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Derrick Baskin And Dominique Morisseau On 'Ain't Too Proud'


There are these Broadway shows that use a pop star or a pop group's music to tell a story. Some people call them jukebox musicals. Think "Jersey Boys" or "Mamma Mia!" They're crowd pleasers.

A new show that fits that category has become a huge success on Broadway this year. It's been nominated for 12 Tony awards. But what you're about to hear isn't just a story about the musical. It's also a story about the audience.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) I know you want to leave me, but I refuse to let you go.

KING: That's from the cast recording of "Ain't Too Proud: The Life And Times Of The Temptations."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) I don't mind 'cause you mean that much to me. Ain't too proud to beg...

KING: The show celebrates Motown. It also illustrates the downsides of fame - addiction, jealousy, papa being a rolling stone. Still, a lot of this show is just sheer joy. So last week, I went backstage after a performance, and I sat down with Derrick Baskin. He's one of the Tony nominees. He plays Otis Williams, the only man who has been with the Temptations since the group was founded.

You just got off stage.


KING: That was really something else.

BASKIN: Oh, thank you.

KING: That was terrific.

BASKIN: Thank you.

KING: The Temptations - they started out as just young, talented kids.


KING: And then they met the owner of Motown Records, Berry Gordy. And it's like he said to them, I've got a formula. I can figure out a recipe for the five of you.


KING: And I can make you into stars.

BASKIN: Yeah, he saw something very special in this group. And he knew exactly, when he signed them, what he wanted to do with them. He wanted to make them a crossover group.

KING: What did Berry Gordy want them to cross over into?

BASKIN: When they started, they started touring in the South. They hit what you call the Chitlin' Circuit, right? So they were predominantly black audiences, and Berry Gordy wanted the white audience. He wanted the Hispanic audience. He wanted the Asian audience. He wanted America.

When they were just starting out, audiences were segregated. They were responsible for kind of breaking down those segregated audiences. There was a time where they were like, OK, we won't do this anymore. If there's, like, a rope that black people can't go past, we can't do this show.

KING: And then to look at the audience today - and it's a diverse audience. It's a...

BASKIN: Absolutely.

KING: ...Mixed audience. But it's majority white.


KING: White people of a certain age.


KING: And they are just going bananas for the music and for you guys. It felt like the past was speaking to the present.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) I'm bringing you a love that's true. So get ready. So get ready. I'm going to try to make you love me, too. So get ready. So get ready 'cause here I come.

BASKIN: As soon as we walk out, people are ready for this music, and it's just so exciting.

KING: I have never seen an audience do that before.

BASKIN: Oh, man.

KING: I feel like half of them lost it within the first five minutes.


KING: Cheering and singing and clapping.


KING: It's like being in church.

BASKIN: Oh, hopefully. That is our goal.

KING: The clapping and the callbacks - and yeah.

BASKIN: Yeah, yeah. You know, Dominique - she kind of equates the show as a sermon.

KING: He's talking about Dominique Morisseau. She wrote the script for "Ain't Too Proud." She's from Detroit, just like the original Temptations. And as a playwright, she won a MacArthur Genius Award.

She's known for her plays about being black, being working-class, being vulnerable in America. This is her first musical. And just like a sermon or a choir can get you on your feet in church, she wanted this show to have that effect.

DOMINIQUE MORISSEAU: We make space for the people that may not be the traditional theater audience. Say amen and speak out loud if it's in response to the show. I've been trying to change the culture that I think is on Broadway. I've definitely done it off Broadway with my plays. I put in inserts and programs giving audiences permission to be vocal just because I think, sometimes, audiences might feel the need to shush each other because they think that that's, you know, respecting the show, but it isn't.

KING: Do you have to convince the big Broadway producers of what you want to do and experience doubt on their part?

MORRISEAU: Absolutely.

KING: Really? Tell me about that.

MORRISEAU: Yeah. I think that there's an expectation that things work a certain way and that because theater is so fragile - shows close so easily - I think that there's a fragility. And I think it's going to take a lot more convincing and a lot of more examples like "Hamilton." But those producers had the vision to trust Lin-Manuel Miranda and say, hey, we're going to try your funky, crazy, new ideas. And they work. I would like to see more Broadway producers get braver if we want to see theater be the kind of all-inclusive medium that it can be.

KING: There has been this trend on Broadway - what people will call the jukebox musical. And I don't know if that's considered a - you know, a dismissive term, but certainly, these shows are very popular. Do you see this show in that vein?

MORRISEAU: I don't know. The jukebox musical always sounded like there's a little bit of a backhanded slap in that phrase. I also think that jukebox is not what we're doing.

KING: "Ain't Too Proud" isn't just a parade of Temptations hits. Morisseau weaves the songs in and out of the biographical story. They tell us what era we're in, and they set the emotional tone, like "I Wish It Would Rain."

It's a song about a guy losing his girl. He cries - standard pop song stuff. But in the musical, Morisseau uses it to powerful effect after the Temptations learn that the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. has been killed.


BASKIN: (As Otis Williams) There was nowhere for sanctuary. Outside, the world was exploding. And inside, so were we.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, singing) Oh, baby.

MORRISEAU: Like, I think that these lyrics are speaking to the nation, not just a man to a woman.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, singing) I need the rain to disguise these tears in my eyes. Oh, let it rain. Let it rain, yeah. See, I'm a man, and I've got my pride. I'm a man...

MORRISEAU: What I love about telling their story right now is the contemporary relevance that it has. And I think Berry Gordy's vision about using this group to cross all kinds of barriers - and then I think even the vision got beyond what he could've seen - that the Temptations were being used to help unify a divided nation. I - we're in that same moment now.

And so I think that it's really special to be able to have audiences in that room. And maybe they feel like shushing each other at first, or maybe they're going to be uptight. And by the end of the show, we have had a collective experience that unifies at a divided time.

KING: That was Dominique Morisseau. She's nominated for a Tony for writing the Temptations musical "Ain't Too Proud." And earlier, we talked to actor Derrick Baskin, who is also up for a Tony for the show. The show's up for 12 awards in total, and the ceremony is on Sunday night.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, singing) I've got sunshine on a cloudy day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.