‘Ain’t Too Proud’ at TPAC: Story of The Temptations is more relevant than ever

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Nearly everyone knows the music of The Temptations – hits like “My Girl,” “Get Ready,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” are part of our collective musical lexicon. The eponymous Broadway smash “Ain’t Too Proud –The Life and Times of The Temptations,” which plays at TPAC March 21-26, tells the story of the group’s journey from its rocky beginnings in Detroit to its rise to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Nominated for 12 Tony Awards (and the winner in 2019 for Best Choreography), the 2018 hit production is so much more than a jukebox musical. Based on surviving founding member Otis Williams’ memoir and adapted for the stage by Dominique Morriseau, the storyline doesn’t shy away from the personal struggles of band members and the larger political unrest of the civil rights movement that was happening at the time of The Temptations’ rise to fame in the 1960s.

Marcus Paul James, from left, Jalen Harris, Elijah Ahmad Lewis, Harrell Holmes Jr. and James T. Lane in a recent touring production of "Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations." Michael Andreaus will play Otis Williams in the Nashville production.
Marcus Paul James, from left, Jalen Harris, Elijah Ahmad Lewis, Harrell Holmes Jr. and James T. Lane in a recent touring production of "Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations." Michael Andreaus will play Otis Williams in the Nashville production.

“If you're going to tell a story, you might as well tell it as honestly as you can do, life isn’t always harmonious – we had to tell the story of what really happened with The Temptations,” said Williams, who at 82 years old is still performing on tour with the band. “A lot of it was not glorious, but I’m glad we were able to do it without denigrating any of the guys in the group – we did it with honesty, but we kept in the juiciest parts.”

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‘Ain’t Too Proud’ begins with Williams’ humble, problematic youth in Detroit and tracks The Temptations' rise as the greatest group in Motown history. Williams puts together a quintet of young Black musicians Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks and later, David Ruffin, creating the ensemble that would produce dozens of hits – 37 of which made it to the Billboard Top 40.

Working with Berry Gordy’s Motown Records, the group created a new sound that inspired a generation. But the musical’s storyline delves deeper than record hits: It explores how the band members’ own struggles with drug addiction, alcoholism, domestic violence, suicide and other tragedies threatened the success of the band.

“It’s definitely challenging and I think it’s an awesome responsibility to act in these roles because you’re not playing fictional characters – you’re representing people that lived real, full lives on stage every night,” Andreaus said. “You have to go through someone’s ups and downs, but one of the first lines of the show is, ‘There’s no progress without sacrifice,’ and that speaks to the theme of the show as a whole – it doesn’t shy away from the negative aspects of their lives.

"But you can’t have a show with The Temptations’ music and not enjoy yourself – and the fact that it has both of those elements is what makes it such a compelling show. It’s not just a typical jukebox musical, but one that has some teeth to it.”

Michael Andreaus, previously seen in "A Soldier’s Play" on Broadway, plays Otis Williams in the production.

Beyond the band members’ personal lives, “Ain’t Too Proud” also follows the social and political events surrounding them at the time. The Temptations experienced discrimination and bigotry but were discouraged from becoming more involved in the civil rights movement, even though they wanted to, by their producers, who thought expressing their politics would alienate white fans.

“Two hours of watching the play is a microcosm of what we lived through – we were there during some very rough periods – we tell the story of going into my hometown, Texarkana, and asking to be served, and being told ‘We don’t serve …’ and they used the N-word. I’m glad I’m able to tell that story now,” Williams said. “I think our fans appreciate us being honest, even if the story hasn’t all been singing, dancing, harmonies and flashy movements – there’s much more behind it that made us the men and the entertainers that we turned out to be.”

Otis Williams, an original member of The Temptations.
Otis Williams, an original member of The Temptations.

For Andreaus, the political turbulence of the 1960s is still relevant today – and there are obvious parallels with contemporary civil rights protests and the racism still happening in America.

“Unfortunately, it still resonates. You’d hope that as a nation, 60 years after this story started, that we would have moved past some of these things. You can tell when you’re on stage, telling these stories, that it hits the audience in the gut – you can feel a visceral response,” Andreaus said. “One of the things we hear most from audience feedback is thanking us because it could have just been a concert, basically, but they’re glad we took the route of choosing to tell a real story. Hopefully people walk away with an understanding of how other people in this country live and the experiences they go through.”

Above it all, there’s no denying that the music and choreography of The Temptations is an absolute highlight of the production. Williams has worked closely with the cast to give pointers on making the production more authentic. Multi-generational audiences include original fans to their children and even grandchildren who appreciate the music today.

“We see audiences with grandparents down to a young age – and that’s the wonderful part of being in show business – that’s what makes The Temptations so universally loved,” Williams said. “It’s been a wonderful love affair with our fans – it’s the embodiment of what gives Motown an everlasting sound that will live on after most of us are long gone.”

If you go

What: “Ain’t Too Proud –The Life and Times of The Temptations”

Where: Tennessee Performing Arts Center, 505 Deaderick St., Nashville

Prices: $45-$130

Tickets: www.tpac.org

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: 'Ain't Too Proud,' the story of The Temptations, comes to TPAC