The incoming Broadway musical about the enduring music and volatile career of the Temptations features many elements associated with a prestige show. There’s a name director, an award-winning book writer, a cast whose collective resume includes stints in shows like Hamilton and Chicago, and a score overflowing with pop songs that are engrained in the culture.
Then there’s the bong.
The prop, complete with whiffs of artificial smoke, appears during a scene in which the Motown group parties together on the road later in their career. “That’s funny — that’s rock & roll!” says Jeremy Pope, cracking up at the mention of the paraphernalia during a pre-rehearsal meal near the Imperial Theatre, where Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of the Temptations opens Friday night. Pope plays falsetto-gifted Eddie Kendricks, while Ephraim Sykes, his dining buddy, portrays rough-voiced but troubled David Ruffin (he even wears glasses, as Ruffin did). Sykes laughs too before getting serious. “Drinking and drugs were part of their sound,” Sykes, the son of a preacher, says. “But then it becomes a crutch. There are a lot of things you have to look out for.”
Since it opened in California nearly two years ago, Ain’t Too Proud has been accumulating word of mouth far more positive than that of your average jukebox musical. Based on The Temptations, the 1988 memoir by surviving Temp Otis Williams (co-written with Patricia Romanowski), it packs in everything one would expect in the genre: the story of the rise, fall and redemption of a classic pop act, recreations of famous choreography, and a playlist that, in this case, encompasses the many gems and stylistic twists of the Temptations’ music. From their first hit, “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” to one of their last, “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” Ain’t Too Proud jams in “My Girl,” “Don’t Look Back,” “Get Ready,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “(I Know) I’m Losing You” and “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me),” among many others. Audiences who walk in humming the names of those songs will probably walk out humming even them more.
But explaining some of the buzz around the show, Ain’t Too Proud doesn’t shy away from drama — the internal dissent, drug and alcohol abuse and personal sacrifices (including on-the-road affairs, marital collapses, and the death of a child) that bedeviled and tore apart the group. “People have said, ‘That’s the best play I’ve ever seen,’” says James Harkness, who plays the late Paul Williams.
When the “jukebox musical” phrase is brought up, Derrick Baskin, who plays Otis Williams (no relation to Paul), stiffens every so slightly. “We refer to our show more as a ‘biography musical,’” he says. “With jukebox musicals, you have the catalog of an artist and a fictitious story. But our story is true. What we’re bringing is truth.” For an audience accustomed to much fluffier or more escapist pop musicals — think Mamma Mia! or Jimmy Buffett’s Escape to Margaritaville — the question then becomes: Can they handle the truth?
Ain’t Too Proud was first presented in the summer of 2017 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley, California, before it settled into residences in three other cities on its way to New York. But all that prep doesn’t mean the work is done. On a late February morning, the cast, creative team and R&B-trained band have assembled in a rehearsal space near Times Square for a run-through. No sets, few props — just a dressed-down cast (wool hats and a Run-DMC T-shirt), their knapsacks and work boots tossed on a window sill. Using a three-ring binder, the assistant director follows along word for word to ensure everyone remembers his or her lines — which they largely do, aside from a slip-up or two.
Even in such a rec-room setting, the show’s ambitions come into view. With the Otis Williams character as its leading man and narrator, Ain’t Too Proud rolls out the story of how the “classic five” lineup of the group (Otis Williams, Paul Williams, Kendricks, Ruffin and Melvin Franklin) came together in Detroit, clicked with the help of Motown’s Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson, and had a phenomenal wave of hits before drugs, alcohol, temperaments and creative-direction struggles spelled the end of the Temptations’ most iconic lineup. (A latter-day version of the group still performs today, with Otis Williams its only surviving original member.)
The show also 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 own material or express anti-war sentiments. During this winter run-through, Martin Luther King’s image isn’t seen on the screen behind them, as it does in the full production, but “I Wish It Would Rain,” one of Ruffin’s showcases, follows news of King’s assassination. “No one talked about them in a political way, or how their politics tied in with the politics of the nation,” says playwright Dominique Morisseau, observing on the sidelines, script in hand.
Four years ago, Morisseau was pitched on the idea of writing a Temptations musical by producers Tom Hulce (the former Animal House and Amadeus actor, now a successful Broadway producer) and his partner Ira Pittelman, who had previously teamed to produce the Green Day-inspired American Idiot musical. Morisseau felt an immediate connection to the idea. She’d grown up in Detroit, with parents who played Motown records around the house, and she went on to write a trilogy of plays, The Detroit Project, one of which was set in that city in 1967. “When I was reading Otis’ book, I said, ‘This is every artist I know right now,’” she says during a break. “We’re all trying to figure out where do we stand with our art and our identity in this nation? Do we use our art to address these things or will it harm us?”
Standing beside her, Des McAnuff, the award-winning director of shows like Jersey Boys, The Who’s Tommy and the recent, closed Donna Summer musical, nods along. “It’s a lens for us to look at our time and see how much things have and haven’t changed,” he says. “We weren’t thinking that way four years ago.”
“There’s something aggressively current about this story now,” Morisseau nods. “It’s actually scary.”
That timing was not accidental. In 2013, Motown the Musical opened on Broadway, quickly becoming a must-see (especially for the tourists who constitute the majority of the Great White Way’s ticket buyers) and recouping its $18 million investment. A spin-off about the Temptations and their turbulent saga was a natural. “I see the shows as parallel but different,” says Universal Music Enterprises president/CEO Bruce Resnikoff, who oversees the label’s extensive back catalog, including Motown. “This is very much the story of one group that played a big part in the Motown story and had an incredible story of their own. It’s the biggest opportunity we’ve had to take that brand and make it vibrant and available again to young and older people.” But on the orders of Gordy, a Temptations show had to wait until the Motown show closed on Broadway, which finally happened in 2015 (followed by a brief revival the following year).
