NEW YORK -- For Jeremy Pope, the idea of playing one of The Temptations was a daunting proposition. Thankfully, he got some advice and help from an original Temptation.
During rehearsals for the jukebox musical "Ain't Too Proud — The Life and Times of the Temptations," Otis Williams, the last original member, arrived to give his support.
"He just gave me the biggest hug and he said, 'You got it. You got it.' And he invited us to his hotel room, and we sat there for I think five hours and we just, he just told stories and talked," Pope said.
While doing his research, which included listening to the band's entire catalog and speaking to civil rights activist U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Pope made an important connection.
"I think one thing that I pay attention to now listening to the music is you can hear the struggle and the pain behind their voices and why they're singing the songs the way they are singing. And if you go back to a marker and go, what was happening in that year? You'll go, 'Oh, civil rights. Oh, segregation.'"
"Ain't Too Proud," which goes into Sunday's Tony Awards with 12 nominations, charts the rise, sacrifices and challenges facing the 1960s group that sang "Baby Love" and "My Girl." Audiences have noted its echoes with Black Lives Matter and racial tensions today.
Pope, who plays group member Eddie Kendricks, marvels at the fact that The Temptations were becoming icons "in a time where they were unsure of their own safety."
For actor Ephraim Sykes, who plays David Ruffin, the reaction has also been deeply personal. One audience member came up after a show to tell Sykes that he would play "My Girl" when his daughter was born.
"This man cried in front of me, thinking about how much that song meant to him and that we brought it back for him in a real way," Sykes said.
Ruffin's grandson thanked the actors for teaching audiences "not just the Temptations' story but the story of our country."
Working on the show, Derrick Baskin, who plays Williams, learned the many stories behind the beautiful notes.
"Knowing their stories more it helps us to actually appreciate what they put into the music spiritually and emotionally that I think audiences actually gravitate toward," Baskin said.
Follow John Carucci at http://www.twitter.com/jacarucci