Derrick Baskin was sick of musicals when Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of The Temptations arrived in his life. He’d performed on Broadway in Memphis, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and The Little Mermaid, and was enjoying the change of pace that was Hulu’s Difficult People when his agent came calling with the job that could put Baskin into his first starring role. As Otis Williams, founder of the group that gave the world “My Girl,” “Just My Imagination” and one after another of the greatest songs of the 1960s and ’70s, Baskin would be a first among equals, the singer who first envisioned what The Temptations could and would be.
“I immediately tried to shut him down,” Baskin recalls in this Deadline interview. But the actor had a change of heart, and now finds himself leading what is easily the biggest hit musical of this Broadway season, a production that consistently grosses more than $1 million a week.
Ain’t Too Proud, directed by Des McAnuff, opened March 21 at the Imperial Theatre, and in addition to Baskin features Jeremy Pope as Eddie Kendricks; James Harkness as Paul Williams; Jawan M. Jackson as Melvin Franklin; and Ephraim Sykes as David Ruffin.
In this conversation, Baskin recalls why he changed his mind about Ain’t Too Proud and the adventure that followed.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Deadline: How did Ain’t Too Proud come into your life?
Derrick Baskin: I was in a workshop of another musical that’s on Broadway now, and I was kind of losing my love for musical theater. When my agent called me up and said there’s this part in this musical, I immediately tried to shut him down. I was like, I’m just a bit tired of musicals. I really want to move into another direction, maybe more film and television. I was in, I think, my second season of Difficult People on Hulu and I was having a great time. I was just wanting to step away from musicals. I had done three musicals back-to-back and each musical, thank God, they ran a couple of years, so I had about 9 to 10 years straight of musicals.
That’s a lot of musical.
That eight show a week grind. I was just done. But my agent said, no one has actually seen you in this type of role. He said, you once told me that you wanted to stretch yourself as an artist, stretch yourself as an actor, and I think this is the role that will do that for you. You’ve never ever been the lead of a show.
What did he see that he thought would be a stretch?
The transparency, first and foremost. Otis Williams, he’s very transparent in his life and the choices that he’s made and the things that he’s gone through as a man, as an artist, and in order for me to do this role successfully, I also have to be transparent. I have to tackle my insecurities. I have to look at the sacrifices that I’ve made as an artist, so that I can relate to the sacrifices that I’m portraying as Otis Williams. You don’t necessarily want to always show your true self on stage. As actors, we like to hide things behind our characters. I had to actually expose myself more in order to actually honor this man who was telling the journey of his life.
And who’s still alive. Have you ever played a live person before?
I’ve never played a real person before. I’ve always played fictional characters. So to play a real a real guy and then an icon at that, at first was just very intimidating. You just don’t want to mess that up.
There are so many people who love the Temptations’ music, people who love Motown, who love the Temptations, who love Otis Williams. And he’s also a very proud man, very proud of his legacy. He knows what he and the Temptations have contributed to the music culture and to the culture of this country. You want to honor that and you want to do your absolute best job. No one’s ever asked me to step up to the plate in that particular way.
So yeah, it was a bit daunting at first, but then you meet this guy and he’s just such a warm guy. I don’t know what I expected when I met him, but it wasn’t that. I didn’t expect to meet a regular guy. He’s a family man. He loves his kids. He loves life. He loves God. He is a very, very spiritual person, and all those things I relate to, and I was like, oh man, I can actually relate to this guy, this mountain of a man. I was very relieved, like, I can attack this role now, I know what I got to do to play this guy.
Your character – your Temptation – is still alive, so that sets you apart from your co-stars. I’m wondering if they had their own set of intimidations?
We’ve talked about that at length, honestly. People will come and see the show, and they have this larger than life expectation because they’ve held these Temptations in such high regards, you know. If there was a better word than fan, than that’s the word these people are. We honor the men that they loved, and that added a bit of fear, a bit of trepidation.
