Actor Cedric Neal tells Sue Parslow that landing the role of Berry Gordy in the hit musical Motown has been a dream come true.
Motown the Musical opened to rave reviews on London’s West End this spring. When Cedric Neal acted on stage the man he was portraying was watching closely. As he stepped off stage and the audience applause had faded from the auditorium, Berry Gordy held Cedric’s face in his hands and said: “Cedric you are the best me ever!” Dallas born Cedric had set his heart on being in the Motown Musical. He was invited for auditions twice when it was in New York, in 2013, but had to turn them down due to other commitments, including making his debut on Broadway in a production of Porgy and Bess. Sadly, he gave up on the idea of being in the show when it closed on Broadway in 2014. He moved to London to pursue a stage career in the UK and last summer when he heard that the show was moving to the West End, hoped to audition for a part either as Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye. Cedric takes up the story: “My agent called me and said they wanted to interview me for the role of Berry Gordy. The magnitude of that was absolutely overwhelming initially. I said that this is an opportunity that actors prepare for their whole life. The way it happened was magical and a once in a lifetime opportunity for which I will always be grateful. “It has lived up to expectations and exceeded it. It has brought new things into my life that I didn’t know were possible, new stresses and joys and tears, laughter and new experiences.” Berry was of course, the perfect mentor to Cedric, and they became so close during the rehearsal that Cedric now calls him ‘Pops’. The moment Berry told him that he was ‘the best me ever!’ was a particularly emotional moment. Cedric recalls: “Of course I started crying because this was the Berry Gordy – without this man we wouldn’t have Michael Jackson and Diana Ross, and Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.” Cedric and Lucy St Louis, who plays Diana Ross, were privileged to spend a lot of time with Berry. He gave them detailed information on what was going on at the time of key events portrayed in the show and how he felt at the time. Cedric remembers working in a particular scene, focussing on the detail of his character’s actions and Berry Gordy turned to him and said: “Cedric, you are a lot more suave than I ever was… but keep it in!’”
What had helped to prepare him for the role, I wondered. “Life!,” he said simply, before telling me, with obvious pride, about a musical family upbringing. “I’m originally from Dallas Texas, raised in musical family. My parents had four children, all four of us sang; three boys and one girl. “My Dad was Sam Cook’s first cousin and sang just like him, and my mum sounded like a mixture of Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight. “The Motown sound has been a part of me FOREVER,” he says. “I grew up on Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and the Jacksons and the Four Tops. I grew up emulating David Ruffin of the Temptations. Stevie Wonder is still one of my biggest influences. “Motown has shaped my life and affected my career. I wouldn’t be in this show if it were not for Motown. Cedric has a performing arts background. While at the Dallas Theater Center his roles included Tommy in the Who musical Tommy and Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream. Moving to New York in 2011 he appeared in Porgy and Bess on Broadway and quickly became known as ‘The Soul Man from Texas’. He went on to star in the jazz musical After Midnight and then played JJames Thunder in the controversial Dreamgirls, for which he won an award for Best Supporting Actor. (Some say it’s the story of Motown without Berry Gordy.) Moving to London, Cedric was keen to get a part in Kinky Boots and was devastated when he didn’t win the audition. “Little did I know that had I booked that then I would not have been
able to take my dream role,” he says.
LOOK ALIKE It turns out that he has been perfect for the Berry Gordy role in more ways than one, not least because he looks so much like the man he is playing, a resemblance which has been noted even by Berry’s family. After seeing a photo of them together, Berry Gordy’s brother’s wife told him: “Cedric, you know what, you look like one of us!” Cedric, like the man he portrays, is appropriately the star of the show. He says: “It’s a two hour 48 minute musical and I am on stage for two hours
and 30 minutes! If I am not on stage I’m making a quick costume change . In my first scene I play a 55-year-old Gordy at the Motown 25th anniversary celebrations which happened in 1983. After that I have precisely 17 seconds to be transformed into a 29-year-old Berry Gordy with a suit and a curly perm. The wardrobe department is working hard to get me into a moustache, wig and suit.”
TIME OUT Cedric himself certainly works hard. He performs in eight shows in a six-day week. “It’s exhausting, but it’s what we do. We are like athletes – we train for it,” he explains. “When we take time off I definitely take advantage of it. I am a sleeper; I’m a Netflix watcher and I enjoy a nice glass of wine while I catch up with my favourite series.” Cedric and his husband have lived in London for two years. I ask him if he prefers London to New York. He says: “I feel as though I’m living in a history book! Right now I prefer London because London has taken really good care of me. “My favourite place is probably the rose garden at Regent’s Park. I love it. It’s tranquil and pretty, and my second place to visit is probably Clapham Common near my home – we take my dog for a walk there. Oh, and Sloane Square because they have such very nice shops!” n