Last night, I saw Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations. It was the final performance of an extended, record-breaking run at Berkeley Rep. (It's heading to Broadway next year.) Now I'm thinking about this genre, the "jukebox" musical,* where a book writer begins with a set of preexisting songs --in this case thirty-one of The Temptations's greatest hits-- and drapes a story around them.
Here's what I imagine is tricky:
Songs should happen in musicals when spoken dialogue is no longer "enough," when the writer needs a non-verbal mode (music) to bring the audience into a feeling, vibe, brain space, or mood beneath language, or beyond it. Words may be specific; music is precise.
I think about the way I wrote Stir, out of order, beginning with the moments that for reasons I couldn't explain, felt important. These moments were the "songs," if you will, which is to say, the parts of what happened that made me feel big feelings and wonder, huh, what is that about? I hammered down these markers, first. Then I sat back and let the story rise up to meet me, writing the connective tissue between those "songs," between the things that mattered most.
I imagine that's how most musicals happen? I don't know, I'm sure there are other ways in. There must be. Like, a book writer has an idea for a plot, maybe even an honest to goodness story, and starts to write. Still, she's aiming for those moments. She'll write towards those points when the lyricist/composer comes in with a song.
So how does all this work in a jukebox musical, like the one I saw last night?
Dominique Morisseau,** the book writer for Ain't Too Proud, has crafted a moving story from Otis Williams's biography and woven it tightly around The Temptations's repertoire. What got me thinking is this: When drama and emotion peak in this show, it is between the songs. The most human moments in Ain't Too Proud, the parts about ambition, ego, illness, love, parenthood, and loss, arrive not by means of The Temptations's music and lyrics, but via Morisseau's dialogue. The songs surround these moments, but are not attached to them, at least not in the conventional way. It's as if the direction is reversed: rather than the songs imbuing the surrounding dialogue with deeper meaning and precision, the dialogue casts the preexisting songs in a particular light.*** If the songs in this musical are signposts of story, they are of a different kind.
Which has me wondering, what is the relationship between an artist's life and the work she produces, anyway? Was The Temptations's repertoire, is any artist's repertoire, a form of biography? Is an artist's body of work a story "about" the human life that created it, in addition to being a story "about" the artist's evolution in her craft?
* Here's Sarah Larson of The New Yorker on jukebox musicals, and the possibility that they can produce something more than "ovation-by-coercion."
** I wish I had been in New York to see Pipeline, her latest. This interview with Morriseau is terrific.
***One exception is the way Morriseau situates the song Papa Was a Rollin' Stone. She brings us inside the making of the song and the musicians' feelings about that process through actual performances of the song.