When we were at the Kennedy Center, we would leave the theater and people would meet us at the stage door and say, hey, I grew up with the Temptations, I saw them in whatever city when they were 17 or 16 years old. They know the back stories, and they know them extensively. A lot of the quirks that you’ll see on stage from the Temptations, from the classic 5 specifically, a lot of the quirks that the actors have are some of the quirks that the real Temptations had. Otis was watching one of the run-throughs and Jeremy Pope said something in the middle of the run, and Otis just spoke out, like, Yep, that’s Eddie. We knew we were on to something. For them to find that intangible thing that you can’t read about in a biography, you can’t see in a movie, it’s just a spiritual transfer, I call it. So to find that essence of that person and to relay it on stage, and then for that to be how they actually did it…You know? That’s really cool.
I understand you owe something to the actual Temptations, and you owe something to the fans, but do you owe something to history? You probably know I’m speaking about David Ruffin, because while you owe him you also owe Tammi Terrell [Ruffin’s abusive relationship with Terrell, the Motown star whose duets with Marvin Gaye included “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “You’re All I Need To Get By”, is depicted in the musical; Terrell died of a brain tumor in 1970 at age 24]. How do you go about celebrating icons in the way jukebox musicals typically do, yet not completely gloss over the bad stuff?
The pitfalls that a lot of jukebox musicals fall into is that they just want to show the flashy side, they just want to show the shinier sides of things, because a lot of times Broadway audiences want to come to be entertained. This is the business of entertainment, and we are entertainers and we get that. But I think it’s important to show all of the layers. We’re all very flawed individuals. Showing all the layers of these icons, I think, honors their lives. And I think that audience members want to see an actualized person. In order for that to happen, we have to tell the whole truth. We just have to do it. We’d be doing a disservice to Tammi Terrell if we don’t tell that side of the story, because someone who has experienced what she experienced is watching this show. I think sometimes in telling the whole story, healing can actually happen. I think, as artists, we’re in the healing business, and you can’t do that unless you look at the scar, unless you look at the scab, unless you look at the wound. And I think we do a really good job at looking at and exposing these wounds, and not tying it all in a neat bow.
I mean, I don’t necessarily relate to the Tammi Terrell/David Ruffin part of that story, but it allows me look at these larger than life characters and say a guy like Ruffin was flawed. I’m flawed, too. As an artist, I don’t necessarily gravitate toward shiny musicals. I gravitate toward the more realistic. I want to see those cracks in a person because I have them myself. My prayer is that people who see this show, it will allow them to say, if these icons can go through these things, I can also go through it. Maybe, God willing, it helps heal.
Since Otis is the survivor and the producer – it’s based on his book – have fans of the other guys complained that the musical is weighted towards him? How do you as an actor avoid the trap of portray him as the saint of the group, you know what I’m getting at?
Yes. The story is told through his eyes, and so it’s a memory play from his standpoint. I could have you know approached it saying, okay, this is about me, let me tell my story, but I think if I would have dishonored him and I would have dishonored these guys. I have to make sure that I set the story up in a way that when we’re focusing on, say, a Melvin Franklin, that you in the audience are focusing on his story. When we’re talking about Paul Williams, and what he went through with alcohol, it’s not about me telling the story about him, it’s about his story. So sometimes on stage I will turn my back to the audience, so that I’m with them as we’re looking at Melvin’s or Franklin’s story. I want to make sure that the focus goes to where the story needs to go, and and as the actor, I need to make sure to serve the story.
And it’s hard because as actors we have that vanity about us. You want to sing a pretty song, you want to get a bunch of applause and someone to pat you the back and say you did a good job. But with this particular role, you kind of have to disappear into the role, disappear into the story so that I am talking with you and I’m actually watching the story unfold. I know the end of the story, but I don’t think the story is successful if I don’t go along for the journey with you.
Do you have a favorite Temptation song, and do you ever get lost in it? And is it “My Girl”?
