Arts

‘I Think We’re Cousins?’: ‘Ain’t Too Proud’ Performers Realize Link

Before the curtain comes down each night on “Ain’t Too Proud,” the Broadway jukebox musical that follows the rise of the R&B group the Temptations, the cast turns around in unison and lowers down to one knee as the lights go up to illuminate the show’s 17-piece band.

After playing more than two hours of Motown classics, the guitarists, the drummers and the string section wave as the audience applauds.

During the curtain call on Feb. 28, 2020, the day Matt Manuel made his Broadway debut in the flashy role of David Ruffin, he bowed alone, then with his fellow Temptations, all wearing gleaming white jackets and ties. When he turned and knelt down to give the musicians the spotlight, he thought to himself vaguely that the violist had cool hair.

Two days later, he received a message from that violist, Andrew Griffin, who had been in the band since the show opened in 2019.

“So…I think we’re cousins…?” Griffin wrote to Manuel in an Instagram message.

Manuel responded with the requisite number of exclamation points for such a discovery: “Omg yes we are cousins!!!!!!!!”

In fact, they’re second cousins once removed, according to the family tree recently drawn by Griffin’s mother. (She’s enthusiastic about genealogy.) Manuel’s great-grandmother is Griffin’s grandfather’s older sister, with 14 years separating the two siblings.

Manuel made his Broadway debut as David Ruffin in the show just weeks before the shutdown.Credit…Julieta Cervantes

The realization was a delight and a comfort to Manuel, 29, who, in January 2020, arrived in New York from Detroit after he had been cast as Ruffin, replacing Ephraim Sykes. It was a daunting move across the country: He left quickly with only two suitcases — the rest of his stuff remained in his parents’ garage — and it was his first time living independently, away from his family.

He had always heard that Griffin’s side of the family eagerly supported their relatives however they could.

“Wherever you’re at, they will take you up in a heartbeat,” said Manuel, whose professional acting debut was playing Marvin Gaye on tour in “Motown: The Musical.” “If you’ve got family, you’ve got everything that you need.”

Griffin, 35, who grew up in Pittsburgh and moved to New York about six years ago to advance his music career, was shocked to learn that a new leading member in “Ain’t Too Proud” was a blood relative.

“I knew nothing of him — absolutely nothing,” Griffin said. “I saw him onstage whenever they turn around and the musicians wave. That’s about it.”

If it wasn’t for a video of the curtain call on Feb. 28, they might never have realized it. Manuel and his family had missed an earlier reunion, and the one scheduled for 2020 was canceled because of the pandemic.

In February 2020, Manuel’s mother, Amiesha Williams, traveled to New York City to see his debut, and the day after, she posted a YouTube video of the curtain call on a family Facebook page used to plan reunions.

“You know how proud moms are,” Manuel said, “they just brag.”

The post garnered clapping emojis, encouraging remarks and then a comment from Griffin’s mother, Linda, pointing out that her son was in the center of the video playing the viola. She didn’t realize who Matt Manuel was and why Williams had posted the video of him in the first place.

“How do you know him?” Linda Griffin wrote in the comments section.

Williams replied the next day: “I’m sorry I fell asleep so I’m just seeing this. Matthew is my son.”

As comments flew back and forth about the specifics of their genealogy, Manuel was onstage crooning into the microphone as Ruffin, the original lead voice of “My Girl.” Griffin was not far away, playing his viola beneath the stage. When Manuel returned to his dressing room, he saw a text from his mother: He had a cousin in the band and he should go meet him.

“I’m like, ‘What does he look like?’” Manuel said. “And she’s just like, ‘His name is Drew and he plays the viola.’”

Outside the stage door, Manuel signed autographs for a throng of giddy Broadway fans, glancing back every so often to look for the viola player. When Griffin walked out, the two introduced themselves tentatively. “I think we’re cousins,” Griffin said. Two fans holding a poster stared at them blankly, Manuel recalled.

The pair did the natural thing to do when you discover a family member: schedule a lunch date. They made plans for the following week, but soon, the airborne virus that had been spreading across the world had producers worrying. Then, on March 12, less than two weeks after Manuel’s debut, the industry shut down.

“Maybe we should postpone,” Griffin remembered saying.

During the lockdown, Griffin fled to North Carolina to hunker down with his girlfriend and her family; Manuel went back to Detroit, thinking the pause in the production would be a good opportunity to drive back the rest of his stuff in a U-Haul.

The shutdown stretched on and on, keeping performers like Griffin and Manuel out of a regular job and perpetually wondering when they would get a return date. Griffin spent time composing, something he didn’t always have time to do with a full performance schedule. Manuel grieved the loss of a relative, spent time with family and tried to reconnect with the part of himself that wasn’t a performer, always eager to entertain those around him.

The cousins fell out of touch, their discovery outside of the stage door seeming like another era, where fans mingled freely with actors after exiting a tightly packed theater.

But last month, the show took back its place at the Imperial Theater. The initial days were all work: Manuel, who lives in Harlem, tried to get his body accustomed to doing back flips, splits and microphone tricks for seven shows a week. Griffin, who lives in Williamsburg, had four days to sit back in front of his music stand with the rest of the band and get songs like “You’re My Everything” and “Get Ready” back into their muscle memory.

“Going down the street for the first day of work, I started to well up a little bit,” Griffin said. “It was like nothing had really changed — there were still jokes and stuff written on our stands.”

They hadn’t gotten a moment to spend time together until late last month, when a member of the show’s production staff had a birthday party and they were both invited.

“Now let’s pick up where we left of,” Manuel said. “Actually go eat a meal and talk and, you know, gossip.”

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