It was a slate-grey day in downtown Chicago, with the kind of wind that comes off the lake blustering an insistent reminder that the rough parts of winter are not too far behind. This didn’t deter early holiday shoppers on north Michigan Avenue, browsing past the gleaming high end stores near the ancient Water Tower. Spirits were high on the streets. They couldn’t be blamed if they picked up a little extra magic in the air, because just around the corner, at the famed Chicago Playhouse, Broadway in Chicago was introducing to an appreciative audience not just a new musical, but a trio of musical legends.

The musical was, of course, First Wives Club, premiering in Chicago next February. A nearly packed house was there to enjoy a light lunch and learn more about the newest pre-Broadway show to start its journey in Chicago. It was an appreciative and eager crowd, ready to cheer- and they had a lot to cheer about. The highly successful composing-lyricist, Hall of Fame trio who wrote, arranged and produced more than 50 top 10 Pop or R&B hits, have reunited to write new music for First Wives Club. The musical will feature more than a dozen new songs by HDH, and include a few of their classic hits like Stop In The Name Of Love, Reach Out I’ll Be There,  Sugar Pie Honey Bunch (I Can’t Help Myself) and more.  

The show was introduced by two of the three producers, Paul Lambert and Elizabeth Williams. Lambert talked about his Chicago past, which included the Moody Bible Institute and a local eating institution, which the crowd greatly appreciated. Williams and he discussed the journey they had been on, the rigors and joys of bringing a musical from creation to the stage, and the excitement they felt watching it come together.

A classic Motown song by legends Holland-Dozier-Holland, ready for First Wives Club: The Musical. Photo by producer Jonas Neilson

The crowd, which had been applauding and laughing, began to get really revved up when the cast was discussed. Tony-winning Broadway legend Faith Prince drew huge applause, as did rising star Carmen Cusak. Showing their local pride, the audience was especially appreciative of Christine Sherrill, a Chicago native making her big-stage debut. The cast was in New York for rehearsals, but their presence was felt throughout. The real stars of the afternoon, though, were about to come on stage.

From Motown to Chi-Town: Holland-Dozier-Holland

One normally wouldn’t think a young theater audience would be so excited by three older men coming on stage, but these are not three ordinary men- these are Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland, the legendary Hall of Fame songwriting team that were responsible for so many hit songs through Motown and beyond. As Holland-Dozier-Holland, the trio wrote timeless classics for the Supremes, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandells, the Four Tops, and Marvin Gaye. These were the men who wrote “Reach Out (I’ll Be There).” They wrote “Heat Wave.” They wrote “Can I Get a Witness?” They wrote “Stop! (In the Name of Love).”  And now they’ve reunited to create original songs for First Wives Club.

The crowd knew it was an honor to see them together, as they very rarely make public appearances as a trio. There was a sense that you were i the presence of legends, and the huge applause showed that everyone felt that way. The men talked about the old days in Motown, and talked about what it was like making a musical. The men all talked about their love and admiration of musicals growing up, and as Lamont Dozier said, this was “the natural progression, the next elevation” of what they had done.

This doesn’t mean it was easy. In their Motown days, as during the creating of First Wives Club, Eddie Holland served as the chief lyricist. He talked about how in the old days you were writing partly for the image of the singer, be it Diana Ross or Levi Stubbs. With a musical though, “it’s a totally different situation. You’re writing for a character, and you have to make it pertinent to the character.”

Even though this was a challenge for Eddie, it was a welcome one, partly because during the Motown days, as he explained, the beautiful melodies and music created by his brother Brian and Lamont were more important than the lyrics. Brian was able to say “Drop that lyric, it’s messing with my beat.” But if you’re telling a story, lyrics predominate.

Eddie Holland, backed with music from Brian and Lamont, sings a new HDH song to the joy of the crowd.
Eddie Holland, backed with music from Brian and Lamont, sings a new HDH song to the joy of the crowd.

After a half-hour of stories, jokes, and the real emotion that comes with people getting together to create something, it was time for the highlight. Eddie Holland got up to sing one the original songs from First Wives Club: The Musical. “My Heart Will Try One More Time”, a song sung by Brenda as her marriage falls apart. It was impossible not to immediately feel the significance of getting to hear a new song by Holland-Dozier-Holland.

There, with the swelling and insistent and beautiful chords of Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier, a new song was brought into the world. An awed audience could harken back to Motown, to those hard streets and late nights of creativity, poetry, empathy, and genius. It sounded fresh and new, and it sounded timeless. And when the music stopped, and hugs were exchanged, the crowd ended a long standing ovation not with the dread of walking back into a December day, but with the warmth that comes from hearing something beautiful, and the excitement that the winter would bring more.

Playing at Chicago’s Oriental Theater
Previews: February 17th – March 10th
Premiere date: March 11, 2015
Chicago run: thru March 29th

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