Morisseau and McAnuff got to work, shaping the tales of hits and debauchery into a story and organizing songs not only chronologically but also to reflect the changes and struggles the characters endured. In casting the show, they and the producers avoided marquee names in favor of rising theatrical talents, which presented its own challenges. Given their ages, some in their twenties and thirties, the cast knew the songs but had to bone up on the back story of the people they were portraying. Jawan M. Jackson — who plays Franklin, the deep-voiced Temptation who died in 1995 after a series of health issues — met with Jackson’s widow. Pulling out his wallet, Jackson extracts a laminated copy of Franklin’s official Motown ID card. “I carry this around with me so I have a piece of him with me, so he can feel close to me,” Jackson says. “These are the nuggets I use to help transform.” Jackson also met with Dennis Edwards, who took Ruffin’s place after Ruffin was fired from the group; Edwards, who died just last year, regaled Jackson with stories, like the time Gordy “locked him in the studio all night” until he finished a track.
Visiting the production in Berkeley, Williams, now 77, shared his own Temptations war stories, not sparing them the ugly truths. “He was there to tell us what really went down,” says Baskin. “He did not mince his words. He said, ‘This is what we did.’ He was very honest about some of the things they’d gone through, and that they had issues with each other. He was very candid about it.”
During one rehearsal, Williams approached Sykes and filled him in on one of Ruffin’s signature moves — throwing his mic in the air, spinning around, dropping to his knees for a split, and grabbing the mic as it came back down. “He said, ‘If you can do that, I can give you the official blessing of being David,’” Sykes says.
“And I’ll be damned,” Williams says of that moment with Sykes. “He did it.”
Williams had another surprise when he was told the show would include “If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” the 1972 R&B ballad that was a massive hit for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. As it turned out, the Temptations sang backup on a later version by Jean Carn. “I’m sitting there going, ‘We never recorded that song!’” Williams says. “But it shows you how authentic this show is. Des found the record we did of it. I’d forgotten all about it.”
Another hurdle was finding a theater. After raising $12 million for the show from investors, producers were hoping to open Ain’t Too Proud on Broadway in the spring of last year. But a dearth of available theaters led them to follow up the show’s acclaimed Berkeley run with stints in Los Angeles, Toronto and Washington, D.C. Those out-of-town runs ended up working to their advantage, adding to the show’s positive word of mouth before it even arrived on Broadway. “A lady came up to me during intermission at one of our try-outs and said, ‘It’s going to be just as successful as Hamilton,’” says Williams. “I said, ‘If we do near what Hamilton does, I’ll be happier than a cat spitting up ca-ca.’”
Whatever its fate, Ain’t Too Proud is a reminder that like each Beatle, each Temptation had a distinct look, personality and voice. “The audiences come with their favorite Temps,” says Baskin. Jackson says Melvin Franklin fans will approach him to correct him on trivia: “They’ll say, ‘You know, Melvin’s nickname is ‘blue’ not because that was his favorite color, but his favorite song.” As Paul Williams, the group’s suave member and master of its choreography, James Harkness is aware of the applause that greets his rendition of “For Once in My Life,” Williams’ regular solo spot in Temps shows. At one recent New York preview, the audience collectively sighed and gasped when the actors playing each of the now-deceased Temptations left the stage when their characters died.
Although the circumstances of their demises aren’t dramatized, Paul Williams, prevented from performing with the band due to his drinking and health issues, shot himself in the head in 1973, and Ruffin died of a drug overdose in 1991 after he’d supposedly collapsed in a crack house. With Otis Williams’ blessing, those addictions, internal fights and tragic endings are all woven into Ain’t Too Proud. “You will see those sides of the group,” he says. “There were times when it was kind of spooky and hairy.” Adds Morisseau, “Otis can see things in hindsight. He can be a little more honest about things that were happening in the group. There’s nothing that’s going to harm them. They’re in their graves. So he could be truthful about how it felt.”
The most complex character in Ain’t Too Proud is Ruffin, who had a volcanic voice and stage presence but spun out of control thanks to ego and drugs. “This is my opinion,” says Sykes, “but when he was a child, his father beating on him and his mom and brothers was the biggest crack in his spirit. He grew up with a screwed-up vision of what love is and wasn’t able to separate love and pain and had issues of trust. There was a lot of pain, and I don’t think he even knew it. He was, ‘Don’t cry, be cool and hide your pain.’”
For Morisseau, writing the Ruffin character, who remains beloved by Temptations fans, was particularly challenging. In one scene, she depicts the moment when he hit his girlfriend, the late Motown singer Tammi Terrell, in a fit of jealous anger. “My personal challenge as a writer and a black woman was, ‘Do I forgive him for the hurt he caused women?’” she says. “I wanted to show the abuse, and that’s not so Broadway happy-happy-joy-joy. But it’s real. You have to show the cost of that success. And if you’re going to love an artist, you have to love them whole.”
Adds Sykes, “Look at the reality show that is the White House. People love monsters. They’ve very intriguing for people. It makes people more comfortable with their monster.”
Finishing up their pre-show dinner, Sykes and Pope are prepping to head back to the theater when their waitress places two bottles of ginger beer on their table. “These are from a fan over there,” she says, pointing across the room. Both actors eagerly stuff the bottles into their bags of leftovers as the mystery admirer walks by the table and reveals herself — a very grandmotherly white lady.
“I’ve heard the show is great—I’ve heard you’re great!” she smiles. “I’ll see you tonight!”