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Keeping it Real: Sound Design for “Ain’t Too Proud” on Broadway

Bryan Reesman • June 2019Theater Sound • June 17, 2019

L to R: Ephraim Sykes, Jawan M. Jackson, Jeremy Pope, Derrick Baskin and James Harkness. Photos by Matthew Murphy

Musical biographies have become all the rage on screen and onstage. In the past year, jukebox musicals chronicling the lives of Cher, Donna Summer, and now The Temptations have graced the Great White Way, and they are still going strong. The best of the latest Broadway bunch is Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of The Temptations, which takes us into the lives of the biggest R&B group on the famed Motown Records label.

We know many of their songs like “My Girl,” “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone,” “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me),” and “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.” Now we’re getting to know them better, and there is plenty to explore in the show. In 2017, Billboard magazine named The Temptations the top all-time artist in the history of R&B and hip-hop. They scored 16 No. 1 spots on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, 14 chart-toppers on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, and 43 Top-10s from the ‘60s through the ‘90s. They also earned three Grammy Awards and have been inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

Beyond the hits and behind the curtain, interpersonal conflicts, business friction and recreational temptations often threatened the musical and personal harmony of the group. Portrayed fictionally, group leader Otis Williams, the co-founder and bandleader (who still performs with newer members today), is the narrator and our guide through the band’s odyssey from local Detroit heroes to international sensations.

Much of the creative team behind Ain’t Too Proud worked on the biggest jukebox musical in Broadway history, Jersey Boys. These members, most of whom also worked on Summer (with music from Donna Summer) include director Des McAnuff, choreographer Sergio Trujillo, lighting designer Howell Binkley, musical coordinator John Miller and sound designer Steve Canyon Kennedy, who spoke to us about working on this show.

L to R: Derrick Baskin, Jeremy Pope, Jawan M. Jackson, Ephraim Sykes and James Harkness

‡‡         Whole Lotta Sound Goin’ On

There is a lot going on sonically with Ain’t Too Proud, which includes 20 cast members onstage and 18 musicians in the pit. Fortunately, Kennedy is accustomed to working on large ensemble shows, with credits like On Your Feet!, Jesus Christ Superstar and Guys and Dolls. The 18 musicians here, including conductor/keyboardist Kenny Seymour, are separated out into four different areas downstairs, and they only play together for the last three numbers onstage at the end of the show.

The entire band is located in the basement, as the pit was not big enough to fit all of them, so the members were split into different sections. “Because they added rows of seats in the front [of the Imperial Theatre], they had to drop the ceiling in the basement, in the pit,” explains Kennedy. “We’ve got three keyboard players underneath that section because they’re sitting, and then the back wall is the violins and strings. The brass and reeds are in a room that we had built, the drums are alone in a booth, and the percussion is in a dressing room.”

Derrick Baskin plays the part of The Temptations founder Otis Williams.

‡‡         Complications and Chaos

At the end of the show, the large group winds its away upstairs during a book scene that wraps up the story. Even so, Kennedy says it does not take the musicians long to get upstairs. “They have it timed out so they just take their time,” he says. “I’m telling you, the setup onstage takes the longest, because they bring in a flat. They have to bring out two drum kits and the two platforms for the keyboards. Everything has to be plugged in, so it’s really a riot back there.”

The drums are doubled, with two pre-built sets available upstage just for the final number. “The congas just roll out,” says Kennedy. “But it’s all the patching and checking to make sure everybody’s plugged in. It’s chaos. It’s funny because it’s the last part of the show, and it’s always the one that gets the least rehearsals. The dancing’s the thing, with many rehearsals of the band dancing. There are steps involved in it.”

For the last three numbers, the band comes out behind the cast, grooving to the music and allowing the audience to see them. There are even some solos taken. Their conductor does not perform, so he can come out front to be acknowledged by the cast. The group appearance is a great touch that injects further energy into the curtain bow.

‡‡         Signal Routings

Mic-wise, the bass is run through an Avalon U5 direct box, the first guitar through a HeadRush pedalboard and the second guitar going through a Fender Blues Junior amp into a Palmer Loadbox. All three keyboardists are plugged in direct. The trumpet and trombone are captured via Neumann U87s, the reeds with an AKG 414, and the flute with a 4099, which was also selected for the viola, cello and four violins. The two percussionists are mainly miked with KM184s with an Audix D3 on the congas. The drums are miked via a mixture of Neumann SM and KM mics.

