Sergio Trujillo and the Musical He Was Born to Choreograph

Tony Awards   Sergio Trujillo and the Musical He Was Born to Choreograph The Tony nominee discusses working with Latino royalty, authenticity through dance and what exactly he looks for in that audition room.
Sergio Trujillo on the dance floor at Hudson Terrace
Sergio Trujillo on the dance floor at Hudson Terrace Monica Simoes

Sergio Trujillo exudes joy. He practically bounces onto the dance floor of Hudson Terrace and chooses to perch on an end table, rather than sit beside me on the couch, so we can chat face to face about his recent nomination for his work in the Gloria Estefan bio-musical On Your Feet! The choreographer of such hits as Jersey Boys, Off-Broadway’s All Shook Up, Memphis and more seems to still be in awe that he was tapped to create the dance for this iconic Latino story. The show pulses with Trujillo’s boundless energy in its fast footwork, intricate partnering and contagious verve. The Colombian native describes his experience working on a show that’s in his bones, collaborating with the Estefans and creating authenticity through movement.

What was your approach to On Your Feet!? What did you want to accomplish with the dance in this show?
ST: Well, first and foremost, I couldn’t have asked for a more fitting more perfect project to come at this point in my life. Having been here for almost ten years, starting with Jersey Boys and a bunch of other shows in between, to then get a chance to choreograph something that is so close to me, something that is so close to me to my heritage to my culture and to who I am. I look back and I think I have to pinch myself. To choreograph this show I didn’t have to dig in very deep [for the steps], but what I did have to do was really get in touch with the essence of who I am. I mean Memphis and All Shook Up, they’re America in the ’50s at the most vibrant most colorful most sort of bountiful, bounciful, bouncy period of America and very American. For me to do something that I can actually put my stamp on it, that I can actually throw the history of my culture into it it’s just beautiful.

Is there any number in particular from the show that you were most looking forward to working on or now you look at it and say of the pieces in this show that’s the one—I really keyed into it there?
ST: Actually two pieces, if I may. One is “Tradición.” It’s a song from one of Gloria’s albums called Mi Tierra, which is her only real Latin album. The other one is “Wrapped,” which to me was the most haunting; it was the number that I wasn’t sure how to approach it. I wasn’t sure what was my gateway into that number. What is the narrative of that number? That’s when she’s having the anesthetic dream when she’s going through surgery. I called Gloria and she said, “I wrote that song while we were on the road, and I had been traveling so much, and we just missed our loved ones so much and that came out.” So in the number, Gloria dreams of seeing her grandmother who’s passed away, her father who’s passed away. She also has a moment with her younger self, and—within this anesthetic dream—there is that idea that she may go to the dark side. She may be pulled. But then what happens in the middle of it is when Emilio appears, and it’s the love for him and their young son, it reawakens her, and it pulls her the other way to life to love to family.

What was it like to work with Gloria? She’s a dancer herself. Did she have input?
ST: Gloria, what a phenomenal collaborator. She was very respectful of myself and [director] Jerry Mitchell. Both Emilio and Gloria were incredibly collaborative and their input, their knowledge was such help. I took liberties like I did with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The important thing is: We’re doing a musical, we have to adapt it. I grew up dancing, listening, watching Gloria—videos and music—so I knew subconsciously how she moved and how she performed, but you know we’re on a Broadway stage and that character has to occupy a different kind of framework. So I took liberties within the show to exptrapolate: If Sergio Trujillo was choreographing Gloria Estefan, that’s what he would do.

What was it like to work with Ana Villafañe who is new to Broadway?
ST: She’s been really a joy to work with. With Ana, I embraced the idea of having this young, gorgeous talented actress. I embraced the idea of molding her and molding her choreographically and helping her become Gloria Estefan. That’s the joy of what I get to do in these kinds of shows where I have an icon like Gloria Estefan and then I have Ana Villafañe that needs to become Gloria Estefan for the adaptation.

I like to call myself a chameleon of sorts because what I try to do is: I really push myself to find a vocabulary that is specific to the show and the way those characters move.

You also have these incredible dancers in your chorus who can tap into that authenticity not just in the choreography but in their heritage, I imagine.
ST: When we began to cast the show it was important for me to have authenticity across the board. There is an essence to the way each one of my dancers dances. I can tell within the first two counts of eight that they have it or they don’t. There is a thing: Boom Ba! I know immediately when I watch at an audition. Even before we began the casting process, I had in my mind who I wanted because I wanted to create a company of Latino dancers who also knew the responsibility that they had because listen we don’t get that many chances of telling a Latino story onstage.

How would you define—through all of these projects—your style choreographically?
ST: I like to call myself a chameleon of sorts because what I try to do is: I really push myself to find a vocabulary that is specific to the show and the way those characters move, so I try not to use the same steps over and over again. I feel like each one of these pieces is so completely different. As I said, Jersey Boys, Memphis, Guys & Dolls, Addams Family, Leap of Faith and On Your Feet! or even Bronx Tale, which is coming up. I just don’t think that it would be me—my integrity as an artist—would allow me to say, “Oh yeah so I’m gonna do X.” For me, I approach it from a character point of view also from a storytelling point of view, a genre of music, period; it has to evoke all of those things. I don’t think I could do that over and over again.

Has your family come to see the show? Is that different than seeing other pieces of your work?
ST: I have many dreams and goals in my life and one of my dreams and goals was to bring my entire family to New York City and invite them to the opening night of one of my shows, but specifically a Latin show. So I did that November 5 of last year when On Your Feet! opened. Some of them had never seen a Broadway show. My husband said on opening night, “Your family’s up on that stage.”

Check out more original photos and interviews with the other four Tony-nominated choreographers.

Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby. See more at ruthiefierberg.com and follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.

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