Interview with Sergio Trujillo
By Beth Herstein
Sergio Trujillo is one of the most successful choreographers on Broadway today, represented by three diverse shows that display his own eclecticism: the winning and popular revival of Guys and Dolls, the extraordinary new musical Next to Normal (for which he is credited with musical staging), and Jersey Boys, which three-and-a-half years into its run remains one of Broadway's biggest phenomenons. Trujillo is not content to rest on his laurels, however. Instead, he has several new projects in the worksincluding a musical version of The Addams Family , presently set to hit New York in the spring of 2010. Recently, Trujillo was in New York auditioning dancers for Memphis and promoting his shows, particularly Guys and Dolls, in advance of the Tony nominations. While he was in town, I spoke to Trujillo by phone about his past, present and future projects.
Beth Herstein: You were born in Columbia but grew up in Toronto. What brought you and your family to Canada?
Sergio Trujillo: We moved to Toronto in the mid-1970s. My parents wanted to move to a city where they had better opportunities.
BH: You were a professional dancer before you became a choreographer. When did you know that you wanted to be a dancer?
ST: Dance has always been a part of my family. More like social dancing, however. I actually went to university and studied chemistry, and got my bachelor's degree in science from the University of Toronto. So it was not until I was 19, 20 that I started my dancing career. A lot of people start out when they are kids, and attend dance schools from an early age.
BH: You danced on Broadway on a number of occasions.
ST: Yes. The first show I did, I took a sabbatical from chiropractic school and I danced in Jerome Robbins Broadway. Then I did the 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls. Then Kiss of the Spider Woman and Victor / Victoria. The last show I did was Fosse.
BH: I hadn't realized you studied to be a chiropractor. How has that helped you as a choreographer?
ST: I actually chose to study it because I was falling in love with dance and knew I was going to try a career in dance. I took chiropractic because I wanted to stay involved with dance ... Of course, it's been incredibly useful to have that skill. It helps when somebody gets injured or something happens to one of my dancers that I go into a sort of health practitioner mode in a way. I become incredibly careful and play caretaker for whoever gets injured. So it comes in handy.
BH: You danced in a lot of shows featuring the work of iconic choreographers.
ST: I had the great luck and fortune of bookending my dance career with shows featuring the choreography of two masters of dance, Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse. It doesn't get any better than that.
BH: When did you begin to shift toward choreography?
ST: It was during my last show as a dancer, Fosse, which was in 1999. During the time that I was dancing I was assisting different choreographersJerry Mitchell, Rob Marshall, Debbie Allen, Vince Patersonpeople like that. I knew while I was dancing that at some point I was going to choreograph but I had to get dance out of my body. In dance, I was an instrument as opposed to the one who created the dances.
BH: It sounds like you had a lot of great mentors who allowed you to develop your skills as a choreographer.
ST: I did. I had a great working relationship with Jerry Mitchell. He was instrumental. In addition to him and the other people I mentioned, I worked with other choreographers in film and television, and I was able to learn about film and television from them.
BH: You also have choreographed Ballet Hispanico and have worked with New York City Opera.
ST: Yes. I've kept myself pretty eclectic and versatile, choreographing balletsBallet Hispanico, mostlyopera, film and television.
BH: You created additional choreography for 2005's All Shook Up, but Jersey Boys was your first Broadway job as choreographer. Can you talk about the incredible success of the show and about your work in it?
ST: Jersey Boys has been one of the most remarkable experiences of my career. It's been remarkably uplifting. For me, running out of the gate being able to be the choreographer of such a big hit was extraordinary. Working with Des [McAnuff, director of Jersey Boys] is really wonderful. He's a phenomenal director and he's able to guide his entire team to fulfill one common vision. Before I walked into rehearsals, I had come up with really, really show-off choreography, like the Temptations meets Today. He guided me to make sure that the choreography was character oriented and character driven. We never wanted it to seem as though the actors were dancing. Instead, we wanted it to feel as if the characters were dancing, as if the movement was happening spontaneously. It doesn't always appear as if what's going on in the show is choreographed, but every single move is choreographed to the end.
BH: After the success of the show, you must have had a lot of job offers to choreograph other shows. It seems as if you are very deliberative about your choices.
ST: As soon as Jersey Boys happened there were a lot of opportunities and I've been incredibly selective about what I've wanted to do. I turned down some shows that are on the boards right now. For me, it was important to figure out what kind of material I wanted to do, who I wanted to work withdirectors, creative teams, composers and lyricists. I feel like I've made some great choices. I'm not in a hurry. It's important for me to have a solid foundation and a body of work that expresses who I am.
BH: You mentioned that as a dancer you were an instrument. When I watch great dancers dance, they actually are like instruments performing the songs. They can riff on the music they're interpreting as much as a musician. How does that affect your choices as a choreographer?
ST: Guys and Dolls is the perfect example of that for me, because one of the ways I was able to tap into this revival is that I needed to find a piece of music that inspired me from the '30s. Because we set the show in the '30s, which is when it was written, instead of the 1950s. I needed to find a way into it. One of the pieces of music that helped me was [the 1936 Louis Prima composition and swing era hit] "Sing, Sing, Sing," which happens to be one of my favorite pieces of music. Dancing to that song revealed how the show was going to move and how I was going to physicalize the show.
