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The Motown Era

The Motown Era

 Musicals in the Motown genre include:

Grease   Catch Me If You Can    Forever Plaid   Million Dollar Quartet

Hairspray     Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story     Jersey Boys      

The Marvelous Wonderettes     Little Shop of Horrors     Bye Bye Birdie     

Ain't Too Proud     All Shook Up      Memphis      Beehive: The 60's Musical     

Beautiful     Motown     Cry-Baby     Shout! The Mod Musical    

Dreamgirls     Smokey Joe’s Cafe    Caroline, or Change

Promises, Promises     Leader of the Pack     Zombie Prom     A Bronx Tale

Baby It's You!     The Flamingo Kid     Diner      Love In Hate Nation

My Very Own British Invasion  These Paper Bullets!     Dirty Dancing  

 The Wanderer: Based on the Life and Music of Dion     

Return to the Forbidden Planet 


 The Music

Let's say when you are auditioning for a Motown Era musical, the creative team asks for you to "Bring in a '50s or '60s pop or rock song." That means that you should find a song to sing in one of the following styles, OR even better, a song that could cover most, if not, all of these styles:

Rat Pack - Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin

'50s Rock & Roll - Chubby Checker,  Jerry Lee Lewis, Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Rock-a-Billy - Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis

Doo-Wop - Johnny Otis, The Ad Libs, Frankie Lymon

Motown - Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, and The Supremes

'60s Pop - Neil Sedaka, Martha and The Vandellas, Connie Francis

British Invasion - The Beatles, The Animals, Lulu, Petula Clark

Northern Soul - Frankie Beverly, Rose Batiste

Want to hear how all these sounds make up an era together? See these Spotify playlists of the Motown Era and a “Throwback” playlist consisting of artists who are contemporary but pay homage to the Motown Era.  Personify a throwback! 


Picking a Song

Your main goal is to capture the essence of the show. For example, Bruno Mars' "Runaway Baby" fits into the world of Motown styles but it was released in 2014. Get Creative!

Listen to all of my Motown cuts on Spotify in this Specialty Playlist.  Once you find one you love, get it here on Musicnotes!

First, ask yourself which musicals  would my Motown song be great to use in an audition for? Don’t think about roles, just shows.

While People of this era danced and jived to the more upbeat songs, they slow danced at "make-out parties" to the ballads. But whether songs were fast or slow, they were all clean-cut and appropriate.


Historical Context

In politics, this was considered the McCarthy Era, a time when the concept of  'patriotism' was weaponized in pursuit of any individuals who threatened the expansion of Capitalism whether the “threats” were real or not.  McCarthyism also encompassed weaponizing homophobia to manipulate members of Congress, otherwise known as the ‘Lavender Scare’, precursor to the ‘Red Scare’. At this point in time, Gender roles were clear-cut in mainstream society; Intimate matters and feelings were not discussed. The music needed to fit within the forcibly controlled ‘polite’ and ‘wholesome’ nature of the time (which are archetypes and expectations born out of White Supremacy).

It should be noted that when we think about this era, our perception has been largely (and purposely) edited to focus solely on White American Society. When people make general statements about this time period, they often reference Society at large when they really specifically mean White People. While White America had its ‘heyday’, a wide array of marginalized communities were advocating for various civil rights, housing, and overall autonomy and dying in the process. Those who exist outside of Whiteness have had their existences intentionally and continuously erased from our understanding of American History, especially in the 50s and 60s.

Post-Second World War, the country experienced a massive economic boom; The music industry capitalized on this by creating "Hit-Making Factories" that churned out pop hits!

In 1958 in Detroit, Berry Gordy assisted the motion of the Civil Rights Era by creating the "Motown Movement" so that Black people could create, sing, and produce their own music, take credit for their own songs, and make money from them. Here is a very short, compelling Documentary on the "Motown Effect" and the Civil Rights Movement.


Move Your Body!

These videos are a great resource to see dance moves that were popular during this time. If you can imagine how popular TikTok Dance trends are today, these moves were even more popular! Letting the dance moves of the time influence your movement in the audition room will show that you’re educated on the time period. Watch these background dancers for their crisp, clean moves! 

When preparing for your audition, DO NOT CHOREOGRAPH your moves! Simply allow the music to move you in the moment!


Appropriation vs. Appreciation

Keep in mind when you're singing that your vocals need to be crisp, clean, precise, and percussive. This is not the era for contemporary riffing!

We have to ask ourselves: ‘Am I appreciating or appropriating?’

Appreciation deals with holding respect for a culture outside your own and approaching the subject with an open mind, heart, and a goal of learning genuine information about said culture and the origin/significance of what you’re focusing on. Appropriation deals with feeling entitled to repurpose an aspect of a culture outside your own with no regard, respect, or acknowledgment of said culture to serve yourself.

If we listen to Adele and Sara Bareilles (who are remarkable) and we can riff because we copy them, that is not acknowledging or appreciating the source of that style. Who did THEY grow up listening to? Sam Cooke, Roberta Flack, and Etta James. Not listening to influential musicians of color and their influence on today’s artists perpetuates the cycle of stealing Black music and culture which was abundantly present during the Motown Era. White People took a song, said it was theirs, didn’t acknowledge the source of the song, and because of their privilege and access to ‘Whites Only’ spaces, were able to make profits, knowing they would never be held accountable.Think "Cadillac Car" in Dreamgirls! And trust me, an awareness of race and privilege shows in the audition room and more importantly, beyond. Trying to appear “woke” for social acceptance is performative and helps no one but yourself; grounding yourself in the reality of marginalized peoples’ history and present experience is very different from assuming or acting like you understand. We can see what’s important to you in your work! 

Conversations surrounding ‘Appropriation vs. Appreciation’ are relevant in every style, audition, and many more contexts throughout life. 


Audition Recap

Vocals: Clean, Crisp, Controlled, Sweet, Crooning,  

Movement: Clean, Controlled, Camera-sized movement, 

Pick a song that showcases YOU, your connection to the music, and emulates the Motown Era through style and the way it makes you move.

Do your homework so you come from a place of appreciation without appropriation!

Remember to let the music move you to dance and sing organically. It's that innocent! 

Lastly, Wear clothes from your closet that will tip your hat to the style or trick our eye into thinking you have traveled back in time. For some inspiration, take a look at these links.

What Female-Presenting Folks Wore!

What Male-Presenting Folks Wore!


Examples / References

Jackie Wilson singing and dancing in "That's Why (I Love You So)" is an incredible example of living this music!

Look again at Connie Francis and the excellent, very clean groove she keeps in her body and how she uses the space. She is not standing on an X auditioning, but her moves had to be camera-sized: simple and small!

Please get a load of the dancing in this fantastic video of Ronnie Spector and her backups and dancers in "Be My Baby"! See The Temptations in action. It's incredible! You want to emulate this when you sing, folks!

Now, as the music got more “'60s Mod” in style, we can also see how these moves found their way into Musical Theatre choreography as well. Watch the girls in the 1960s get funkier in Shirley Ellis’ "The Nitty Gritty" and how these moves found their way into Fosse’s incredible dance style in "The Rich Man’s Frug"!

Watch Motown Classes Below


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