WASHINGTON — Broadway shows can immortalize musicians for new generations, be it Frankie Valli in “Jersey Boys,” Carole King in “Beautiful” or Gloria Estefan in “On Your Feet.”
Now, Motown legends The Temptations get their very own musical with “Ain’t Too Proud,” which makes a pre-Broadway stop here at the Kennedy Center now through July 22.
“These guys are doing a wonderful job portraying us,” Temptations founder Otis Williams told WTOP. “Even though we were up on stage doing our thing, we still [went through] the same things of life that a lot of people do. I’d like for them to take away, ‘Wow, I can really relate to the Temps.’ Or, some things they’re quite surprised. That’s the element of a great show, when you can take away wonderful memories and wow sad times, but that’s what life is all about.'”
Staged by the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the show is produced by Ira Pittelman (“Spring Awakening) and Tom Hulce (“Amadeus”), directed by Des McAnuff (“Tommy”) and written by Dominique Morisseau (“Detroit ’67”). It follows Williams (Derrik Baskin) as he forms the group with David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes), Eddie Kendricks (Jeremy Pope), Paul Williams (James Harkness) and Melvin Franklin (Jawan Jackson), who are signed by Motown Records in 1961.
“We also dive into The Supremes … Berry Gordy is there, Smokey Robinson is there,” Pope said. “We just kind of follow the journey of The Temptations, what it was like forming the group and then the tension that built within the group, what separated these men and how Otis was the last man standing. … He is the narrator of the story, being the last living one.”
As the last living member, it was profound for Williams to watch his life story unfold on stage.
“I saw it up at Berkeley and I was mesmerized,” Williams said. “I sat down with the guys up in Berkeley and I gave them the little nuances and things that the Temps were noted for. They came to my room at seven in the evening and didn’t leave my room until 1 o’clock the next morning, sitting there asking me all kinds of questions: ‘What made the Temps do this?'”
He offered some particular advice to Sykes in his portrayal of Ruffin.
“I said, ‘If you really want to capture close to David Ruffin, David was known for throwing the microphone up in the air, turning around and dropping to his knees and grabbing it as it would come down,'” Williams said. “The next time I saw it, [Sykes] was doing just that.”
Expect to see all of the group’s classic dance moves, shiny suits and smooth presentation.
“It took some time for them to become these legendary, suave, smooth men,” Pope said. “Paul Williams was responsible for their dance moves, so they wouldn’t just be standing there next to a mic. … Sergio Trujillo is our choreographer. … This is Broadway, so I wish it was just a ‘to the right and to the left’ snap like the Temptations, but it’s more of a ‘split up and split down!'”
Instead of breaking a leg, you can tell them to split some pants.
“We have split some pants!” Pope joked. “That is just the nature of this beast we are driving.”
And of course, the songbook is comprised of hit after hit.
“We’ve got ‘Get Ready,’ ‘Ain’t Too Proud,’ ‘My Girl,’ ‘Just My Imagination,’ ‘Since I Lost My Baby,’ ‘The Way You Do The Things You Do,’ ‘I’m Losing You’ — it’s like their greatest hits,” Pope said. “It’s special because you just watch the audience. It’s music that these people know; audiences singing along, older generations to the younger generations, where they just know ‘My Girl’ and they’re not sure why. … We kind of lean in on that like, ‘You guys know these songs.'”
Williams will never forget when Smokey Robinson penned “My Girl” for the group.
“You don’t turn down nothing Smokey Robinson brings you,” Williams said. “At first we said, ‘This is a great sounding song,’ but I think the magic happened … when the strings and horns were added. … Smokey was sitting at the console. I said, ‘Man, I don’t know how big a record this will become, but I think it’s going to be huge.’ Feb. 1965, we got a telegram from Mr. Gordy and The Beatles congratulating us on a No. 1 record that sold over a million copies.”
They followed up with the hit song “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.”
“The key was a little too high for David,” Williams said. “We were down in the control room egging him on, ‘Come on, David. You can do it!’ … When he came out of the control room, he was sweating and his glasses were all sideways. … We had fun doing ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.'”
Eventually, Ruffin was replaced by new frontman Dennis Edwards, as the band evolved into the ’70s funk era of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” and “Ball of Confusion.'”
“That song is over 40 years old but it’s so apropos to what is going on the world today,” Williams said. “It was like Norman [Whitfield] and Berry [Gordry] could see into the future.”
Such social commentary is certainly highlighted in the stage musical.
“We talk about ‘Ball of Confusion,’ we talk about ‘War,’ originally written for The Temptations but ended up getting cut by Edwin Starr. It’s interesting how timely this piece is, how much it speaks to the time back then, but also how we can look back and see some similarities.”
Indeed, past and present collide with a deep dive into the group’s lasting legacy.
“It is not your standard jukebox musical,” Pope said. “It has a darker tone to it. We get to experience first hand what these men went through. They were a big part of the Civil Rights Movement. They were the face of Motown. … We get to see the legacy these guys left.”
Find more details on the Kennedy Center website. Listen to our full conversations below:
WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Jeremy Pope (Full Interview)