The high-stepping, harmony-driven, biographical musical “Ain’t Too Proud - The Life And Times Of The Temptations” invites Broadway audiences into the often unharmonious lives of the famous R&B/soul quintet who took their signature dance moves and distinctive harmonies all the way to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. They created 42 Top Ten Hits, and 14 number one singles, including like “My Girl,” “Just My Imagination,” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” making a historic contribution to American culture.
Kenny Seymour is the Music Director and Vocal Arranger. He leads the band in the orchestra pit while he plays one or more keyboards. After I saw the show in mid-June 2019, I went to the Stage Door to say hello. Kenny walked out to chat with the crowd and sign programs. “Kenny,” I called out. He didn’t hear me and turned in the other direction. “Kenny! Kenny, Kenny!” the crowd starting shouting, and they all pointed at me. He turned to give me a big smile. He wore a crisp, white shirt and his long braids were tied back. He graciously took a few minutes to chat with me. Seymour is busy – he has worked as Music Director and/or keyboardist for Dionne Warwick, Jordan Sparks, Missy Elliot, and Ray Chew, Music Director of eleven seasons for ABC TV’s “Dancing with The Stars”. Later, Ray Chew said this to me:
“Kenny is the consummate professional. Throughout his career he has earned the respect of all the genres that he has commanded from hip-hop to jazz and takes command of the Broadway pit. Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!”
After a flurry of emails over several weeks, Seymour at last sat down to talk with me. He told me he began playing piano by ear at age four, and started studying music at age nine. His mother, actress Mary Seymour, performed on Broadway in the musicals “Hair” (Original Cast) and “Raisin”. His late father, Kenny W. Seymour, was a member of another classic R&B/soul vocal group, “Little Anthony and the Imperials” for several years.
AD: Are you a native New Yorker?
KS: Well, I was born in New York, spent the early part of my life in Manhattan in the Upper West Side. And then later in my life, with my mom, I moved to Long Island. As far as being involved in the business, I started, I went to a school called Professional Children’s School in the Lincoln Center area, and from like third grade up. When I was there, my grandmother had seen an ad about, when you enter the school, on getting your child into commercials and jingles. And so, from age seven up until about 16, I was a jingle singer and voiceover artist.
AD: As a child?
KS: Yeah. In the actual industry, singing jingles. There’s a jingle out now, still runs every now and then. It’s an old one, it’s for Lite Brite [a toy that debuted in the 1960s. Singing:]. “Turn on the magic of shining light!”
AD: What’s the difference between an orchestrator and a music arranger? Harold Wheeler did the orchestrations. You were the music arranger. So did you arrange the vocal harmonies for the Broadway cast?
KS: Yes, there is a vocal arrangement in the production of the creative process that you put together and that has piano accompaniment. And yes, I did do the vocal arrangements. However, when you get into songs that weave in and out of dialogue, there needs to be underscoring and vamps, and things that set up the entrance back into dialogue. Basically, how the show this song is arranged; where the verse comes, where the chorus comes, where we, we duck down. Those are the musical arrangements. As far as the structure.
AD: In the musical, the vocal arrangements are not quite the same as the vocal arrangements on the original records. In the show, the vocal arrangements sound larger and more theatrical. They’re more muscular.
KS: Now, we’re getting into music geek territory!
KS: ‘Cause we’re both musical. My primary focus was to maintain the integrity of what [the original Temptations] created vocally. I think that when you hear it, they’re pretty similar. The only thing is when you hear more people singing them, it can come across as though it’s a little larger.
AD: There are extra chorus singers, sometimes?
KS: That’s right. Some liberties were taken in respect to moving the story forward later on in Act Two, and to facilitate the telling of the story. But one of my primary focuses was on maintaining the integrity of what [The Temptations] did, and not changing too much to the point where it was indistinguishable. Because they’re such iconic songs, you want to make sure that their harmonies were based off of them singing together, that unity. With Motown, the different songwriters that came on, there was a different sound. With Smokey, there was a different sound than with Norman Whitfield. Norman used more strings. Smokey used more brass. And a lot of that music was reflective of the time.
