It took about four years from first conversation to orchestra tuneup on opening night to bring “Motown” to fruition. The experience has changed Randolph-Wright’s life. Although he always made a good living, working in theater (the original Broadway cast of “Dreamgirls”) and television (as director of episodic TV and commercials), “Motown” is the mega-hit poised to make his life extremely comfortable. He is casting a national tour of “Motown” that will start in Chicago in April, and reveling in the memories he’s generating of childhood idols bestowing their blessings on the production.
His heart pounded almost as loudly as the percussion section on the night that Diana Ross was in the theater. And when at the final curtain, she embraced the actress who portrays her, Valisia LeKae, the director almost lost it. “Everyone started letting out a good old African cry,” he said, adding as he shook his head: “In my wildest dreams. Everything flashed before my eyes.”
If there was any deflating aspect to “Motown” for him, it was the decidedly mixed reviews the show received in April. Some critics found Gordy’s book — the industry term for the script — lacking, or thought that the R&B hits had been unnecessarily truncated. (Randolph-Wright points out songs were shorter in those days, many of them only a minute to a minute and a half in duration.) The subsequent meager haul of Tony Award nominations — the show was passed over for best musical — was wounding to a theater professional accustomed to acknowledgment of his skill. For instance, his in-the-round staging at Arena of “Ruined,” Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-winning account of the brutal treatment of women in war-ravaged Congo, was widely admired and in some important ways an improvement on the original New York production.
For a guy (now in his late 50s) who dreams big, recognition of the value of what he dreams about is not a minor matter. “There was no expectation that he would do anything less than succeed,” said Stephen Landrigan, a playwright and author who has known him since Randolph-Wright’s college years, when he spent his junior year studying acting in London, and Landrigan was teaching journalism there.
Randolph-Wright was born into a middle-class family in South Carolina, a family of professional people who were in the mortuary business for generations. He entered Duke thinking that he would be a doctor. But his trajectory changed after a roommate who was sick gave him his ticket to a touring production of “Pippin,” a coming-of-age musical whose central figure is a Player — originated on Broadway by Ben Vereen — who manipulates the story.
“I’d never seen anything like it, and I loved that” character, Randolph-Wright said. “After that, I thought, ‘I have to do this.’ ” He graduated with a double major in theater and religion, and embarked on a show business career.
The playwright was brought to Smith’s attention about the time she took over at Arena, more than a decade ago, by the Pulitzer-winning dramatist Paula Vogel. Soon after, Smith would present his play “Blue,” featuring Phylicia Rashad (his once-upon-a-time fellow ensemble member in “Dreamgirls,” then going by the surname Ayers-Allen.)