)
Motown the Musical
JESSE NAGER (Smokey Robinson)

It creates a unique experience for an actor when art and life collide on stage. While playing the legendary Smokey Robinson, Jesse Nager navigated the real life events of the Motown icon while the flesh and blood subject observed himself through Nager’s interpretation.

Nager is Robinson in Motown: The Musical. Staged April 19-24 at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts, Motown tells the true story of Motown founder Berry Gordy and his journey from the boxing ring to the music industry. Gordy launched the careers of Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, and more while breaking down barriers. The production features classic songs such as ‘My Girl’ and ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.’

When Robinson attended the show’s Broadway opening, Nager was appropriately star struck, but he was also captivated by Robinson’s kindness and generosity with the actors. “He was very supportive and happy, and I think it was truly exciting for him to see a version of himself on stage. Everything he does comes from a place of joy. He loves what he does and he’s still doing it to this day. I tried really just to infuse every choice I made on stage with a kindness and a joy,” says Nager.

Motown the Musical

“There’s a responsibility you have in making sure that the choices that you make on stage are accurate to the person. When you create a fictional character, you can sort of make decisions based on what you think the text says or what you think informs your performance. But in this case, these are real people. You have to do the research. You have to study them, you have to talk to people that know them, you have to make sure every single thing that you’re doing on stage represents that person accurately.”

When preparing for his role as Smokey Robinson, Nager looked to the “University of YouTube” to study all of the nuances in his live performances and interviews. “Luckily, Smokey’s got hundreds and hundreds of videos, performances, and interviews to help me get behind his way of speaking,” says Nager. “And also talking to people that knew him, like Berry Gordy help get to know him inside and out.”

Gordy is the godfather of Motown, the founder of the label that bridged racial gaps and pushed the soul of the Detroit sound into mainstream consciousness. He made household names of unknown artists like Diana Ross, Martha Reeves, Marvin Gaye, and Smokey Robinson. Having Gordy in rehearsals created a certain amount of pressure for the actors, who were tasked with representing the totality of his artistic and social contributions.

MoTOWN THE MUSICAL First National Tour_Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye_(c) Joan Marcus, 2014“He comes a lot to see the show and he’s very much a part of it still. I think for the first week it was really intimidating but then he becomes just another collaborator in rehearsal and you sort of forget he’s an icon in everyone’s lives in America,” says Nager. “He’s also just a very cool guy who’s thrilled by this process.”

Nager says he was overwhelmed by Gordy’s far-reaching influence in the racially-divided 1960’s. The music of Motown was as valuable and significant as a cultural milestone as anything that occurred within the Civil Rights Movement, translated through the politics of art.

“I don’t think that I grasped just how influential the Motown label was in integrating audiences. Motown went down into the south where audiences were very much separated into black and white. Because of the music and the love for the sound that Motown was putting out, audiences sort of came together and broke down walls and found themselves dancing together in ways that they had never sort of interacted before,” says Nager. “Most of white America had never seen a lot of black culture before. As soon as the Supremes and the Temptations started getting on TV shows, especially in the south, it started breaking down racial barriers. I knew that it happened but I never realized how important it was to the evolution of this country.”

That joy still resonates with audiences, demonstrating the relevance and strength of the Motown era decades later. For Nager, it’s a solid reminder that music has the power to bring people together. “Young or old, whether they heard the songs when they were first out or if they’re hearing them now for the first time, everyone loves this music. There is so much joy, and everyone is singing and dancing along,” he says. “You can expect all the music, but you can also expect the story of the label and the behind-the-scenes on how these icons and songs developed the way they did. It’s really a cool, backstage pass to the music you love.” Tickets are available at

Event: Motown: The Musical
Venue: Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts
Date: April 19-24
Tickets: $38.50+

About Liza Mitchell