The way Clifton Oliver sees it, he finally has what should have been his all along.
Oliver, 38, stars in the national road company of “Motown the Musical,” which depicts the creation of the legendary Motown label and the nurturing of extraordinary musical artists by entrepreneur Berry Gordy.
The show opened in March 2013 on Broadway and is still running. With a roster of actors playing iconic performers — Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye, et al. — the show proved irresistible to a mass audience.
Oliver had been involved in the show, which opens Tuesday at the Music Hall, when it was still in workshops. But he didn’t get the role he wanted until he was tapped to star as Gordy in the national tour.
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“Honestly, man, I have been involved in the project for several years,” Oliver said from a road stop in St. Louis. “I was cast as Marvin Gaye, and I was able to watch the gentleman who played Berry Gordy and I thought, ‘I think I could play this.’”
Oliver said the producers didn’t like him as Gaye and didn’t want him as Gordy. So he was not in the Broadway production. But when producers began putting the tour together, they gave Oliver another shot.
“They made me come back into the rigorous auditions and decided I should be playing the role I should have been playing from the beginning,” he said.
He said the touring company differs from the Broadway production in certain ways.
“There are far less people on the stage,” he said. “They cut about 11 (actors). The set is completely different and the show has a lighter energy. It’s not as heavy and dark as it was on Broadway. The music is the same. The music will never change. Because that’s the key to the musical.”
It’s easy of to think of the show as the Berry Gordy story as told by Berry Gordy. He co-produced it and wrote the book based on his own memoir. The score includes more than 60 Motown hits, often presented as medleys, all of which were produced by Gordy. He also wrote a couple of tunes just for the show.
But Oliver said it was important to get at Gordy the human being and to counter his one-dimensional image as a shrewd dictator who eventually drove his roster of artists away from the label.
“I believe most people think of Mr. Gordy as a tyrant, that he misused his artists and abused young women,” Oliver said. “Of course he did some bad things. But mostly he did justice to the artists he worked with. Without Berry Gordy there would be no Motown, there would be no Michael Jackson, there would be no Diana Ross.… It all comes down to money. But if you look at all his artists, they are all very successful and wealthy. If he let them out of their contracts to do what they needed to do to be successful, that means he was generous.”
Oliver said he has an excellent source of information on the role — Berry Gordy. As he prepared for the show, he and Gordy talked for “hours upon hours.”
“He’s amazing,” Oliver said. “I still speak to him now.… Mr. Gordy is the most hands-on celebrity I have ever met. He’s always around. He calls me on my cellphone once a week. I’m very serious. Anything I need or the show needs, he does his best to be there. And he’s 85 years old.”
Oliver’s lengthy resume includes playing Benny, the taxi dispatcher, in the Broadway company of “In the Heights.” (He stepped into the role created by Chris Jackson.) And for 12 years, on and off, he played Simba in “The Lion King.” At one point he took a job as dancer in a production of “Dreamgirls,” simply because being in that show in any capacity was on his bucket list.
Oliver was born and raised in Jacksonville, Fla., long after the heyday of Motown Records.
“My parents are 70 so I grew up listening to the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Jacksons,” he said. “So I was very familiar with the Motown sound. The only thing I had to learn about was Mr. Gordy.”
Oliver wanted to emphasize another point: The show never gets old for him.
“I enjoy every part of it, even the underscoring,” he said. “I find myself listening and counting. There’s nothing about the show musically that I’m not fascinated by.”
The Broadway Across America presentation of “Motown the Musical” runs Tuesday through Sundayat the Music Hall.. Call 800-745-3000 or go to www.theaterleague.com.