BWW Interviews: Sergio Trujillo - Broadway's Quadruple Threat Talks JERSEY BOYS, 'NORMAL,' WHITE NOISE
Given the odds, for one to have been involved with a singular Broadway success would be impressive. To have been involved with two would solidify one's status as a true Broadway "player." How about 4, running at the same time?
Only two artists have been able to boast such an accomplishment, the first being Susan Stroman, whose productions of Contact, The Producers, The Music Man, and Thou Shalt Not all ran simultaneously for a short time in 2001. Last season, Broadway's go-to choreographer, Sergio Trujillo, joined her company with his superfecta of next to normal, Jersey Boys, The Addams Family and Memphis. It appears that like Jersey Boys, Memphis, and The Addams Family, Trujillo is showing no signs of breaking his streak, or going anywhere, with new projects in the pipeline incoming.
These productions, of course, are just his shows running on Broadway today. Trujillo has also famously been attached as a choreographer to All Shook Up (2005) and Guys and Dolls (2009), and as a performer to Jerome Robbin's Broadway (1989), "Dolls" (1992), and Fosse (1999). Off-Broadway and regionally, Trujillo choreographed Bare: A Pop Opera (2004), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for City Center Encores!, The Great American Trailer Park Musical (2005), Kismet for "Encores!", Saved (2008) for Playwrights Horizons, Zhivago and The Wiz at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, a US tour of Kiss of the Spider Woman (performer, mid-1990s) and West Side Story in 2009 at the Stratford Festival, Canada. He also choreograped at the Village Theatre for their musical staging of The Wedding Banquet (2003). In the West End he choreographed Peggy Sue Got Married. He worked on the Disney musical Tarzan in Amsterdam in 2007, which is currently running in Hamburg, Germany. For opera, Trujillo has choreographed The Marriage of Figaro for Los Angeles Opera and Salome for the New York City Opera.
And now, this one-time aspiring (and trained) doctor is adding a new step to his repertoire - that of director to several upcoming projects, including the Whoopi Goldberg-produced White Noise by Matte O'Brien, Joe Shane, Robert Morris and Steven Morris that is Broadway bound next season. The show will open at Chicago's Royal George Theater this April. In what is among his most ambitious undertakings to date, Trujillo will direct and choreograph this original musical that follows a teenage singing group that promotes its messages of white power through coded lyrics and catchy melodies to penetrate the mainstream, exposing how anything marketed, polished, and packaged correctly will sell even to the brightest among us.
In our industry, artists are too-often branded with a unique style. Recently, BroadwayWorld had the opportunity to speak openly with the man who managed to avoid such a fate and become a top pick for shows ranging in style from traditional Broadway, to latin, opera, rock, jukebox, and now, music video-ready pop and hip-hop - instead branding them with his signature cohesion and "invisible hand."
Many people don't know that you came into a career as a dancer/choreographer relatively late, and that you were actually pursuing a career as a doctor. How did the transition occur?
Well, I'm Colombian. In my culture, we take our responsibilities to our family seriously. I felt that going to school, studying the sciences and becoming a doctor was the safe and best way that I could take care of my family. That's a "good Hispanic son" sort of path. But, I felt like there was something tugging on my heart. I started dancing when I was nineteen - really late. I fell in love with this show that I saw when I was in school in Toronto studying biochemistry and I thought, "that's what I want to do."
In Colombia, we weren't exposed to musicals. So I came late to knowing about movie musicals and all that stuff. I'm still, to this day, catching up. But once I discovered dance, I fell madly and passionately in love with it. I became obsessed with it, really. About five years after I finished university, after finishing a couple of years of chiropractor school, I met Michael Peters who used to be Michael Jackson's choreographer. He choreographed "Beat It," "Thriller," and won a Tony Award for Dreamgirls. He came to Toronto to do a dance concert and he hired me as one of the dancers. And while we were in rehearsal he turned to me and said "You have God's given gift. You're very talented." After that, I never really looked back.
How did you wind up "catching up," as you say, with your dance training?
I took jazz at first when I was still in school, but once I realized that I had to learn the basics, I overdosed on classical training. I took a lot of ballet classes. And I was careful to study with different people. I came to New York and LA during the summers to train when I was on break from school. And because I came to it late, I was very ambitious, very motivated. I had this tenacity to study and work hard and stretch. I really was absolutely obsessive.
