‘Motown the Musical’ star N’Kenge on Mary Wells and channeling the world-changing music of the 1960’s

N’Kenge plays Motown trailblazer Mary Wells in the new toe-tapping musical based on Berry Gordy’s life and the roots of the most beloved music of the 60s that changed the music industry in Motown the Musical at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.

The musical, which features dozens of favorite songs from the Motown decade, includes Wells’ iconic song “My Guy.”

Between shows on a Wednesday afternoon, a short while before she fueled up for her evening performance, N’Kenge spoke to Stage Door Dish about everything from the legend of Mary Wells, the process of researching and transforming into the role and her early involvement with the musical to her own solo career, her favorite way to drink tea and performing in 11 languages.

 

N'Kenge

N’Kenge

SDD: Were you familiar with Mary Wells before you started with Motown?

N’KENGE: I was familiar with Mary Wells from her song ‘My Guy’, which is her signature piece. Of course, during the time she was around, I wasn’t born yet but my parents were very much into Motown music.  Most of my knowledge of Motown at a very young age is through my parents because they would play the music all the time.  My mother actually said that when she was pregnant with me I would move around in her stomach a lot.  And when she would turn on music I would be completely still.  So, somehow, according to my mom, I was in tune with music before I was even a child.  That’s her story, I can’t really attest to that, but I’ve pretty much been hearing Motown music since I was a child. Before even auditioning for the role, I had to do some research on Mary.  What kind of personality she was, how she sang, I listened to a lot of her recordings, and I even went on Youtube for that, because there is a lot of live footage of her.  So then, what I did was take little aspects of what she said, and what I thought, and what I read, and got information from stories from people who knew her.  So you kind of put all that together and that was the foundation for developing the role. Unfortunately, she died from throat cancer, which is probably the most horrible thing to die from because she was a singer.  Now that I’ve been doing the show, I sort of immersed myself in Mary Wells. What was great about Mary Wells was she was basically the first female superstar for Motown and she was the one who crossed it over from the R&B to the pop charts. Smokey Robinson had written songs for her and she was also a songwriter herself. That’s how she got her start.  She came to Berry Gordy and asked him to listen to her songs she had written for Jackie Wilson. That’s how she became a singer, because he said, ‘Well, sing it for me’ because he was in a rush. So she sang the song for him. He said, ‘There’s only one person I can think of that should be recording those songs and that is you.’ And he signed her and recorded her and that’s how Mary Wells became a singer. She had an amazing voice and at the time she didn’t know it. She was just thinking about writing for other people, not herself.

SDD: And you speak with such affection for her. What’s it like to play someone who actually lived? Are you basing the performance on her actual life or a variation of a character based on her?

N’KENGE: Berry Gordy always stated that he didn’t want impersonators. I mean, obviously this is the story about his life, and meeting these artists and how it affected his life.  How the music affected the world.  But he said, ‘I want the performance to have the spirit of the artist.’ So obviously, if we are able to manipulate our voices to sound like the artists’ that’s a plus but they weren’t going around, looking for impersonators of Mary Wells. What I do is I try to stay as true to her as an artist and as a woman as possible because she did leave Motown at a very early age. She came to success very very quickly, with the recordings they sent out of her.  She’s a go-getter and she’s very aggressive, very independent, very motivated. She was only 17 when she went to Berry Gordy trying to get his attention. She was very aggressive about it in a good way. Like an innocent, young 17-year-old, who is anxious and bright-eyed, wanting to have her music presented through Jackie Wilson, who was famous at the time.  But I look at that, trying to conjure the spirit of Mary Wells, especially since she is no longer with us. It is a lot for us to carry on our shoulders in the show because we are playing real people who lived or are still living. As Mary Wells, after a few performances, people have come up to me saying, ‘I drove her. I was a taxi driver in Detroit in the 60s. I actually drove her from one place to another, and had a conversation with her.’ People have these distinct memories of their interactions with these artists back in the 60s and 70s. It’s amazing. There are people coming up to me that might be family members, like a niece or a nephew. I feel it’s our duty to bring as much truth to the role as possible and what they brought forth to the music world.

SDD: Can you tell me about your history with the show?