Oh man. I feel a lot times when we’re singing this music, that people are not actually hearing us sing it, they’re hearing their memories. They’re hearing that moment in life when they heard that song. Sometimes a song will take you back to that moment. It’ll take you back to your first love or your first heartbreak, and so when we’re singing something like “My Girl,” I feel like a lot of the times people aren’t hearing us sing it. They’re hearing their lives. It’s very overwhelming, and a lot times, I have to make sure that I keep my emotions in check or I won’t be able to make it through the song.
How you do that?
You have to be a bit unselfish with it, and you have to say, okay, this is their moment. They paid money to see this show, so let’s give them this part. Let’s give them back this time in their lives. It’s their experience right now, and to be a conduit, to be a vessel, that’s the big old blessing, you know what I mean?
I’ll give you two examples. The top of Act II, “Can’t Get Next To You.” I’m a big funk kind of guy, right, and so that music, you’re just shot out of a cannon. It’s some of the funkiest music, it’s some of the best choreography we’re doing in the show, we use the entire stage, we have two turntables in the middle, we’re using both of them, and it’s just such excitement. It’s the best pizzazz.
But then one of my favorite moments in this show is “Just My Imagination,” because it is one of the moments of stillness that we have in the show. There’s a lot of movement, there’s a lot of flash, it’s a lot of lights, but when you can just stand in the moment and be every still, and be very grounded, those are the moments that I always gravitate toward. If you can stand and deliver, if you can ground yourself, that shows you that you’re actually connected. As artists we can hide behind a flashy song, we can hide behind some really good choreography, but to be still, to expose yourself in the stillness, that’s hard to do. So that’s one of my favorite moments of the show.
Have you looked out into the audience and seen a Diana Ross or one of the other Motown greats?
I ran into Mary Wilson. She came to LA and then she was also at opening night here in New York, and I’ve got to…I just, you know we ran into each other towards the end of the party, and first of all, I was just like in complete awe, if I can say that…
Oh you can say that.
Yeah. I was in just in complete awe. First and foremost, she is a beautiful woman and then on top of that she was part of this iconic group that is also portrayed in the show. I turned into a little boy, and I sheepishly just went over to her and I just told her I was a huge fan, and that I hoped that she’s proud of us telling the story, this particular Motown story, because she is part of the Motown family, and I was like, I hope that you’re proud of the story we’re telling. She was so incredibly warm, incredibly gracious, and incredibly happy with what we are doing.
And then Berry Gordy came to the show in Berkley. That was our first stop on the journey to Broadway, and he came toward the end of our run there when we were still very, very fresh in figuring out what the show was. When I knew he was in the audience I got really nervous. This is the head of Motown, you know what I mean, and so he’s responsible for the success of the Temptations, for so many groups. One of my favorite artists is Stevie Wonder, and he worked with Stevie Wonder! I remember being extremely nervous that day, and when we got to meet him after the show he had this smile on his face like you did it, you did good, and that was all I needed.
Oh, and Smokey came through. Now, first of all, the guy who plays Smokey in our cast, his name is Christian Thompson and, you know, he’s a very pretty guy, and to meet the real Smokey, I was like, oh, wow, you’re pretty in person, too. It was hilarious. But he’s really that dashing in person. He gave all of us individually the biggest hug. And then he looked at all of us in our faces and he was like, you are telling this story, you’re telling it and keep telling it. I was like, okay, we got our blessing from Smokey, we’re headed in the right direction. Meeting him in LA, that was just, damn! I never thought I would actually meet Smokey Robinson. Not Smokey. He’s larger than life. He’s still larger than life, even after I met him.
So I’m guessing by that point, you had overcome any hesitations bout being in a musical?
This show, it brought my love back for musicals. It did and I’m appreciative of it because music and singing has been such a huge part of my life since I’m 2 years old. Going through that period of time where I didn’t want to do a musical, it was heartbreaking because music is such a large part of my life. So for this show to bring that love back into my life, I feel energized, I feel younger if I’m honest. I feel like I’ve found a long-lost lover and we’ve rekindled some kind of flame. There you are, kind of like that.
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