BH: What was it like choreographing Guys and Dolls 17 years after appearing in it as a dancer?
ST: First of all, it was great for me to know that I already understood the piece, I knew the lyrics, I knew what it was about. I knew all the characters. So right away I had a head start as far as the material went. At the beginning when I knew I was going to choreograph the show, it was a little tricky in terms of detaching myself from what I knew. The big challenge for me was to pay homage to the original work and also to be able to put my own stamp on the material.
BH: In creating your choreography for the show, how much do you adhere to the earlier production and how much do you move away from it?
ST: We came up with an original concept, setting it in the 1930s, so it is nothing like what was done in 1992. Des [McAnuff, who directed Guys and Dolls] and I decided we wanted to base it on the original Damon Runyon stories, and there are so many of them. I immersed myself in the original work, read the stories, and found my own point of view about that world. The way that it was done in 1992 was very old fashioned, because you brought in the drops, and you did a lot of in-oneswhich is when the scene is happening in one wing, and there's a set change in another wing. We challenged ourselves by not creating that kind of storytelling. We pushed ourselves and we pushed the boundaries. So, right away I felt we were creating our own show, our own revival. I feel that if you're going to revive a show you have to be able to look at the material and say, "This is why I want to do it. This is what I want to say with it." So you have a strong point of view.
BH: I was talking to another friend who loved the revival. She enjoyed all the actors, but one of the great pleasures for her was the supporting cast, the great ensemble of veteran actors and dancers.
ST: When I did the show 17 years ago as a dancer, there was a dancing ensemble and an acting ensemble. However, in the current production, with the change in the economic climate, we couldn't use 36 performers, we could only use 26 or 27. So all the dancers have to be actors. All the dancers have to be characters. The story had to be told as if all the characters are dancing. So, the movement is very character driven, which is something that is really interesting to me. It was challenging to find performers who were true triple threats. I was lucky to get dancers who also can sing and act.
BH: I absolutely loved Next to Normal. What attracted you to the project?
ST: I chose Next to Normal even though it wasn't going to have much choreography, because I wanted to work with Michael Greif [director], Tom Kitt [composer] and Brian Yorkey [lyrics and book]. I was attracted to the material. It was complex and it was interesting and it was smart. Without [producer] David Stone's vision and guidance we wouldn't be back here in New York City with a smash hit.
BH: You were involved in the Second Stage production, and in the out of town productions of the show prior to the current Broadway run. Can you talk about the changes to the choreography between the Second Stage production and Broadway?
ST: What we all realized was that we needed to figure out the tone of the show. There's less movement in it than there was originally, but there's still movement that tells the story. It's very poignant and significant.
BH: The way the characters move is as revealing about them and their relationships as anything else in the show. All of you must be proud of the amazing reviews and great recognition, after nurturing it for the past few years.
ST: I am thrilled. It's thrilling for me to have Jersey Boys and Next to Normal and Guys and Dolls on the boards. They are really different and interesting pieces of musical theater. One of them is contemporary and dark and pushes the boundaries, one is a revival with a fresh point of view, and the third is a unique and inspiring story.
BH: The diversity of the shows is remarkable, and it seems each one has posed unique challenges to you. What remains the same for you in your approach to each of the projects?
ST: The common denominator is that for the most part my choreography really speaks of the characters and the story. That is, it's always story driven and character driven. I think I'm also starting to develop a common feel, so if you see my shows you may start to see a common movement and common style. I also did Tarzan in Europe. I took over when Disney decided to do it in Holland. It's actually become one of the top grossing shows right now in Hollandit's outselling The Lion Kingand now we have a company in Hamburg Germany which is doing the same thing. That one has its own point of view, too. What I've done with all of those shows is created characters that tell the story.
BH: Do you think there's a chance Tarzan will come back to New York, now that it's been retooled and is doing so well?
ST: I don't think so. We have great plans for it, but it will stay on the other side of the pond.
BH: You have a number of new shows in the works.
ST: Yes, and I am really excited about what's coming up. Right now, I'm in the process of finishing auditions and meetings for The Addams Family, which we will start in September and will be on Broadway next spring. I'm also excited about Memphis. We finished La Joya last summer and did a stint in Seattle. We're coming to New York this fall. I am really excited about Memphis because it's got a lot of dancing in it. The third thing that I'm doing is developing [choreographing and directing] a new show that's written by Nilo Cruz, with music by Frank Wildhorn and lyrics by Jack Murphy, called Havana.
BH: A lot of people mention in interviews how much they enjoy working with you. It seems you seek out collaborators you like and trust, and try to create a comfortable working environment. How important to you is developing that sense of community?
ST: I've been incredibly lucky to work with people like Des McAnuff, Michael Greif, Christopher Ashley [who directed All Shook Up], Lonny Price [who directed the Encores production of Kismet, which Trujillo also choreographed]. I'm beginning to form other collaborations as well. Also, these are collaborators of mine and peers of mine, people I trust and respect. It's about what we can create in the room, and about having a joyful and smooth collaboration. For me, ultimately it's also about the experience that I'll take away from it. I've been around for a little bit, I have worked with great people. I feel really supported by the community and it's important to me to make my stamp on it. I am really blessed to be getting these opportunities to be able to do what I love.
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