On January 26 at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards, the score of Broadway’s Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations will come full circle: The 31 iconic Temptations songs that started as Grammy-winning Motown records before being converted into a Broadway score are an album again, and Grammy nominated—but this time, for Best Musical Theatre Album.
For the show’s music team, including orchestrator Harold Wheeler and music supervisor and arranger Kenny Seymour, they first re-interpreted the tracks for the stage. In making the cast album, translating the work they’d done in the theatre back to the recording studio was a cinch.
“It was easy to transfer [to a cast album] because we were always focused on preserving the integrity of the original recordings in the theatre,” says Wheeler. “The one thing we didn’t want it to sound like was a Broadway show. If you change any of those iconic drum fills or bass lines, you’re Broadway-izing it.”
But re-creating the original recordings went well beyond transcribing what was recorded back in the 1960s and 1970s. For true authenticity, Wheeler and Seymour paid fierce attention to detail.
“Our bassist, George Farmer, uses the same make and year of the bass James Jamerson played with The Funk Brothers [the core group of musicians who played on most Motown recordings from 1959 through the early 1970s], a Fender Precision from 1969,” says Seymour.
Even when it wasn’t possible to bring vintage instruments into the pit, Seymour worked with keyboard programmer Randy Cohen to recreate them on keyboards as authentically as possible. “It’s not just the notes. I want to hear the tines. When I press the sustain pedal, I want to hear the release mechanism. Little things like that, the dirt and the grit that is a Fender Rhodes—it makes a big difference.”
Achieving that sound also involves the finely tuned ear of an excellent sound designer. Albums are designed to be listened to in small rooms or through headphones, not large and often echoey theatres. Luckily, Tony-winning sound designer Steve Canyon Kennedy was more than up to the challenge.
“Our work would mean nothing to the audiences without the wonderful sound design by Steve Kennedy,” says Seymour. “The music sounds great in the theatre.”
As for why it was so important to re-create the sound of the original records in the first place, Wheeler points to the audience.
“When we first went into previews, I loved hearing the audience respond to the introduction of a song within three seconds,” he says. “They applaud because they immediately know the song, and it sounds exactly like what they’ve listened to for decades. Audiences don’t always know the specifics, but they know when something’s right and when it’s not.”
“Music to me conveys emotion and a point in time,” adds Seymour. “You can listen to almost any song and remember exactly what you were doing when you heard that song, because these songs were created with such heart. It was emotion on a record. It touched you from all different aspects of life, and that’s why these songs live in people’s skin and in their gut.”
Of course, some changes were necessary. As a musical, the songs of Ain’t Too Proud must often move the narrative.
“I hate that term, ‘jukebox musical,’” says Wheeler, “because I don’t look at it as a jukebox musical. It’s a book musical. There are certain instrumental lines an audience expects to hear, and you put those in, but when the song is used in the context of a story, sometimes you have to make changes. If someone is about to die of a drug overdose, and the string fill is a little happy, you change it. You have to go with the sympathy of the scene. That’s what I love doing: getting into the story and making my orchestrations tell the story.”
“You take liberties,” adds Seymour, “but at the core you maintain the integrity of what iconic music this is.” In the end, the cast album for Ain’t Too Proud boast the essence of the original Temptations with the trappings of theatre for a recording all its own.
Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations’ Original Broadway Cast Album is up for Best Musical Theatre Album at the 2020 Grammy Awards, which air on Sunday, June 26 on CBS. Check your local listings.