In the 1960s and '70s, Berry Gordy's Motown Records defined the sound of an era of pop music, producing some of pop history's greatest stars while breaking down longstanding racial barriers in the music industry. While Motown's heyday may be long-passed, it's alive, well and electrifying on Broadway right now, thanks to the new bio-musical Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.
Onstage each night, Derrick Baskin (Otis Williams), Ephraim Sykes (David Ruffin), Jeremy Pope (Eddie Kendricks), James Harkness (Paul Williams) and Jawan M. Jackson (Melvin Franklin) bring to vivid life both the music (a seemingly endless parade of hits) and complex lives of the men in the trailblazing group, turning in some of the most memorable performances on Broadway right now — as the Tony Awards have recognized, with 12 nominations for the show and two acting nods for Sykes and Pope in the featured actor in a musical category. The talented quintet came to the Billboard on Broadway podcast to talk about bringing the Temps back to the stage.
"These men are icons, and we have this ideal of what an icon is," says Baskin. "And then you hear their stories and you realize these guys are flawed individuals. We have the responsibility of showing the humanity of these men." Through expert storytelling and choreography, the show becomes much more than a two-hour-plus rundown of the group's biggest hits. "It feels like a play with music. We're not selling you the music, because you already know the music," Pope explains. "We're here to inform you on the truth. That creates this world where we get to play and talk about what it was like for these black men in the '60s — how they were crossing over, but it was the first time, and what that meant."
As the actors relate, emulating the vocal harmonies of The Temptations has been a challenge made easier by the group's natural camarderie. "It's a team effort and a relay race, vocally speaking … the moment one of our voices is gone, you hear it and you feel it," Jackson says. "The longer we sing together, it's become an effortless thing to do." They've also had time to reflect on the Temps' singular career trajectory — one shaped by Gordy and his vision of the men as pioneering black artists who should not get too political in their music.
"As artists, especially for black artists, when we speak out on any injustice it feels dangerous, and we're already perceived as dangerous in this country. To use your platform as a musician to protest, it gives you a bit of an edge, some danger — and I don't think Berry Gordy wanted them to have that kind of edge," Baskin reflects. "He wanted this music to cross over into all demographics, and in order to do that there were some things he didn't want The Temptations to cover."
In their wide-ranging chat with host Rebecca Milzoff, the guys consider whether Gordy's decision ultimately helped or hurt the group, and reminisce about their recent night dancing (and singing) with Celine Dion at the Met Gala; reveal the secrets to their impressive onstage dance moves; and share hilarious stories of Ain't Too Proud's very vocal audience.
#BillboardonBroadway is a weekly podcast devoted to all things musical theater and their overlap with pop music. Click here to subscribe to the #BillboardonBroadway podcast on iTunes, and let us know what you think on Twitter (@rebeccamilzoff) or by rating the podcast on iTunes.