Actor Brandon Victor Dixon is no stranger to the musical spotlight. Raised with an artistic passion in a educational environment filled with music and theater, it was inevitable that Dixon would find success. Success that would eventually lead him to productions of ‘The Lion King,’ ‘The Color Purple,’ ‘Rent’ and most recently, ‘Motown: The Musical’ – where he not only takes on the role of Motown founder Berry Gordy, but also got to chance to collaborate with the legend himself.
After nearly 575 performances as Gordy in Motown, Dixon is moving on. This fall, he’ll be reprising his role as Haywood Patterson in “The Scottsboro Boys” when the musical arrives in the West End at London’s Garrick Theatre.
“The Scottsboro Boys” tells the true story of nine young black men (aged between 12 and 19) traveling on a train in search of a new life when they become falsely accused of rape by two white women. Although their court treatment was a tragic miscarriage of justice, all nine were eventually convicted and their subsequent trials deeply divided the nation.
Dixon’s talents don’t just lie with the acting stage. Last November, Dixon (along with longtime friend Warren Adams) formed Walk Run Fly Productions and quickly found success by co-producing two of the most highly anticipated shows of the theater season: Hedwig & the Angry Inch (Neil Patrick Harris) and Of Mice & Men (James Franco and Chris O’Dowd).
I spoke with Dixon about Motown, Scottsboro Boys and what he loves most about theater!
At what point did you realize that music and the theater were going to be your calling?
I’ve known for as far back as I can remember that entertainment, the arts and acting was what I wanted to do. Growing up, I was fortunate to have attended schools that really understood the importance of arts in education. My school also did three musicals every year as well a Shakespeare play. I was in an educational environment that established a focus in the arts and that really helped develop my love for it as well as my skills.
What attracted you to Motown: The Musical?
I’ve always liked creating original work and taking on real life characters. Whenever I see a meaningful, lasting story that gives me the opportunity to create something that will last, then it’s something that I want to be a part of. Just the history and legacy of the artists and music of Motown – it was an extraordinary opportunity. Then to be able to work with Berry Gordy? It’s something that you just don’t turn down.
What was it like not only getting to portray Berry Gordy, but also getting the chance to work with him on this project?
It’s been a very singular experience. We became friends very quickly. Berry loves the creative process and was so welcoming. He was always open to ideas and the collaborative experience.
What did you enjoy the most about the production of Motown?
I loved the entire process – building it, rehearsing and experimenting with different scenes and songs. I also enjoyed learning from my fellow performers. It really is all about the performance and we have the most talented and extraordinary cast on Broadway. Our show is such an interactive one. We also know that everyone in the audience comes in with a knowledge of the music. Music that has changed their lives and directly ties to different portions of their own personal history. They bring that into the show and it really heightens the whole experience.
What do you do to prepare for a role in a project?
One of my favorite parts about building a role is doing the research. I’ll read books, and not just ones about my character but also ones about the characters around me. I do everything I can to gather that information. I really enjoy the immersion and personal education I can get about the character I’m playing.
What made you decide to branch out and start your own company – Walk Run Fly Productions?
I think that as you develop your skills in one area, it becomes a natural progression. As an actor, I started thinking about how things like music, sound and the sets all affected my performance. For me and my partner Warren, we wanted to start developing projects that we really want to do. We want to build something that will grow and move on long after we leave. It’s not only about being able to manifest your own projects, but also about maintaining ownership of the things that you create. I’ve worked on projects about James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Berry Gordy and ownership was one of the main tenets that each of them preached. It would be really foolish of me to miss that big lesson.
How would you describe the story of The Scottsboro Boys?
It’s based on the Scottsboro Boys Trials of the 1930′s. Nine black boys who were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in Scottsboro, Alabama. It’s really about their trials and experience and how the world forgot them. I really love that the project highlights this unique story and really put names to these individuals who were a part of our historical evolution.
Overall, what do you enjoy most about the theater and being part of an ensemble?
I like that every project creates a family. I have my “Motown” family, my “Rent” family, my “Color Purple” family and my “Lion King” family. Theater is such a community, in the moment experience where you get to share real emotions. Not just with your cast members but also with audiences. I love how that moment in time is there for all of us. The relationships that you build throughout the process get to last and continue to enrich your life.