For their latest collaboration on the Great White Way, two-time Tony-winning director Des McAnuff and Tony-nominated choreographer Sergio Trujillo are cued to get Motown fans singing along with the biographical musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations. NY1 entertainment journalist Frank DiLella recently caught up with the two artists, best known for their work on the Tony-winning Jersey Boys and last season’s Donna Summer bio-musical, to talk about bringing the iconic group to the New York theater scene.
Both of you are familiar with staging bio-musicals — together you worked on Jersey Boys and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, and Sergio, you choreographed the Gloria and Emilio Estefan musical, On Your Feet! Why “The Temptations” as your latest project?
Des McAnuff: I just have to say, bio-musicals make up a relatively small percentage of my body of work. I think because of Jersey Boys, bio-musicals are now part of my reputation. I think with “The Temptations,” I grew up in Toronto during a big chunk of my youth and this was the genre that I loved and everyone around me loved: Motown, rhythm, and blues. I grew up listening to these songs and even playing them. It’s really a part of my history, and so I’m emotionally plugged into it. The real thing about this is when I met with [original member of The Temptations] Otis Williams. He asked me to do this, and you don’t say no to the surviving member of The Temptations. And I want to add it’s an amazing story, not just spectacular music. Their story is engaging, and it’s been a blast!
Sergio Trujillo: I was approached by Des and the producers to do this project. I think because of their music and their story and history, it begged to be musicalized.
Speaking of Otis Williams, how hands-on has he been with this project?
Des: Happily, he put a great deal of faith in this team and Dominique Morisseau, our book writer. Dominique is from Detroit; she went into this project with knowledge and sensitivity. She knows where these guys are from and what they’re about. Otis was supportive and gave us a lot of room. Shelly Berger, who has been managing The Temptations since the ’60s, was also available to us and valuable. Dominique and I met with Otis — we went to L.A. to spend a couple of very important meetings with him — and I’ve got to say, Otis has been valuable to the actors too. He’s been a true inspiration.
What’s been the best piece of insight Otis has shared with you in tackling the story of The Temptations?
Des: I think we came to understand the sacrifice that these guys made to achieve their place as the pinnacle of rhythm and blues. Otis has helped us understand what it cost them in terms of health and, to some extent, their lives. It wasn’t an easy achievement. We were able to understand their journey.
Sergio: Out of all the bio-musicals I’ve done, for this one I’ve felt the most pressure. The Temptations set the bar for dance and singing groups of that time. I felt pressure creating a vocabulary that paid homage to them. But I have to say, Otis and Shelly both gave me compliments. One day Shelly was watching me rechoreograph something in rehearsal, and he immediately called Otis Williams and said, “Sergio is a taskmaster. he’s just like [original member] Paul Williams and more!” And another time Otis said to me, “That step you’re doing there, I’m stealing it and I’m putting it into my show.”
Ain’t Too Proud had its world premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California, then went to Washington, D.C., then L.A., then Toronto, and now New York. From a creative standpoint, what have you learned from your tour that you’re going to apply to the Broadway run?
Des: Every time you go to a new city, you have to adjust. It’s been a long haul for the actors and quite a journey getting this beast up a mountain. It’s been a luxury: We’ve seen it with different kinds of audiences. This show reaches a wide audience — it’s a show for young people, all colors and ages.
Sergio: More than anything, it’s allowed us to form a company of actors who fully understand the material, and they’re living in the material.
When I say “Motown,” what does that mean to you?
Sergio: I think iconic music.
Des: I think Berry Gordy. When Motown took off, it was the largest, most successful African American corporation in the country. I think Motown took music to a whole new level. It stands for excellence. I have great respect for the Motown artists — in particular, The Temptations — they did rise to the top. They did for rhythm and blues what The Beatles did for rock ’n’ roll.
With more than 30 songs by The Temptations in your show, dare I ask: Do you have a favorite?
Sergio: For me it changes, but right now I would say “Cloud 9” and “I Can’t Get Next to You.”
Des: When you’re working on a show, the songs are like your children — you don’t want to pick a favorite. But, if I had to, one of my favorite songs in the show is “I Can’t Get Next to You,” which is a later Temptations tune.
The Temptations began pumping out hit tunes in the 1960s, which was a rather dark period in our nation’s history. Talk about that dichotomy.
Des: I think The Temptations had something to do with the healing that was going on with the turbulence during the Civil Rights movement. They insisted that their audiences could not be segregated. When they first performed in the South, the audiences were segregated, and then it became contractual: If audiences were segregated, they wouldn’t play that particular venue. They had an impact in a time of violence and racial strife. They were the first African American band to headline a TV special — they crossed over between black artists and white artists. I think their history is not void of irony; they were fighting the good fight when a lot of people were at each other’s throats. But their story is also pertinent today. A lot of the themes that are presented in our show are relevant today: racial strife, the bigotry that’s still going on in our country. This is not a story about the ’60s, this is a story that applies to this life and time.
Sergio: When we began working on this two years ago, it was a time when we were facing some of our biggest challenges in terms of all the racial tension that was going on. I remember walking into rehearsal at Berkeley and two blocks away from the theatre there was a white-supremacist march and demonstration. I sort of felt, How much progress have we made with dealing with race in our country? And now we’re still talking about it and dealing with it. And personally, with all of the immigration issues going on right now and with Latinos being affected, Ain’t Too Proud is a show that allows us to have a moment of reflection. We’re partaking and making sure that change can finally occur in this country.
Your Classic Five Temptations are real triple threats. Talk about casting your principal performers. Was it a challenge to find them?
Des: First of all, it was frightening. Every time you cast a show, you think, Am I going to be able to find someone who can sing and dance this but also can act this? My god — it’s been such a wonderful experience as a director to get to work with the talented people we have. Derrick Baskin, who I’ve known for some time, the second he auditioned I knew we had our Otis Williams; he has the complexity and depth to play the role. Ephraim Sykes, we saw him read for the show in Los Angeles — again, instantaneous! He had the charisma and skill as a performer that it required to play David Ruffin. Jeremy Pope is Eddie Kendricks and he’s extraordinary. I also need to say the women in our show are terrific. I was just saying to my company, they’re the perfect team. This is my Super Bowl team.
You’re opening on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre, the same space where Dreamgirls premiered back in 1981. There are parallels between Dreamgirls and Ain’t Too Proud: similar story, same time period …
Des: It’s not lost on me. I love the Imperial Theatre. I got to do Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays at the Imperial and that was a fantastic experience. I think it’s a palace of a theatre. It has a terrific crew. And I love the fact that Dreamgirls was there. We’re standing on the shoulders of great leadership — the late Michael Bennett.
Sergio: I made my Broadway debut at the Imperial Theatre exactly 30 years ago in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway. I have not looked at the marquee because I’m waiting until we start performances. This is a real full-circle moment for me — it’s unbelievable. I get to be in the theatre where Michael Bennett made a revolutionary musical, where I made my debut. And to bring this particular show to the Imperial, that’s important to me.
The Supremes make an appearance in Ain’t Too Proud. Any interest in doing their bio-musical next?
Des: [Laughs.] I think there’s a fictional version of that show, going back to Dreamgirls, and it was successful and played our theatre. The one advantage we have, though, is that we get to use The Temptations’ songs.
Sergio: I think if I’m going to tackle someone — I’m going to put it out there — I’m mystified by Selena.
Photo by Matthew Murphy.