Interview: 'It's Like an Out-of-Body Experience': Shelly Berger, Manager of The Temptations, on AIN'T TOO PROUD and its Legacy

'It's almost like an out-of-body experience'

By: Oct. 12, 2023
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Interview: 'It's Like an Out-of-Body Experience': Shelly Berger, Manager of The Temptations, on AIN'T TOO PROUD and its Legacy
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Ain't Too Proud

Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, is currently impressing audiences with its fantastic music and the heartfelt tribute it pays to the original members of the musical group on a US tour.

With his songs like “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “My Girl,” and “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone,” the show takes audience members through the history of The Temptations, showing them both the highs and the lows of life in the group.

Recently, BroadwayWorld had the chance to sit down and talk with Shelly Berger, the current manager of The Temptations who has been with the group for over sixty years. We discussed what it has been like to see himself portrayed on stage, the journey of Ain’t Too Proud on both sides of the pond and Berry Gordy’s first reaction to the show!


What has it been like seeing your own story portrayed on stage?

It's very interesting! It's almost like an out-of-body experience.  

And what has it been like managing The Temptations for over sixty years?

It's been an adventure from day one. And it still is because the problems in America that existed in the middle 60s exist today. We've always had to deal with the racism problem, and the innuendo of such to get us on television, to do our television specials, our movies, which Berry Gordy funded himself! So we've always done our own thing. And thank goodness to Berry Gordy, is all I can say!

What has it been like seeing the group change over the decades?

Once your children grow up and start moving out of the house . . . No matter what reason, they're gone, and they are replaced, you can never have the same feeling. You may love the new children, but you will never have the same feeling as your original children. So the different changes in the group are just a fact of life. We deal with it and we move on. The Temptations . . .  Berry Gordy said from the very very beginning that the sum was much greater than its individual parts. And you can see that we have not lost anything recording-wise. When we went from David Ruffin to Dennis Edwards, from Paul Williams to Richard Street. The great songs and great recordings were still there.

Ain't Too Proud
Tosh Wanogho-Maud, Mitchell Zhangazha, Sifiso Mazibuko, Cameron Bernard Jones, Kyle Cox from the London cast of the show (c) Johan Persson

What was it like bringing Ain’t Too Proud to the West End?

That was my greatest joy because I've always felt that England is the greatest market in the world. The English audiences are the greatest audiences in the world, bar none. I've listened to audiences all around the world, and especially in America, there are no audiences that are as loyal, that enjoy entertainment like the English audience. We've always been very successful in England.

What was it like to see the responses to the show?

I've seen it time and time again, in different venues in America. People love this show! They love the show, they love the people in the show, they're interested. They're a part of it, they sing the songs . . . It's heartfelt, and they also understand the tragedies that went on with this group. So it has meaning to them. And it has meaning in the period that it is set. And it also has meaning because audiences realise that what is going on in the play is going on today.

Do you have any favourite scenes within the show?

Well, I think Paul singing “For Once in My Life.” And from the original recording of “For Once in My Life” that Paul did, no one in the world has ever done it better. But the way it is set up in the show, the way that it happens, the way that it was staged, it is probably my favourite song in the show, with the exception of the closing of the show. I think that the closing of the show is just monumental.

So can you go a bit more into what your role on the West End show was?

I was very involved! I was the one who chose the American producers of the show, Ira Pittelman and Tom Hulce, and we worked very closely together. I met Des McAnuff, who I have always been a fan of because I've seen his earlier works. Once you get started with The Temptations, it is like a disease - you become involved with The Temptations. The project started when I made my deal with Ira Pittelman, probably about 2009. However, I had to get the rights from Berry Gordy to do the show. And I went to Berry Gordy who, by the way, is my best friend and my son's godfather! And I said, “You have to give me these rights.”

Ain't Too Proud
The London company (c) Johan Perrson

And he said, “You know I can never say no to you, so you have the rights.”  So we had Berry Gordy's approval. Now, there was the approval of the music, which was Sony [Music] Publishing. So I had to call Sony, Martin Bandier, and say, “Marty, I don't want to go to the opening of this show on a stretcher!” And he approved. “I didn't understand! Oh, of course, we'll approve it!” And so now that we had the music done, we started. We hired Des, and Des hired Sergio, and then we had to deal with who was going to write the book. We all decided on a young lady from Detroit, Dominique Morisseau, who is an award-winning writer of other pieces. And all of a sudden, she got into The Temptations “disease.” And Domonique and Des met with Otis and met with me, and it went from there. 

Watching the very first reading in 2017 . . . That was a kicker, watching the story and watching my life unfold. This is before Otis ever saw it. And then when Otis saw it, we didn't want him to see the second act, because the second act involves the deaths of all his brothers. And so he finally saw it and, of course, was quite moved. And then we opened in Berkeley, California. And Berry Gordy had not seen the production yet, and the producers kept saying to me, “When is Mr. Gordy going to see the play?”. If you understand Berry Gordy and my relationship, anything that he sees, he takes 1,000 notes and destroys what you've done. 

And so I'm sitting next to him in the theatre and I'm just waiting for, “This is a piece of crap!” ... and he grabs my leg and he says, “I've never been so proud of you as I am tonight.” I can never say that sentence without getting choked up! Because in addition to being my best friend, he is a man who I respect, more than probably any other person I've ever met in my life, for what he has accomplished, and what he never gets credit for.

He and Motown and our artists opened the doors for a lot of other artists in what they're doing today. If there wasn't a Diana Ross, there wouldn't be a Beyonce. She opened the door to a black recording artist being in two smash movies. Not a maid or a hooker, but as a glamorous movie star. And that's what Motown did with our films. 

So you had the show in California in Berkeley, and then where did it go from there?

It went to the Kennedy Center, then we played in Toronto, and then we opened in New York, at the Imperial Theatre. I'm from Brooklyn, I grew up in New York, I went to the High School of Performing Arts in New York, so theatre was inside of me. I worked for the top press agent on Broadway when I was fifteen after school! So coming back to Broadway, especially going to the Imperial Theatre where I worked with the press agent on The Most Happy Fella . . . I love that theatre. We were a smash, and if it wasn't for Covid, the play would still be running on Broadway. But life is what is what life is.

Ain't Too Proud
Harrell Holmes Jr., Elijah Ahmad Lewis, Jalen Harris, Marcus Paul James, James T. Lane from the US National Touring Company of Ain't Too Proud (c) Emilio Madrid

What do you hope that audiences took away from Ain’t Too Proud?

Well, I hope they took away the message that the love of these people together, whatever arguments, and fights and split-ups went on through the years, the love was always there. And everybody who's left the group always wanted to come back to the group. That's why we had the reunion in the 80s when David and Eddie [Kendricks] came back for a certain period of time. No one has ever left The Temptations and just said, “Hey, I never want to see those guys again!”

So hopefully, the people took the message of that bond, of that friendship and how important the music is. It’s as Shakespeare said, “The play’s the thing.” The music is the thing. And people just enjoyed themselves! 

Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations ran at the Prince Edward Theatre, London from 31 March to 17 September 2023 and is currently on a US tour.




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