N’KENGE: I was involved from the very beginning, actually before there was a beginning. Five years ago, I actually met Berry Gordy through a friend of his, that heard me singing in a Motown show in Monte Carlo. Afterwards, this guy said, ‘You’re a great singer. I know Berry Gordy. I think he should hear you. Here’s my card, give me a call whenever you are in L.A.’ Of course everyone thought he was a complete fraud. But me, being very optimistic and trusting of everyone, I thought, ‘I’m going to call him! And I’m going to fly to L.A.!’ So I called him as soon as I got off the plane, and I said, ‘Hi! This is N’Kenge from Monte Carlo. You said you would introduce me to Berry Gordy and I’m here in L.A. right now. I just got off the plane.’ And that kind of tickled him, and fortunately, he was not a fraud. He brought me over to Mr. Gordy’s house to sing for him. He only had 30 minutes to hear me and he was very curious about me being an artist because I told him I was an opera singer who sang pop music. He said, ‘Okay, that’s interesting.’ So, I went to his house for 30 minutes, and 30 minutes turned into five hours. I was singing from opera to pop, to jazz, to gospel. After that, it became a long-term working relationship and he was my mentor ever since. He started developing the play and creating the story for Motown the Musical that we’re working with on Broadway right now. So I was actually there before Kevin McCollum came on board and when he was choosing Charles [Randolph-Wright] as the director, and all these people. It’s amazing!  It seems so long ago, but it really wasn’t. It was a very quick process. I know a lot of musicals take a very long time to get to Broadway, especially at the very beginning of development. They are looking for money and producers, and fortunately Doug Morris was willing to put the finances behind it.  So it was really just a matter of Mr. Gordy getting a script and putting his life down on paper. When I met him, this musical didn’t even exist at the time, to actually see that process from the very beginning to now is pretty remarkable.

SDD: This is a show that obviously means a tremendous amount to you personally. What is it like for you to have this experience?

N’KENGE: It feels like my Broadway debut. My Broadway debut was for Sondheim on Sondheim at the Roundabout Theatre at Studio 54. I came on board as standby for Vanessa Williams and Erin Mackey. So that was my Broadway debut and it was pretty amazing in itself because it was my debut and I was working with Vanessa and Barbara Cook, who was in the show, and Tom Wopat and Norm Lewis. You just had this amazing, small cast, and I worked with Stephen Sondheim. So just having such a remarkable cast to work with for my Broadway debut at that time was exciting but you can’t even compare it to this. I feel like now, I’m originating a role on Broadway and I’m doing the eight shows a week. This really does feel like my Broadway debut because I’m a part of the process and creating a role, whereas before, I was a standby for these amazing women in the show but I only went on when they were sick. This experience is much more intense because I have been a part of the development process of it whereas with Sondheim on Sondheim I came in as a standby so they already had their workshops and their readings previously. They were already rehearsing for the Broadway production.

SDD: I have already heard some Memphis versus Motown comparisons. Can you compare the two of them a little bit?

N’KENGE: I can understand why people could compare the two because it’s around the same time period but there are so many superstars that came out of the Motown camp, that I just think it’s very different. I mean, this show is more of a book musical, even though Memphis had a very strong book. But there are times where there are just some extensive scenes with no music. It’s like a play, because there really is a lot of information that went through Berry Gordy’s life, from when he was a kid all the way until he was an adult; and then, also, through grooming these artists. You have people coming out of Motown like Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells, The Supremes, and the list goes on and on. People will buy a ticket just to see one of these artists; and people are buying tickets to see Motown and they are seeing ten artists all in one night. Motown music changed the world. I think both of these shows are great in their own rights but I wouldn’t say Memphis is just like Motown. They are both very different stories. But I get the people wanting to compare the two because if you haven’t seen Motown, you’ve just seen these Motown review shows for years, now you are getting Berry Gordy himself and his own personal story, and how this all came to be? If someone hasn’t experienced this yet, they may think it’s like another Memphis show but it really is its own. I don’t think there’s anything like Motown and that’s just because it spans over so many years. I mean, you are talking about from the 60s all the way up until the 25th anniversary. You are actually going from 60s music and they are even touching on music that came from Motown in the 80s, when they were trying to keep Motown afloat because they were going into bankruptcy.

SDD: In addition to your Broadway career you also have a solo music career and I read that you can speak in 11 languages?

N’KENGE: I sing in eleven languages. I can probably get by in three, unless I’m not practicing it constantly. When I was singing opera I was doing a lot of performing in Germany and Italy. So, Italian, German, and French were the languages I could sort of get by in if I had to. When I would go and audition for opera houses in Germany you had to conduct your audition in German so I could definitely get by although I wouldn’t say I was fluent in those languages. Being well-versed in the language is enough to get around in the country and auditions. And Germans are very particular. They could speak English but over there they only do German operas. If you’re an American singer coming in to audition for them, they do expect you to speak German, even if they speak English. They are not going to make it easy for you. That is sort of a known fact for us, so American singers who go to Germany already know that. So, we are prepared. I sing in eleven languages and that’s just accumulated over the years from doing opera and also doing a lot of classical modern music. The music that I would do if I was going to Juliard, they would do a lot of new music from composers in Argentina, from Africa, wherever. So, if I loved a particular piece, I would learn to sing the language for that particular piece. I would learn to sing in Russian. They have extensive coaching at the Manhattan School of Music and Juliard, when I was going to school, when it came to diction classes and language classes. I love languages and that’s why I sang opera. To go to these countries, singing their native languages; it was believable, and the diction would be so great. They just say thank you so much, and they are so appreciative that you sing in their language, and you’re bringing life to their music. That’s sort of how the languages came because of opera and singing more and more in my repertoire. I would sing more modern music and whenever there was something in a different language, whether it be French, Italian or German, I would learn it. So, I knew the languages, where I knew what I was singing about. If I was doing a Portuguese song, I knew what every word meant and I would interpret it. I would translate and use the country’s phonetic alphabet and I could be able to sing it without an accent. But I wouldn’t say I could speak to someone in Portuguese but I could sing in Portuguese.

