There are many subgenres of musical theater, defined not only by the style of music or the time period in which a show was written, but also by the context in which the score was conceived. The majority of musicals you’ve heard likely have songs written especially for them. But in some instances, a show’s soundtrack can be a compilation of previously written material, created by any number of bands or musicians; this is known as a jukebox musical. One popular example is the musical and movie Mamma Mia, whose score was comprised of songs by the Swedish pop group, ABBA. Other well known jukebox musicals are Moulin Rouge, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, Jersey Boys, and Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations.
One of my favorite musicals of all time, Ain’t Too Proud got its start at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre — a regional theater company located only a few blocks away from Berkeley High School (BHS). Like myself, many sophomores who attended Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) middle schools had a chance to see the show for free several years ago, on a school field trip. Although I loved the show from the moment I saw it, little did I know that it would soon end up on Broadway, with twelve Tony nominations! Following the origin story of the classic Motown act The Temptations, a five-man soul group, Ain’t Too Proud gets its title from one of The Temptations’ number one hits on the R&B Billboard charts, “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.”
What really caught my attention about this show was that it simultaneously draws you into a story set some sixty-odd years ago, while also rejuvenating most of The Temptations discography with the fresh voices of its five leading men, who were more than up to the job. The five original members were Otis Williams, David Ruffin, Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, and Eddie Kendricks, who in turn were played in the original Ain’t Too Proud cast by Derrick Baskin, Ephraim Sykes, Jawan M. Jackson, James Harkness, and Jeremy Pope. All five of these actors stood out in their complete vocal mastery of iconic hits such as “My Girl,” and, of course, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” as well as their dedication to the character of each Temptation, and the specificity with which they applied themselves to their respective roles.
Another aspect of the show that stood out in a regional theater setting was the live accompaniment. Instead of singing along with a prerecorded band, Ain’t Too Proud had a full live band, to create the iconic Motown Wall of Sound. While this is common, or even expected on Broadway, smaller theater companies don’t always have the budget to hire live musicians of a Broadway caliber.
One thing that makes Ain’t Too Proud so compelling is how smoothly the songs are integrated into the storyline. In your typical musical, songs are written specifically to further the plot, and therefore will reflect certain important themes or a character’s thoughts throughout a given scene. But in the case of a jukebox musical such as Ain’t Too Proud, it takes great skill and artistry to write a story to the music — instead of a music to the story — and still make it feel as though it all fits together.
Ain’t Too Proud is unique in its accessibility to all audiences, regardless of their previous experience, or lack thereof, with musicals. For fans of musical theater, the production fulfills all the criteria of a good show — ear-catching tunes, exceptional dancing, thoughtful acting, and a host of beautiful (and Tony nominated!) costumes, lighting, and sets — that draw you right into the world of The Temptations in the 1960s and beyond. For people who may be new to musical theater, or those for whom it isn’t right up their alley, Ain’t Too Proud straddles the line between concert and show in a way that is appealing to all.