Known for their many R&B love songs and pop crossover hits, like “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” and “My Girl,” it’s easy to forget that The Temptations are more than just crooners. That’s why Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of the Temptations has struck a chord with audiences and critics alike. It demonstrates just how much impact the group had on America’s history and how they evolved alongside the country’s ongoing social changes. No wonder the award-winning Broadway musical currently playing at the Imperial Theatre is an undeniable hit and a 12-time nominee at the 2019 Tony Awards less than a year into its run on the Great White Way.
Based on surviving member and founder Otis Williams’ 1988 memoir, The Temptations, the musical — written by Dominique Morisseau and directed by Des McAnuff — tells of the rise, fall, and redemption of the quintet who quickly became famous in the Sixties and Seventies for their distinct harmonies, show-stopping choreography, and hit songs that provided a soundtrack for one of the most tumultuous times in America. They were one of the singing sensations that helped define Motown Records’ unique sound and long-lasting, broad appeal — but that’s not the whole story.
Considered a biopic musical, Ain’t Too Proud does more than just run through a string of hits, which separates itfrom a glut of jukebox musicals currently on Broadway. “It brings truth to the music,” as Derrick Baskin, who portrays Williams onstage, tells Rolling Stone. It shows the inner workings of the group’s members and how their ups and downs informed the music as well as reflected the times they were living in. The show links “The Temptations to social and political events circling around them, from civil rights struggles and bigotry to a music business not always keen on allowing the group to write its ownmaterial or express anti-war sentiments,” David Browne writes for the magazine.
“No one talked about them in a political way, or how their politics tied in with the politics of the nation,” Morisseau says. “Once the white audience thinks they know you, you can’t go switching on them,” Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse) says in the show of the group’s struggle to breakthrough in a politically charged way. “‘TV’ black. ‘Radio’ black. Not the same as ‘political’ black. You have to serve them music in a way that’s digestible. Otherwise they jump ship, and we lose all we worked for.” As Sara Holdren writes for New Yorkmagazine, “The Temptations wanted to be a more political band, to respond with more explicit activism to the world in which they were living.”
For instance, “War,” written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, is often thought of as Edwin Star’s hit protest song, reaching Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1970. But as the musical reveals, The Temptations originally recorded a vocal demo of the record and were later upset when they could not release the final song as their own. The group gets to reclaim the record and finally have their anthem moment as the song is performed onstage in front of a captivated and responsive audience. It should be noted that The Temptations did, however, convince Motown Records founder Berry Gordy to let them get more political at the time with the record “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today),” which is also reprised in the show.
Then there’s “Don’t Look Back,” a tentative love song written by Smokey Robinson and Ronald White that is given new life in the musical when it’s performed while the group recounts the racism they endured touring through the South. “When racists shoot up the tour bus somewhere near Alabama, [it] offers a rare moment of candid conviction about what achieving fame with white audiences means to them,” Naveen Kumar writes for Towleroad. It’s followed by “I Wish It Would Rain,” a melancholy tune infused with deep sorrow as images of Martin Luther King Jr. and headlines about his assassination are displayed on screens behind the actors.
By the end of the show, there’s no more separating the group from the social messages of the time, even though not every song was originally written for that purpose. Their music is partly a time capsule, and that’s why it’s those political moments — from Dr. King to the onset of the Vietnam War — that resonate the most with audiences, both familiar and new to the group.
Another reason audiences are finding such deep meaning in these songs— and the musical as a whole — is because the themes of social change, political divide, and economic disparity feel as applicable to the current sociopolitical landscape as when they were first written and recorded. Ain’t Too Proud provides “a lens for us to look at our time and see how much things have and haven’t changed,” McAnuff tells Rolling Stone.
In the nearly six decades The Temptations have been active, their unwillingness to fit into one type of mold has led to a near-peerless level of enduring relevance. They can sing, they can dance, they most certainly can woo — but they can also inspire, and lead, and be a voice of change as demonstrated in Ain’t Too Proud.