Also, in putting together the band, it was really important for me to maintain the integrity of the music, of what some of The Funk Brothers [Motown’s world-class studio musicians] and the other musicians who played. Like, my bass player, George Farmer, has the same base that James Jamison played in 1969, a Fender Precision.
AD: Wow! The actual same instrument?
KS: Yeah. So things like that. The drum fills, the EQ of the snare, you know, there are certain things that are iconic, that are memorable.
AD: It seems to me that the base is fatter and the rest of the band is thicker just below the middle than the original recording charts.
KS: Oh, the beauty about that, a lot of that, is also the orchestrations by Stephen Kennedy, in the way that things were arranged in the pit. The sound design. The way he notches out different frequencies for different instruments and makes the vocals, you know, pop.
AD: So this was what I thought in my head as I was sitting in the show: that the orchestrations reflect the original records. But the instrument sounds are also used to parallel the vocal ranges of the five singers.
KS: Once again, the beauty of working with Harold Wheeler!
AD: It was wonderful to see him win a Tony Lifetime Achievement Award this year.
KS: A very dear friend and mentor of mine also. A very, very talented man, a very kind man with a vast body of work. And it was a joy to work with him on this project. Not only because of the nature of the music, but because of the fact that we view music the same. And it was a heartfelt endeavor. Because of our love for the music and wanting to maintain the integrity of the music. It was a wonderful process. It really was. One hundred percent, I mean it unequivocally.
And you know, he has worked with Motown artists prior. And with myself as an orchestrator also, because I am an orchestrator as well. I was the Orchestrator for “Marley: A World Premiere Musical” [at Center Stage] and “Amazing Grace: An Epic Musical” [at Goodspeed]. We speak the same language. And so when it came time for the actual orchestra read through, everything made so much sense. Because he’s so brilliant at what he does. You know, it was, it was a wonderful process.
AD: When in the development process did you become the Music Director for “Ain’t Too Proud”?
KS: From the beginning. There was a five week workshop in New York. And during that time, at the presentation of the workshop, you know, I had the band, and I conducted and I played and had arranged that. So it was from the initial outset of stepping onto the project. We really have a stellar, stellar creative team. I mean, everything from the lighting design, costumes, everybody. The script by playwright Dominique Morisseau [Kennedy Prize-winner]. The choreography by Sergio Trujillo.
AD: He won a Tony this year. His work on “Ain’t Too Proud” is brilliant!
KS: Yes. And direction by a Tony winner, Des McAnuff [“Big River”, “The Who’s Tommy”].
AD: Getting this Music Director job, was it highly competitive? Or was it right on your path?
KS: On my path. It’s highly competitive. However, relationships are very important. I worked with Des McAnuff prior on a show called “The Wiz” at La Jolla Playhouse [in 2006], and so I know him from there. Sergio also worked on that as well.
AD: You’ve also scored films and produced studio recordings. Right now, what kind of work do you like the best?
KS: Very good question! I love the creative process. As far as performing. I love playing. I would have to say I love creating. And the beauty about theatre is that I can do both!
AD: At the curtain call, you conducted the entire orchestra onstage in full view of the audience. Then, another musician played a big Hammond organ as he was wheeled out from the wings! Is that Hammond in the wings just for the bows?! Is there an elevator to bring it onstage or is there a second Hammond down in the pit?!
KS: Nope! The pit keyboard is a keyboard rig [a rack of electronic keyboards] and there are synthesizers that have specific sounds on them, programmed by Randy Cohen.
AD: But the orchestra pit is covered. So how do you give the cast their musical cues?
KS: There are video monitors that are connected, so [I can take care of] visual cues and other conductor duties.
AD: So the show ends, the cast takes their bows, and all 18 musicians who were playing in the orchestra pit, below the stage, they suddenly show up on stage!
KS: That was Des McAnuff’s idea, to bring the entire band on stage and open the curtain and that pointed to a nice reveal!
AD: Standing ovation!