By Sharon Eberson
It’s good to be the boss, especially when that boss is a fictional version of Motown founder Berry Gordy in Ain’t to Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations.
The main in charge is portrayed by Michael Andreaus in the supergroup musical, nominated for 11 Tony Awards and playing at the Benedum Center May 17-22.
It’s Andreaus’ first national tour and follows his first Broadway gig in the cast of the Tony-winning best revival of a play, A Soldier’s Story.
The play was already set to close in March of 2020, within days of the pandemic shutdown that abruptly ended theater nationwide. Andreaus went home to Oklahoma to be with family and figure out what was next, then shot an indie musical, Finding Carlos. Then, as entertainment began returning in a big way, he stepped into the role of Gordy, who was instrumental in The Temptations’ rise to hitmakers, with lots of bumps in the road along the way.
The musical tells the whole story, while the songs keep coming. On Broadway, there was often a concert atmosphere, with audiences unable to help themselves from moving and grooving to the music.
“There’s a lot of singing along and a lot of back and forth, and we encourage that.,” Andreaus said. ‘We enjoy the energy we get from the audience for sure. It’s such iconic music; you can’t do this show and not expect people to sing it. It’s just so well-known and so well-loved.”
The musical is based on the memoir of Otis Williams, the founder and last surviving original member of the group, who at 80 still performs and owns the rights to The Temptations’ name.
Gordy may be the man behind the scenes of Motown, but he may well be as familiar to most music fans as the artists he championed. And he’s also still with us, a test for any actor.
Andreaus said he was familiar with Gordy and Motown but still did
a deep dive into the man once he landed the role.
“When I found out I was going to be playing him, it was a little daunting at first because he’s still around, and also, he’s like a mythical figure in the music world and also in Black culture. What he was able to do for Black artists and music was amazing for its time. The fact that I get to portray some part of that, it just blew my mind, and I immediately started digging and listening to videos and talking with people who had met him, just so I could give the most accurate portrayal I could,” Andreaus said.
Some of what he found may be surprising. Many people spoke of Gordy’s love for his artists and that he was usually very soft-spoken.
“But when he said things, they mattered,” the actor said.
“You can’t be soft-spoken in a Broadway show, but there’s a confidence you can carry with you that comes across without having to be super loud or forceful. I think that’s the thing I got from most people. And people also talked about how funny he is. So that helped me relax a little and not take myself so seriously.”
Andreaus watched sparks of Gordy’s humor come through in the documentary “The Making of Motown, which features friendly repartee between Gordy and Smokey Robinson, “so I was able to piece all that together and make it my own in some ways,” the actor said.
Ain’t Too Proud doesn’t shy from the dark side of the men whose work continues to entertain us, including the fates of the so-called Classic 5 members of the group: David Ruffin, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams, and Otis Williams.
That group experienced breakups over finances and drug use, and more. Ruffin, who twice was fired from the group, died of an accidental crack cocaine overdose. Kendricks, a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer.
There were other battles, including with Gordy over money and Gordy’s resistance to artists who wanted to push the music toward activism during the Civil Rights Movement.
“They had different visions at times, especially when it comes to the more controversial protest songs of the day. But at the end of the day, I am the boss,” Andreaus said of Gordy.
“I’m glad that I get to play different facets of his character and not just one note,” he added.
One thing that can’t be denied is that The Temptations and Motown made hit after timeless hit together: “My Girl,” “Get Ready,” “Just My Imagination,” “Can’t Get Next to You,” “Ball of Confusion” and the title song, to name a few.
The supergroup released four Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 singles and topped the R&B singles chart 14 times while earning three Grammys.
Andreaus never grows tired of listening to his costars belt out hit after Temptations hit, especially when listening to Jalen Harris, as tenor Eddie Kendricks, sing “Just My Imagination.”
“He is incredible. There is a note that he hits night in and night out that every time, whatever I’m doing, I stop, and I’m just awestruck at this man’s talent and the artistry he brings. … I almost always go to him and throw my shoe at him or something, just to let him know that I’m such a big fan of the work he does.
“There are a lot of moments like that in the show, but that one specifically, I’m just blown away, every time in every show.”
The musical also features a Tony-nominated book by Detroit native Dominique Morisseau, playwright of Paradise Blue, at City Theatre this season, and of recent Tony nominee Skeleton Crew, now on Broadway.
“I love the realness that she brings to these characters because it would be easy to make them larger than life the whole time, with no issues, and put a bunch of great shows on stage and let that be the end of it. But she digs down into these characters’ lives, and the dialogue is so real. I think sometimes people expect a concert, but it’s so much more, and that’s all Dominique.”
Fictional Temptations have landed in Pittsburgh before, in the form of the TV miniseries shot here in 1998, when a replica of Motown’s Hitsville, USA sign hung on a home in Squirrel Hill.
Pittsburgh is the tour’s fourth stop on a nationwide tour. In Baltimore, they had a visit from Mayor Brandon Scott. He praised the show and said it had passed the real test, including the Tony-winning choreography by Sergio Trujillo.
“His father has been a huge Temptations fan his whole life, and he said the cast was spot-on with their moves and singing and storytelling.”
As much as Andreaus is excited for his first trip here and for introducing Ain’t Too Proud to a Pittsburgh audience, he is eager for the August stint in Detroit.
He expects original Temptation Williams, who is 80 and still touring himself, will be there.
Andreaus and the company met Williams while still rehearsing for the tour, and he has visited several times.
“He told us a bunch of stories from the road, and every time, he gives us just a little bit more of what it’s like to actually be a Temptation.”
Andreaus isn’t playing a Temptation, but he’s playing the man who set their careers in motion. So far, so good, according to Otis Williams himself, “And I’ll take that!” Andreaus said.
The audience feedback has ranged from singing along to tears at The Temptations’ personal tragedies to standing and cheering.
He’ll take that, too.
The title may be Ain’t Too Proud, but “I’m really proud to be part of it,” he said.
Ain’t Too Proud is at the Benedum Center, Downtown, May 17-22. Proof of vaccination and masking was not required by the tour when it launched. For updates, tickets, and more details: https://trustarts.org/production/69942/aint-too-proud.
Categories: Show Previews