At just 33 years old, you might think that Ephraim Sykes needed to hit the research hard to learn about the music for his role as The Temptations’ member David Ruffin in Ain’t Too Proud—The Life and Times of The Temptations, currently playing Broadway’s Imperial Theatre with an official opening March 21. But Motown music was some of the first music he ever heard.
“Motown music is in my blood,” Sykes says. “Besides gospel, this was what I listened to. My parents were Motown kids, which was true for most in the black community, and there’s a certain ownership to the music and the Motown label and what it meant as an identity for us.”
Both his parents were musicians, so Sykes was introduced early to the signature Motown sound and remembers doing his Saturday morning chores to the beats of the era’s top artists.
“My grandparents would tell me about the singers and I would take these five to six hour rides through the state of Florida with my dad, and the whole ride, if it wasn’t gospel, we were listening to Motown,” he says. “The Temptations are a group that my family has always loved and appreciated. And coming up as a performer, I always listened to them and understood how suave and groovy they were.”
Known for their unmistakable harmonies and signature dance moves, The Temptations saw 42 songs hit the Top Ten charts, with an incredible 14 of those rising to No. 1. Ain’t Too Proud follows the group’s journey from the streets of Detroit to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Award-winning playwright Dominique Morisseau chose which of The Temptations catalog of classics to include in the show, and, along with director Des McAnuff, the pair unearthed what Sykes considers a wondrous homage to the legendary group.
“Dominique was born and raised in Detroit, and this story is part of her family’s blood and history and as she was laying out the story, she was able to see what spoke best to the themes of the show,” he says. “Her language is very poetic and true to the way Detroitians speak. Des helped steer and direct the vision.”
But not everything was rosy for the vocal group, as Ain’t Too Proud shows.
When he was cast as Ruffin, the lead voice on such famous songs as “My Girl” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” Sykes read up on him and his complicated reputation, watching YouTube videos and amassing details of Ruffin’s story most people don’t know.
“People know him as the crackhead or woman beater, and even though those are all huge elements that people talk about, I wanted to understand his pain more and what that abuse was and where it all came from. I wanted to know why he may have lashed out in the way he did. Why his demise was the way it was and how he self-destructed,” says Sykes. “He has almost an infamous name and history, and I never wanted to see him as just this bad guy.”
From a vocal standpoint, Sykes already understood the emotional history embedded in the notes that permeate the Motown sound.
“It might sound cliché, but it takes soul,” he says. “Each and every one of those guys were gospel singers in the church, and they would sing from a place of oppression or poverty and it became a powerful sound we know so well when we hear it to this day.”
He’s also got the technique down. “That kind of screaming and hollering is ok to do on a Sunday morning, but to do it eight times a week—sometimes twice a day—can really be taxing,” he says.
On top of that, Sykes and the rest of the quintet ramp up for The Temptations’ moves, updated by Tony-nominated choreographer Sergio Trujillo.
“Sergio wants to make people not just see what they saw before but feel like what they felt like back then,”Sykes says. In order to do that, you have to up the ante on the movements, so you get the sensation of what they were doing, rather than just a copy and repeat.”
What’s funny about Sykes’ career is that he can’t seem to escape this ’60s era. He had already played fellow Temptation Otis Williams on Broadway in Motown the Musical and impressed many as Seaweed in NBC’s Hairspray Live back in 2016.
“The R&B era of the ’60s seems to be my pocket right now,” he says.
And considering his other Broadway roles include Memphis (set in the ’50s), Newsies (set in 1899) and Hamilton (set more than 230 years ago!), Sykes has yet get to perform in a contemporary setting. Not that he minds.
“One of the interesting things I love about this story and Motown in general and what it’s meant to this country, is a lot of things we know about these men’s lives, is based on folklore and word of mouth,” he says. “A lot of it came down from those who lived during that time and who went to the concerts and knew these men on a first-name basis. It’s been interesting to interview and do research reaching out to those resources and hear their stories.”
This is no ordinary jukebox musical. While it boasts The Temptations’ greatest hits, its story humanizes these reocrding artists and grounds itself in reality.
“It’s a story on five young black men in a world today that show our lives matter,” Sykes says. “Back then, their music brought this county together when no politician could.”