Interviews – Let’s Get It On: The Life and Music of Marvin Gaye’s Bert LaBonte

This interview was published on the AU review on 5/9/2014 and can be viewed here. My review of one of the first run of shows can be viewed here.

Following a successful run earlier this year, Let’s Get It On: The Life and Music of Marvin Gaye is returning to Melbourne next week for a brief but anticipated encore run. Playing the main man in the production, Lillian Altman caught up with Bert LaBonte to talk about playing the iconic musician.

Marvin Gaye lived a pretty tumultuous and tragic life, how has that been translated onto the stage?

We’ve really tried to make this more about a celebration of his life. Of course we can’t avoid the obvious grim ending, but we feel like we’ve handled it with a nice touch as not to bang on about it but to show the genius in his work.

What sort of preparation did you undergo to prepare for the role in its initial run and what are you doing to prepare for your return?

For the initial run there was a lot of ‘You Tubing” if that’s even a term. Trying to get the quality of his movement and phrasing in songs. And just a bucket load of lyrics to learn. This time …. Well there has been three different shows that I’ve been in since Marvin so it’ll be all about the words. Once that band kicks again we’ll find our groove pretty quickly.

Is there any connection you feel with the artists you are performing? Is that part of what drew you to the project? If not, what drew you to become involved?

The connection is the music. Comparatively I’ve had a fantastic life with nothing but love and support from my parents, unlike Marvin’s father. He was the Prince of Motown, so you take your inspiration from that. A friend of mine who knew the producers suggested my name to them, we met, we all liked each other and the rest is ……well you know the rest! I can’t thank her enough for suggesting me though.

Marvin Gaye had such a respect for Tammi Terrell, the role Jude plays, that when she passed away he refused to perform with anyone else. What steps have you taken to recreate and bring that chemistry between the two of you when rehearsing and when performing on stage?

There are no steps, you just pray and hope that when you meet the fellow artists you are performing with, whether it be a play or a musical or a film that you’ll find the common thread and you’re all on the same page. That’s what the rehearsal process is about. Jude is awesome and we get along like the proverbial house!
But if you try and manufacture the chemistry….it’s pretty clear it’s fake. We got lucky!

Influential and iconic artists Johnny Cash and Etta James also had their ‘narrative stories’ told by the production company, Room 8 Production. Why do you think the company chose Marvin Gaye as their next story to tell?

His music is where Motown was virtually born as a singer and songwriter. He was their first really big star. He paved the way for so many others and his story is rich and wonderful and dark all at the same time.

What’s it been like working with Jude? Are you looking forward to getting to share the stage once again?

She’s horrible… and no! I’m joking of course like I said above she’s extraordinary.

Are any changes or surprises in store for the next run of shows?

Umm….Yes!

When performing the songs through the two-hour show will you guys be keeping sticking close to the originals or putting your own spin into his classic hits and lesser know tracks?

A bit of both really. We stick to the classics pretty closely but we give a spin to a couple of others.

Bert, you’ve been acting in films and performing in theatre and bands for a while, how do you feel this role is contributing to your career?

Oh wow… look every role is a new challenge and adds something to your skill base. There is always something new you can take from every role you do. If you’re not then things are probably a bit stale. This role has opened up brand new opportunities and since then I’ve been lucky to work with some of the finest musos in the country. All because of Marvin.

In the Vox Pop quiz from your opening shows at the Moonee Ponds Clocktower Centre many of the audience members said they got up and danced in the aisles, whereas others felt the want to dance but couldn’t get up from their seats, is the dancing something you would like to encourage the audience to do more of?

Oh hell yeah! Get up for sure. But do it in the aisle so people who are happy to sit can still see the show. But for sure…Get Up!!

What’s up next for you?

Going on holidays with my wife and two boys up north for some sun and theme park action. Then a one off Marvin in Geelong. Then to China for a return season of The Good Person of Schezuan a show from Malthouse earlier this year then to Sydney for a return season of Rupert. So yeah…..the rest of the year I’m just coming back a lot really.

And perhaps it’s a bit of a Sophie’s Choice at this point, but do you have a favourite Marvin Gaye song?

Grapevine or Ain’t that Peculiar. Too many others.

—————

Starring Bert LaBonte, Jude Perl and the Funk City Band and back by popular demand, the show returns to the beautiful Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne for six shows only, Tuesday 9th – Saturday 13th September.

The show will also be travelling to lead star Bert LaBonte’s hometown of Geelong in Victoria for a one-night-only special performance at the Geelong Performing Arts Centre on Thursday 16th October. Both shows will also be featuring Aussie powerhouse vocalist VIKA BULL.

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