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Former La Jolla Playhouse chief Des McAnuff shares his ‘Ain’t Too Proud’ journey

The national touring company of "Ain't Too Proud," at the San Diego Civic Theatre Jan. 4 through 8, 2023.
The cast of the national touring company of “Ain’t Too Proud,” which plays at the San Diego Civic Theatre Jan. 4 through 8, 2023.
(Courtesy of Emilio Madrid)

Broadway’s go-to guy for musical biographies like ‘Jersey Boys,’ ‘Summer,’ and ‘The Who’s Tommy’ earned sixth Tony nomination for Temptations story

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When it comes to directing Broadway musicals about famous music artists, the man at the top of everyone’s wish list is Des McAnuff.

The two-time Tony Award winner served as artistic director of La Jolla Playhouse from 1983 to 1994 and again from 2001 to 2007, during which time he helmed the future Broadway smashes “The Who’s Tommy” and “Jersey Boys.” He also returned to the Playhouse in 2017 to direct the world premiere of “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” and he’s now at work on a new musical about Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.

Director Des McAnuff, right, and his wife Bryna McAnuff at an opening night in Los Angeles in 2014.
(Ryan Miller / Associated Press)

Last week, McAnuff spoke by phone about another of his directorial projects, the 2017 Broadway musical “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.” Its national tour arrives in San Diego next week. “Ain’t Too Proud” tells the warts-and-all story of Motown’s Black all-male R&B vocal group, which was started in 1960 Detroit and still tours today with a continuously evolving lineup of singers. The Temptations’ only surviving original member, 81-year-old Otis Williams, is the musical’s lead character and narrator.

McAnuff said he was first approached in 2014 by the co-producers of “Jersey Boys” and “Summer” to consider a Temptations musical. Raised in Toronto, McAnuff said he covered Temptations songs in a R&B band in his teens, but he wasn’t sure he was familiar enough with the group’s history to do the story justice. But he didn’t hesitate after Williams personally asked him to direct the show. To bring the story the voice it needed, Detroit-raised playwright Dominique Morriseau was brought on to write the musical’s book.

"Ain't Too Proud" bookwriter Dominique Morriseau, photographed in 2018.
(Jemal Countess / Getty Images for Lucille Lortel)

“Dominique had a different relationship with their music, being a Black woman from Motor City,” McAnuff said. “She brought authenticity, and she could hear these voices. Early on we talked about how the story was about entrances and exits. The Temptations is more than a singing group. It’s an institution. Over the years, it has had more than two dozen members. Dominique used that phrase ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’ It’s the reason they’re still performing.”

The musical chronicles the original group’s formation, the members’ civil rights activism during the 1960s and their struggles with interpersonal conflict and jealousies; with hometown fans who resented their crossover to the mainstream charts; and their battles with drug and alcohol addiction and mental health issues. Featured in the show are more than two dozen of the group’s most famous songs, including “My Girl,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Get Ready,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.”

McAnuff said that when charismatic lead singer, David Ruffin, left the Temptations in 1968, the group’s future was in doubt. But a new lead singer, Dennis Edwards, made a quick and smooth transition into Ruffin’s spot, which created the template that has allowed the group to carry on ever since. In 1989, the Temptations were inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The musical is told as a memory tale from Williams’ perspective. He was the band’s behind-the-scenes leader but never enjoyed the spotlight like Ruffin or Edwards. So when his character finally gets a chance to step out in front late in “Ain’t Too Proud,” he gets a big gospel-style number that McAnuff said always brings down the house. To cast the role of Otis, McAnuff said he looks for actors with a rich speaking voice, a strong singing skills and personal warmth to connect with the audience.

“The story is very much about Otis going back and reliving his journey up the mountain in an almost biblical way,” McAnuff said. “And when he gets to the top of that mountain and discovers he’s alone, he questions whether it was all worth it.”

‘Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations’

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday. 7:30 p.m. Thursday. 8 p.m. Jan. 6. 2 and 8 p.m. Jan. 7. 1 and 6:30 p.m. Jan. 8

Where: San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., San Diego

Tickets: $30.50 and up

Online: broadwaysd.com


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