“All of the cast are on [Sennheiser] MKE1s,” adds Kennedy. “Transmitters are 5212 for the fellows and 6212 on the ladies. The five classic Temptations and [later member] Dennis Edwards are double-miked.”

The audio team for Ain’t Too Proud is running a DiGiCo SD7 digital console with about 125 inputs. The P.A. is mainly comprised of Meyer and L-Acoustics cabinets. (A full list is in the sidebar.) Kennedy says that surround content through d&b audiotechnik E6s is for used some voice over, delivered lines and reverb effects.

There are a number of vintage mics that are brought onstage for concert performance and recording studio scenes, but they are not live. They are there for authenticity. Kennedy admits he cannot remember which ones he requested that scenic designer Robert Brill procured. “I worked at the Music Center in the ‘70s in Los Angeles, and I remembered those mics that we had,” recalls the sound designer. “Then I looked at pictures of The Supremes singing on stage, and I just sent Robert a bunch of pictures. He just picked out what he wanted.”

As far as the live mics onstage, they capture a wide range of singing voices, from bass to tenor. Kennedy says they have not faced any major hurdles or challenges. “It really doesn’t change that much,” he remarks of the mix. “It’s an automated board so things go pretty much to the right place. It’s really just mics and the band. We don’t have problems.”

‡‡         Keepin’ It Real

When he was younger, Kennedy played in bands that covered tunes by the likes of The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, so he has an understanding of the dynamics of live music. By the same token, times and technology have changed. “Yeah, they have,” he concurs. “That’s why I have really smart people setting stuff up for me.” Although they brought on vintage gear as props, Kennedy and his team did not worry about using actual vintage gear and trying to recreate a sound from the past. “[I just] listened to a lot of recordings and tried to keep it real.

“Like anything else, it’s live, and adjustments have to be made every night,” notes Kennedy. “Ron Sinko is the FOH engineer. He is amazing at what he does, along with Julie Sloan and John Cooper backstage, making adjustments as well. Along with the great crew at the Imperial and the personnel at Sound Associates, I would like to thank my associate / production engineer, supervising tech, and in many ways, my co-designer Walter Trarbach, for putting this show together for me, for putting up with me, and helping me with so many decisions. No one does a show on his or her own.”

Kennedy is very pleased with how Ain’t Too Proud turned out, although he was not sure originally how it would play in a smaller Broadway house. “I was surprised because we’d been doing it on the road in huge houses where you get tons of energy out of the system,” he recalls. “In a smaller house, you kind of get that energy, but it’s not the same.” The musical got it first tryout at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California from August 31 through November 5, 2017. Then they worked on production at a show in Indiana before making three six-week stops at Washington, L.A. and then Toronto.

‡‡         Audiences are Ecstatic

The night that FRONT of HOUSE saw the show, it received an ecstatic reaction from the audience, which immediately gave it a standing ovation. When queried as to whether he thinks the show will help bring renewed interest to the music of The Temptations, Kennedy is hopeful but acknowledges that not a lot of younger people might know this heritage act’s music.

But then there was that other big musical biography that Kennedy worked on, which was adapted into a film and has not stopped being performed onstage somewhere in America since it arrived in 2005. He notes that when Jersey Boys first opened, “People who went to see it said, ‘Oh yeah, I kind of recognize that song. Yeah, I know that song.’ They didn’t know those songs either.” That show became a phenomenon and is now the 12th longest running show in Broadway history. (For the record, this writer was instantly converted by both shows.)

Working on Ain’t Too Proud confirmed something for Kennedy. “I forgot how much I loved the Temptations growing up,” he says. His favorite member in the cast is Otis Williams, who is portrayed by Derrick Baskin. “I like Otis because he’s there all the time, and I really like the way he delivers lines.”

Kennedy also praises the leads for taking on the personas of The Temptations. “Oh my God, they’re unbelievable,” he proclaims. “They really are. It’s the best bunch of guys I’ve ever worked with. They’re brilliant.”

That bodes well for the show and the chances for the Temptations’ music to reach a new generation of fans.

Bryan Reesman is an East Coast-based writer who frequently contributes to FRONT of HOUSE and PLSN.