SDD: What’s it like to go through the process of working on your own music, while working on a musical? And do you have a preference between the two?

N’KENGE: When some people go into a studio, they learn the music then. I usually like to get my music ahead of time whether it’s a song I’ve written or some other song. That may be the opera side of me because when you show up to a rehearsal for an opera, you are supposed to be off-book and already know your music. In musical theatre, that is not necessarily the case. They have music rehearsals and coaching to help you with that process of learning the score. In opera, you have to have your score already learned, and it’s a matter of running it through with the conductor and staging it. With pop music or jazz that I am solo recording, I will usually rehearse that well in advanced. When I go into the studio I don’t have to do that many takes because it’s already well-rehearsed beforehand. It’s always going to be different because you’re not singing to an audience. When you’re doing a Broadway musical or any kind of musical as soon as you walk out on stage, there is the energy of the audience. So you’re performance changes every night because of the energy you are getting in the audience. That isn’t part of doing solo recording. You are in the studio and you have to bring that adrenaline out yourself because of your love for what you are recording. It is totally different but I love them both. Performing an original song, or even a different arrangement that hasn’t been done before, is creating something new. I don’t think that you can compare that to anything.

N'Kenge as Mary Wells

N’Kenge as Mary Wells

SDD: Do you have any habits or rituals that you do before you go on stage?

N’KENGE: I always make sure I am eating. There is a lot of fear to not eat before a show but I like my food. Give me some fried chicken, some collard greens. I am always thinking about food, food, food. I use so much energy on stage that I can’t go on stage hungry. All I’d be thinking about would be food. I am always eating and I am a size zero to two and 110 pounds but everyone says I have an obese spirit. I am fine with that, that’s great, as long as a lot of it doesn’t go to my hips. I’m always vocalizing, always warming up my voice. I always find time to do some lip trills and vocal exercises.

SDD: Are there any specific foods you try to eat before a performance?

N’KENGE: I always like to drink a hot cup of tea, with a ton of sugar. I know that’s not very healthy. I have a sweet tooth so I love everything that’s sweet. I know it should be lemon and honey but that’s not sweet enough for me. That’s pretty much it for me: just eating, drinking and vocalizing. And I like it to be just a little quiet before I go on. Quiet time is always good.

SDD: What would people be surprised to learn about you?

N’KENGE: Oh goodness. Well, if someone came to see Motown and heard me sing Mary Wells, they would be surprised that I’m an opera singer. That’s probably the biggest stretch, because there’s no opera singing in the show that I do. It’s all just Motown so that is probably the farthest thing that people would think that I do being an opera singer.

SDD:  What’s your favorite Motown song?

N’KENGE: Oh goodness. ‘Love Child’.

SDD: Can you describe yourself in five words or less?

N’KENGE: Firecracker, ambitious, always happy, colorful and fearless.

SDD: What song would you delete from existence, if you had the opportunity?

N’KENGE: There was some song that came out on the Internet that was popular called ‘Chicken Noodle Soup’ or something which was just absolutely ridiculous and that is a song that I could say I would delete. It makes no sense.

SDD: What was the last great show that you saw?

N’KENGE: Well, I guess I would say Wicked since I saw it three weeks ago.

SDD: Who was the last star that made you feel star struck?

N’KENGE: Vanessa Williams. I mean, she was so nice to me, but I was like, ‘a-buh-buh-buh.’

SDD: If you could change places with anyone on Broadway for a day, who would you choose and why?

N’KENGE: Kristin Chenoweth because she has managed to be able to cross over to film and TV in addition to being a Broadway star. She’s funny and she has the classical background and she was scheduled to sing at the Metropolitan Opera House which would be my dream come true. Just to be asked to sing at the Met, and her starting from Broadway, is just remarkable to me. She is such a versatile artist. So if there is anyone that I would like to switch places with for a day, it would probably be Kristin Chenoweth.

SDD: Who is the Broadway star you would most like to spend a day with?

N’KENGE: Audra McDonald. I think she’s brilliant. I think she works really hard, she’s so talented, so nice, so humble. You know, she’s won so many Tonys and she’s a mother. I went to see Porgy and Bess and I know Norm Lewis from Sondheim on Sondheim but Audra McDonald had a family emergency, so she had to leave right after the show. I was so disappointed that I didn’t get to meet her. So I would definitely love to spend a day with her because I really want to follow in her footsteps when it comes to her accomplishments as an artist and especially as an African-American woman.

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About Samantha S.

"I found the theatre and I found my home.” ― Audra McDonald

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