The Ubiquitous Choreographer: Sergio Trujillo
By Robert Simonson
Four Broadway musicals at the moment — The Addams Family, Jersey Boys, Memphis, Next to Normal — have choreography by one man. Meet Sergio Trujillo.
One: Jersey Boys, the long-running jukebox musical smash that put the former dancer on the map as a rising choreographer. Two: Next to Normal, the intimate, offbeat portrait of family dysfunction that showed he could do small musicals as well as big. Three: Memphis, the propulsive, dance-heavy show about the birth of rock and roll, that proved a surprise critical hit when it opened last fall. And four: The Addams Family, the Nathan Lane-Bebe Neuwirth vehicle now at the Lunt-Fontanne.
The last time something like this happened was during a few short months in fall 2001, when Susan Stroman furnished Broadway with the simultaneous attractions of Contact, The Music Man, The Producers and Thou Shalt Not.
"This past year, I never predicted it or planned on it," said Trujillo, who is modest about his current ubiquity. "You know, you spend years working on shows and by fate they all just end up happening at the same time. Some of it has to do with the fact that I've chosen to be very clear about my career and who I want to work with. I've picked great projects to be involved with."
The chips of Trujillo's career didn't fall exactly as you might expect. Typically, it takes a big critical and popular hit to establish a choreographer's reputation (with Stroman, it was Crazy for You), and one would imagine that his current string of shows were all born of the well-received snappy, '60s-style footwork he designed for Jersey Boys. But the Memphis job actually came his way before Jersey Boys became a hard-to-get ticket.
When working with director Christopher Ashley and bookwriter Joe DiPietro on the Broadway show All Shook Up in early 2005, DiPietro told Trujillo (whose name is pronounced tru-HEE-yo) about a new musical the two men were working on, called Memphis. It just took four years for the show to finally get to Broadway.
The Addams Family, conversely, did grow out of Trujillo's Jersey Boys work. Bookwriters Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman remembered Trujillo when they began work on the musical adaptation of cartoonist Charles Addams' ghoulish creations.
Trujillo has connections among the Next to Normal creative family as well. He and lyricist Brian Yorkey had worked together on a show called The Wedding Banquet in Seattle in 2002. And director Michael Greif and he had long been looking to work together. "I knew going into the project that it wasn't a choreographer's show," said Trujillo. "But I was very attracted to the subject matter. And after doing a huge musical like Jersey Boys, I wanted to focus on something a little different."
Unlike Stroman, or choreography giants like Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse (creators Trujillo knows well, having danced on Broadway in Jerome Robbins' Broadway and Fosse), Trujillo doesn't have a recognizable artistic signature. Rather, he adapts his skills to the project at hand.
"The thing about Memphis is, dance really works in that piece, and dance pays off, and it really makes sense," he said. "Then there are those shows that require the choreographer to service the material, to support it and not veer off the main focus of the story. I wanted to make sure that with The Addams Family that I was servicing the show and collaborating in such a way that I didn't take away from the audience, and we didn't suddenly stop to dance for no reason."
The show's opening number, "When You're an Addams," has the family indulging in a series of classic party and wedding dances, including the Bunny Hop, the Twist and a line dance, all called out by patriarch Gomez Addams. "I went back and watched the TV show and they always broke out into these silly '60s and '50s dances like the Watusi and the Twist," explained Trujillo. "We found them amusing and unexpected. You don't want to take yourself too seriously at that moment," in the show.
(Having already immersed himself in the 1950s and '60s in Jersey Boys, All Shook Up, Memphis and Peggy Sue Got Married, a musical he worked on in London in 2001, Trujillo was already well-schooled in every dance craze to emerge in those decades.)
Later on, in the second act, Gomez and wife Morticia, execute a long and involved tango number. Again, Trujillo — who wants every dance to make practical and artistic sense within a show — uses the expression "it pays off" when describing it. "I totally believed in it, because it works to support the Gomez and Morticia relationship. I thought it was a romantic and passionate way of describing their relationship. I believed in that moment."
If a dance doesn't "pay off" Trujillo is more than willing to dispense with it and move on. "He's a real perfectionist," said Ashley. "He really does his home work. He walks in the door with a very complete idea of what it could be and he also sees very clearly what's in front of him. He's kind of ruthless about throwing away things that don't work, even if he thought of them."
Within the Addams tango is what Trujillo calls his "million-dollar step." Trujillo has one of these in every show he does. That's the name he gives to a trademark move that emerges in each project, and seems to speak for the work's personality. Trujillo would only say that the Addams "million-dollar stop" is called "the five-sixes." "We do it toward the end of the tango, just before the number finishes. Nathan and Bebe do it and then more and more people do it."
Trujillo was born in Cali, Colombia, and moved to Toronto with his family when he was 12. He took a bachelor's degree in science, of all things, from the University of Toronto, and didn't start his dancing career until he was 19 — a late age for a dancer. He won his first Broadway job as a replacement dancer in Jerome Robbins' Broadway in 1990. (He took a sabbatical from chiropractic school to take the gig.) Following Fosse in 1999, he made a conscious choice to leave performing behind him. "I made a decision before I did Fosse that that was going to be my last show," he said. "I came to terms with it, I loved it, I lived it fully every night, but I was O.K. to walk away from it."
That decision has led to surreal circumstances since then. He danced in the 1992 Broadway production of Guys and Dolls, and 17 years later he choreographed the 2009 Broadway revival of the same musical. And Jerry Zaks, his director in the '92 Guys and Dolls, is now his creative collaborator on The Addams Family. "Time flies when I get to choreograph a revival that I danced in," Trujillo said with a laugh.
Soon Trujillo will make the inevitable leap from choreographer to director-choreographer. "I'm working on two shows that I'm developing, so it's fairly premature to talk about them," said Trujillo. But he remains open to jobs where he won't run the show. "I'm happy to work with people like Jerry Zaks and Des McAnuff and Chris Ashley. I don't want to limit myself to what my contribution will be."
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