Discussion of Motown history planned before ‘Dreamgirls’ takes stage at IU

Charles Sykes didn’t view the 2006 film version of “Dreamgirls” as a regular popcorn-and-soda filmgoer, interested solely in seeing Beyonce and Jennifer Hudson on the big screen. Rather, he watched it through a lens that includes nearly two decades of research into Motown and the distinctive musical genre’s crossover appeal.

An adjunct professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology and Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies, Sykes is director of the African American Arts Institute. Since 1995, he’s taught what’s believed to be the first for-credit college course on Berry Gordy’s iconic Motown Record Corp.


The storyline for the ‘Dreamgirls’ musical borrows heavily from Motown history.

Naturally, the folks over at IU Auditorium turned to him to speak before welcoming the Broadway production of “Dreamgirls” to their stage this month. He’ll discuss the history of Motown and its social implications, as well as highlight differences between real life, the film and the play that debuted on Broadway in 1981.

“In general, the Broadway production is less of a Motown replica than the film,” Sykes said. “For instance, in the musical, ‘The Dreams’ — as the singing trio is known — are from Chicago. In the film, they’re from Detroit. Motown comes from Detroit, so that’s a big shift. Detroit is the Motor City, which is where the name Motown comes from.”

He’ll also discuss other departures in the film and musical from Motown’s actual history. Both are often considered parallels to the rise of the “Supremes,” the Motown girl group that grabbed 10 No. 1 hits on the pop charts from 1964 to 1967 — a huge statement for an African American musical group in a segregated America.

“Remember, those hits were on the pop charts,” Sykes said. “The record charts were segregated into pop and R&B, so to have success on the pop charts meant that a group had crossed over and really had success with a broader audience.”

Sykes will also talk about Motown’s unique sound.

“It can be thought of as a combination of Holland-Dozier-Holland, Motown’s main songwriting and production team, fitting their style to the ‘Supremes’ with Diana Ross as their lead and developing a style that was appropriate for them. There’s a connection between sound and image that is so important,” he said. “But the sound is also very eclectic, so there’s really no one representative sound. However, the ‘Supremes’ are what has been etched into the American imagination. And they were the core of Motown; the first group to appear on television, to perform at mainstream venues, with others following them.”

Sykes’ lectures promise to be a fascinating peek into the history of Motown, and its place in our national history and popular culture.

“What I’d like for people to take away is a better sense as to what Motown is about, what is representative of Motown and what the ‘Supremes’ were all about,” Sykes said, grinning before admonishing a visitor, “You really should take my class.”

Tickets are still available for the Broadway musical “Dreamgirls,” set to begin at 8 p.m. April 23 and 24 at IU Auditorium. Sykes will speak before each performance at 6:30 p.m. in Woodburn 100. His lectures are free and open to the public.

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