For the kid known as Little Sammy Davis Jr., the music of Motown has been a part of his life since he could remember — although it was years later when he learned its heyday took place long before he was even born.
That’s why it makes perfect sense for Jarran Muse, who grew up in Sparta, N.J., and got his training at the University of the Arts, to be playing Marvin Gaye in Motown: The Musical. The show runs from May 30 to June 11 at the Academy of Music.
“For my grandmother and everyone who raised me — which was a lot of people — that was all the music they listened to,” said Muse, whose father was Jewish, and black. “My Jewish grandmother had all the R&B music.
“That’s how I got my introduction to it as a kid. I didn’t even know it was old music. To me, it was current. I didn’t realize it was from the ’60s and ’70s until much later. Motown has been a part of my life forever.”
The same holds true for performing, at least once he was able to convince his father, Maitland Muse, he was more cut out to sing and dance than play football.
It seems that a spirit of independence runs in the family, going back to the time his grandmother started dating a black man while in nursing school in the 1950s.
It was not well-received.
“My great-grandparents were so ashamed of my grandmother they disowned her,” said Muse, who was in the original 2013 Broadway cast as an understudy for both Gaye and Smokey Robinson, then joined the touring company in December. “She was training to be a nurse. They kicked her out and wouldn’t let her graduate.
“So to be doing a show like Motown, which is the music that literally brought those cultures together and allowed people to dance together in a time when everything was so segregated, that layer adds such a special flavor from my personal life and experience.”
That same woman basically raised Muse, who was the product of a teenage pregnancy. Besides music, she instilled in him a sense of his Jewish identity, even though it was largely hidden from his peers.
“I didn’t go to Hebrew school, but we did celebrate all the holidays and my uncle had all the seders,” he said. “I wanted so badly to learn.
“Because we all know your mom has to be Jewish to be considered [Jewish], I don’t formally say I was Jewish. But I would absolutely observe the holidays, and my old roommate was Jewish, so he and his family would come over to celebrate.
“Because of obvious reasons, I never got to have my Bar Mitzvah, but being an entertainer I worked a lot them in Jersey, New York and Connecticut and actually when I was down in Philly at college, too. I always wish I was brought up Jewish, but it just didn’t happen.”
That said, there’s a Jewish story behind his name.
“Jarran means, ‘He will sing,’” Muse said. “My mother’s sister came up with the name. I did some research, and it has some Hebrew origin to it. So I feel I was 100 percent destined to do this.”
While he never had the opportunity to shine on the bimah, Muse has made up for it on stage.
“I’m a tap dancer,” he said. “They used to call me Little Sammy Davis Jr. — my fellow entertainment compadres and my mentor, the lady who taught me how to tap.
“She was the one who literally had to convince my father to let me take tap lessons. He wanted me at football practice. Once we convinced him to let me be in the plays and let me tap dance, they called me Little Sammy Davis Jr.”
It wasn’t the first time Muse overcame a roadblock.
“I grew up playing trombone and baritone,” said Muse, who’s used Motown founder Berry Gordy as his inspiration to write a one-man show called One Night in Motown. “I wanted to play saxophone so badly.
“They said ‘no.’ I wanted to play the drums. They said they had too many drummers. That’s why I started tapping.”
Now 33, Muse can’t wait to get back to Philadelphia, where he’s got a whole itinerary planned during the tour’s run.
“I’m going to kick it in old town and see some First Friday festivities,” said Muse, whose younger sister will soon attend Temple University. “I’ll go to South Street and Rittenhouse Square. And I’ll probably do some touristy things because we have two kids playing a young Michael Jackson. So I’ll take them to see the Liberty Bell.”
As for Motown: The Musical, many will be surprised to learn there’s actually a plot, not just a bunch of songs.
“A lot of people think it’s a revue,” Muse said. “Actually, it’s the story of how Berry Gordy not only found the stars, but there’s his love story with Diana Ross.”
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