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Playwright Dominique Morisseau on the challenges of writing the book for the bio-musical Ain't Too Proud
Near the beginning of Ain't Too Proud -- The Life and Times of The Temptations, a teenage Otis Williams invites Melvin Franklin to join his singing group. Melvin tells Otis to ask his mother -- and then hides behind a tree while Otis does so.
While that scene may seem a little overblown, the musical's book writer, Dominique Morisseau, insists it's true. "I didn't make that up," she says with a laugh. "It's not my instinct to do over-the-top. It's what happened."
Sure enough, that anecdote is in Chapter 2 of The Temptations, the 1988 memoir by Otis Williams, the founder and sole surviving member of the original "classic 5" lineup of the iconic R&B group. Ain't Too Proud is based on his book, and he is also an executive producer of the show, which had its world premiere at Berkeley Rep in 2017 and played in D.C. and L.A. before arriving in New York.
Although she had Williams' recollections to help guide her, working on the show proved challenging in several ways for Morisseau, an acclaimed playwright and MacArthur "Genius Grant" Fellow who is making her Broadway debut with Ain't Too Proud. First and foremost, she had never written the book of a musical before, so this was new artistic territory. "In my plays, I'm writing the story for me personally, whatever story I want to tell," she says. "I don't have to think about collaborators. Here, the music is my cowriter. The choreography is a big part of the storytelling."
In a 2016 letter to The New York Times, a half dozen prominent writers said crafting a musical's book is a "misunderstood art." As Dramatists Guild of America president Doug Wright pointed out, it's true that "audiences rarely leave a musical humming the story." But theatregoers are wrong to assume that book writers just create the lines between the songs; they determine the show's structure.
There are 31 numbers in Ain't Too Proud, most of them hits by The Temptations, including "My Girl," "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," "Get Ready," and "Ain't Too Proud to Beg." Working with director Des McAnuff, who won a Tony for helming the bio-musical Jersey Boys, Morisseau chose the songs and decided what order to put them in. She didn't feel beholden to history. For example, she used "Runaway Child, Running Wild" for a scene set in the mid-1950s, although The Temptations actually performed it during their "psychedelic soul period" in the late 1960s. But dramatically, its placement made sense. "The song really works thematically in terms of talking about their early upbringing, which is a pivotal moment," she explains. The lyrics tell a story of a runaway who is "roaming through the city going nowhere fast." The dialogue Morisseau added between the verses has the show's narrator, Otis (Derrick Baskin), describe the pre-Temptations teenagers as "five youngbloods growing up in Detroit -- a factory town with fast engines and tough knuckles." All of them were "country boys" who came up from the South, and adjusted in the wrong ways. We see 16-year-old Otis getting sent to a juvenile detention center for six months for robbery and gang activity, then promising the judge: "I ain't never gonna do nothin' to make me lose my freedom again."
Morisseau herself grew up in Detroit a generation later. As she puts it: "This is the world of my uncles and my elders." She used her experience in and passion for her hometown as inspiration for three plays -- Detroit '67, Skeleton Crew and Paradise Blue -- that take place in the Motor City in different eras. Indeed, the trilogy, known as The Detroit Project, helped get her the Ain't Too Proud job, after the late songwriter Michael Friedman recommended her to the producers.
Still, it took a while for her to get at the essence of the narrative. As she once told The New York Times: "I can't write a story until I know what my characters are willing to fight or die for." So she probed Williams in person to find out what that was, paying a visit to his home with the director.
"We spent the day with him," Morisseau says. "It was nice, it was fun, it was lighthearted. I felt like we connected to Otis and Shelly Berger, his manager. Things felt good." Williams' speech was full of pithy "catchphrases" and she noticed that "his bathroom is wallpapered with sayings of his," some of which ended up in the show, verbatim or reworked.
However, Morisseau admits that "as soon as we left the house, Des and I looked at each other, and I said, 'I don't have the story.'"
She found it later, after Williams began talking with her about his son, who died at age 23 in a construction accident. "He went to a very dark place in our conversation," she recalls. "I saw him getting emotional and unable to finish talking about it. That's when I knew what to write about."
While the show is certainly a nostalgia trip, a cavalcade of hits tracing the ups and downs of the group, Morisseau intends it to be a moving drama as well, about the downside of success. In the musical, Otis is always too busy going on the road to spend time with his son as he grows up, and the other Temptations also make a mess of their personal lives. Toward the end Otis, who steps out from the action frequently to comment on it, "examines the sacrifices that he made and the things he lost, the cost of being the artist of legend that he is," Morisseau says. "No one gets to accomplish great things without paying a huge price for it."
Or, as Otis says a couple of times in Ain't Too Proud, in a phrase that Morisseau created based on Williams' thoughts: "There is no progress without sacrifice."
Jonathan Mandell is a drama critic and journalist based in New York. Visit his blog at NewYorkTheater.me or follow him on Twitter at @NewYorkTheater. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Derrick Baskin, Jawan M. Jackson, Jeremy Pope, James Harkness and Ephraim-Sykes in Ain't Too Proud. Photos by Matthew Murphy.
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