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Kenny Seymour & Music’s Universality

In the pit eight shows a week with the Broadway’s Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, Kenny Seymour—the music director, conductor, arranger, and keyboardist for the production—gets to see every night how his work impacts the audience.

“We have young people, we have seniors, we have all nationalities, people coming in from different countries, and almost immediately when the music starts, they’re all clapping and just enjoying themselves in unison,” says Kenny, a NYC Local 802 member. “And by the end of the night, when you’re looking out there and you’re going, ‘Wow, everybody’s on their feet and thoroughly enjoying themselves together.’ It’s overwhelming. It really is.”

Ain’t Too Proud is the story of the influential Motown group The Temptations, and their journey from the streets of Detroit to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame during the turbulent times of the 1960s. It is a show filled with the group’s signature dance moves and iconic music—and it recently received 12 Tony award nominations.

Kenny is the man behind the music of the show, and he has been with the production since nearly the beginning.

“As the music director, I’m somewhat the all-around music person. I’m teaching vocals, conducting the band, playing the show, working with the orchestra, and maintaining the musical integrity of the show as it goes in the long run,” he says. “Over time, you need to make sure that you have the same show because things change and you want to make sure the integrity of the music remains the same so that everyone is getting the same incredible experience.”

The show started with a five-week workshop in New York in January 2017. Prior to that, Kenny was prepping the piano vocal scores and vocal arrangements to be able to teach for the first day of rehearsal. After New York, the show went to Berkeley, California, and after a brief hiatus played at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, the Ahmanson in Los Angeles, and the Prince of Wales in Toronto, Canada.

“And then we got the news that we had gotten the Imperial [Theatre on Broadway]. That was phenomenal. It was overwhelming because there was so much work and so much love that went into this production from the very beginning,” he says. “That was like the end of the marathon that you enjoyed running.”

During the touring, the production played with a core group of musicians and picked up local union talent in each city they visited. Kenny’s job was to teach and train the local musicians to play at the musical standard and quality for the show, he says. Now that they are on Broadway, the musicians (all active members of Local 802) are the same, but when the show goes on national tour (which it will in 2020, the news was recently announced) Kenny will return to the road with the rest of the creative team to set up the shows in various cities.

All of this touring is done under union contracts. “The contracts set parameters that allow us to operate under guidelines that are established for every other creative art so that we are a respected unit of the entire creation as well as the entire production,” Kenny says. “It adds an order of structure and support: When to be in rehearsal, when to schedule breaks, when the doubles are, what payment will be in overtime. The rules are there, everything is laid out, it’s clear, there’s no questioning about what you have to do.”

“I believe that it is important to have an organization like the musicians union to enable us to do our jobs without worrying about being taken advantage of, and having certain guidelines so that we can create freely and really be focused on what we do as musicians, which is to create and to play music.”

Kenny says he feels fortunate because he loves going to work every day and playing in a show whose music is “like a soundtrack to people’s lives.” And that is one of the things Kenny says he loves about music: its universality. Years ago, when he toured Japan with a band named Zhané, Kenny remembers how the entire audience would sing along but, after the show, when the fans would come up to the musicians, it turned out most of them did not actually speak English—they just knew the words to the songs. “The music was so universal and cross cultural that they knew it, they felt it, and they loved it,” he says. “That’s the one thing I love about musicians and being a musician: I can speak that language with anybody in the world.”

Kenny himself was influenced by music as a young age through his parents. His mother was in the original company for the Broadway production of Hair, while his father was a member of the group Little Anthony and the Imperials. Kenny’s mother would actually take him as a baby to Hair rehearsals. At age 4 Kenny started playing piano, and by age 7 he was singing commercial jingles professionally. (Ever hear the commercials for Lite Brite? Some of those are him at age 9.) As a teenager, Kenny transitioned from children’s jingles to playing his piano in local bands, and doing club shows and wedding gigs.

He attended the Manhattan School of Music and Berklee College of Music and over a 20-year career has amassed a large resume of accomplishments, including performing live and in studio with numerous established artists; musical director for artists, bands, symphony orchestras, and on- and off-Broadway shows; composer for television, movies, and theater productions; and arranger/copyist for television shows and events, including Stevie Wonder’s performance at the 2009 Presidential Inaugural Ball.

Ain’t Too Proud is Kenny’s third time on Broadway, having previously been the synthesizer programmer for the musical Hot Feet in 2006, and music director/conductor/Key 1 for Memphis: The Birth of Rock and Roll in 2009.

Kenny first joined the union when he worked on Hot Feet, which was also his Broadway debut. “I wanted to be a Local 802 member for a sense of solidarity, a respect for the craft, having a team behind you,” he says. “A lot of times musicians are looked at as—you’ve heard the term music is ‘not a real job,’ that you’re just ‘playing’—so it gives you a fortification to the business that music is and the craft that it is. It’s not just a hobby and it’s not just something that people do in the park for fun. It’s actually a business, a job.”

Kenny says that, to him, a union of musicians means solidarity. “It means providing healthcare for musicians who would not otherwise have it, or the opportunity or access to healthcare. It means a community of support, a community of knowledge.”

And, of course, Kenny loves his job and his union because of the musicians. “One thing that I really enjoy is the fact that everybody on the creative team loves music and it’s so seamless … there’s a common goal and the telling of the story and the way that the music is intertwined helps move it forward in such a way that you’re affected by the brilliant book,” he says. “Also, having musicians that really understand the music and really feel it. Everybody in the band really loves the music and takes it to heart; it’s not just notes on a page. And I think that makes the difference when you’re playing live: You can play the notes, but to be able to convey emotion with those notes is something totally different.”

While he is busy on Broadway currently, Kenny’s musical interests are varied. He loves composing (especially for films; he says that as a kid he “fell in love with Star Wars and was a John Williams fanboy”). One of his current side projects is composing for the “English Egg” Language series—an English acquisition program for young children that uses storybooks, songs, and play as a first approach to learning English. He started working with the company in 2009 and has composed cues for every release since its inception.