An opera-trained pop singer whose musical repertoire covers 11 languages, Bronx-native N'Kenge is a force to be reckoned with. She performed, solo, at the Commander-in-Chief's Inaugural Ball hosted by President Obama. She sung "God Bless America" for an L.A. Dodgers opening game, and for her hometown Mets. As a teenager, she was crowned "Miss Manhattan" in the Miss America Pageant. Now, her career is managed by iconic Motown founder Berry Gordy, and managed day-to-day by Shelly Berger. Clearly, she has pipes:
N'Kenge is in the home stretch of rehearsals for Motown: The Musical, which opens on March 11. The show tells the story of her own manager and mentor's life.
We spoke with the crossover artist while she was perched in the last row of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, taking a break from her role as early Motown star Mary Wells. She said the view was great from back there.
So, if I have this straight, you are rehearsing for Motown, which tells the life story of Berry Gordy, who is also your manager – and very present on set? That sounds a little bit intimidating…
He's my mentor, so trying to relive his life for him on stage is pretty remarkable.
It's funny because there is a scene in the show where [Berry] is recording the Jackson 5 and he goes, ‘Take ninety-five!' When I was recording with him…we got to take one hundred and fifty-eight. [Laughs] So, he really is a perfectionist, which is great. I'm just trying to be a sponge and take in everything. He's a wealth of information, and his work ethic -- he's always on top of it -- which is why I am not surprised he is very hands-on with this musical. Because I've known him for several years now, he can't get away from me. I've already told him that I've adopted him. He's my adopted uncle, or something. Being in the show, I get to have even more access to those amazing men [Gordy and Berger]. It's priceless.
Can you tell me a little bit about your roles in the show?
I am doing the role of Mary Wells, the first female superstar of Motown. She was obsessed with Jackie Wilson…so she ran after him. She was very pushy to get the song she had written to Jackie. They were literally in the middle of a club and she sang it…and he decided that she should be the one, the only one, to sing it...She became one of The Beatles favorite singers. She was one of the first to cross over from Motown to pop music. At the height of her career, she left Motown to plan something else but, unfortunately, the other companies didn't have the writers and development program Motown had, so she never really got past the "My Guys" song, which was the last she recorded with Motown. She died of lung cancer, so I feel the weight of playing this role in front of her family, who might attend the show.
I also play Mother Gordy when Berry Gordy is little, and I'm one of The Vandellas in the "Dancing in the Street" number. My age range in this play is twenty-one to thirty-three.
You have a few things in common with Mary Wells. I mean, opera to Motown…that's a crossover.
I was completely focused on opera -- I trained as an opera singer, at Manhattan School of Music, and Julliard for my Masters – until I got this amazing opportunity and was cast in a show called 3 Mo' Divas, which was about opera singers crossing over. That is how I crossed over to musical theater.
After that, I did a Michael Jackson tribute tour and then a Motown tour, which is how I met Berry Gordy. I was playing Diana Ross in Monte Carlo and, after the show, a man gave me his card. He said he knew Berry Gordy and to call when I was in L.A. My friends thought he was a fraud. But I showed up in L.A. and called the man. I met him a restaurant and he put me on the phone with Berry Gordy. He had never heard an opera singer sing pop. He took me over to his house and he said, ‘I only have thirty minutes.' Thirty minutes ended up being five hours. I was singing gospel, singing in different languages. He had a hoot. He was like, "Sing in German! Sing in Italian!" Because of that meeting, I got to sing for Obama when he got inaugurated. Berry Gordy made that happen for me. I've learned so much from him.
Motown is an amazing project and I consider this my real Broadway debut. I was in Sondheim on Sondheim, but I was a standby. I'm just so grateful to be part of this amazing project.
What have been the biggest challenges so far?
In this show, the challenge is really bringing the truth of each character to the stage. These are not made up characters. They are beautiful, honest, individuals. They have friends…cousins that are coming [to the show]. Mr. Gordy said he is not looking for impersonators. He wants to be able to capture the spirit of these artists. So I am trying to find the honesty in why Mary Wells left Motown. I am trying to see it from her side. You have to think of what was going on in her head, not what other people thought she should be doing.
Were you familiar with Motown before you got involved with the musical?
My mom used to tell me this story about when she was pregnant with me. I would move around a lot, and the only way she could keep me quiet was to play music. My mom used to play Ashford & Simpson and Diana Ross, so I was exposed to Motown from the very beginning. I grew up listening to "My Guy."
I don't think my story is much different [than] other people's stories about Motown always being around. During a segregated time, Motown was able to change…how people looked at each other. It didn't have a nationality. People of all colors loved Motown music. People had children to Motown music.
What about Berry Gordy's story? What about it will get to people?
[T]his little boy changed the world with a simple dream of wanting to make music and wanting to make people happy. And that became a movement and changed people's lives. It shows you that anything is possible. I get teary eyed in some parts of the show… watching this man write his entire life on paper, exposing himself to the world. He was always behind the scenes. He loved to make stars. He loved seeing his artists in the spotlight, not himself. Even to this day. He went to a rehearsal The Temptations did a few years ago and he was still giving them notes. He will always be that manager; his mind is always a mile a minute. People will be able to see this man as a person, beyond the mogul. It's his chance to tell his story. People will be drawn to him as a person instead of the man behind the music. We're reliving his life now. I love it.