Early on, did you have a style that became your specialty?
Not really, because I was catching up. In those days, I was always trying to master the style of whoever I was studying with. Up in Canada, we didn't have local teachers like Chris Chadman, a protégé of Fosse, or Michael Peters. It was more about the basics.
What was your first introduction to Broadway?
I took a sabbatical from chiropractor school after two years to pursue dance professionally. I hadn't had that much success during those months, so just as I was about to end my sabbatical, I thought that my pursuit was over...not meant to work out. Thinking that I wasn't going to be able to make a career out of dance, I was prepping to go back to school. Just before the term started, I went to one last audition for Jerome Robbins' Broadway. Jerry Mitchell was auditioning as the associate choreographer. At the time, I didn't even know who Jerome Robbins was! A month later, I got a call that they wanted me to come into the Broadway show. So that was the end of that, going back to school. In a way, I always knew on a deep level that being a doctor wasn't meant to be. I believe in signs, and getting cast in Jerome Robbins Broadway felt like one that validated that this is what I'm supposed to be doing with my life. After Jerome Robbins', I danced in many shows on Broadway. I also assisted Jerry Mitchell, Debbie Allen, Michael Peters, Rob Marshall, all of these different choreographers, knowing full well that at some point I would make the transition to choreographer. I always felt that in order to satisfy myself as a dancer there was something else that I could offer beyond following other's steps.
Tell me more about this. How did your passion for dance evolve into one for choreographing?
I think that everyone has their own agenda - their own sort of plan, what they want to do, how they feel, what is it they want to achieve. I've always been restless, no matter what I've done. And the more I danced, the more I felt that there was something else creatively to be gained for me. When you're dancing in a show, you have to follow the steps. You have to follow the rules. And there was something that felt incomplete and unfulfilling for me in that. I later realized that what was missing for me was the creative aspect that comes from choreographing.
There are many kinds of artists, but it was through dancing that I realized that for me, being an artist meant creating. Even as a child, I created and produced small shows in Colombia. I didn't know anything about dance, I didn't know anything about theater even, but when you put a creator in any environment, the need to fulfill that impulse is relentless. So toward the end of my dance career, I knew it was going to be time to start making that transition. I made a deliberate choice that at the end of Fosse I was going to choreograph - that I was going to focus solely on choreography. In a way, that show was like my swan song. While I was dancing, I was kind of mourning that this performative phase of my career was coming to an end. So I danced every night like it was the last time I was ever going to dance in my life.
What the first professional production you choreographed?
While I was doing Fosse, I got called to the Stratford Festival in Toronto to choreograph a production of West Side Story, which thankfully was received with critical acclaim. I knew Jerome Robbins' choreography because it had been passed down to me by Jerry Mitchell, but there were a few ways in which I was able to take creative license and expand it. After West Side, I went out to do another show in Canada, the day after I finished Fosse on Broadway. Fortunately, I got good reviews and a lot of positive attention, and that was the beginning of my career as a choreographer.
What did you initially find the hardest about being a choreographer?
Well, choreographers don't go to school. It's a trade that's passed down and the only way to learn it is to be in the trenches and figure out how to be a problem-solver. By far, the most challenging part about being a choreographer is how to interpret the story. A musical is a torch that's passed down from the writer to the lyricist/composer to the choreographer. There has to be a cohesiveness and the choreographer's job is to finish off whatever that story is in that moment. After that, the next challenge is teaching people - often with little dance background - to dance. It's a beautiful thing when that happens. I remember working with John Lloyd Young in Jersey Boys. I spent two months working with him on movement in the studio before we even started rehearsals because Johnny had never danced before. To this day, I have never, ever had that much pride or have been more moved by watching one particular actor perform on stage. The first time that Johnny performed on stage for the first preview of Jersey Boys, the crowd went crazy for the "Walk Like A Man" sequence." To watch John's face beam and be in utter shock, it made me feel like Bela Karolyi, you know Bela, Nadia Comaneci's coach - the perfect 10.
Can you describe the relationship between the director and choreographer? What has stood out for me in your productions is that your work clearly extends beyond the song. Your productions reflect what I'd call your "invisible hand," creating a fluidity of movement from beginning to end. How do you negotiate stage movement with the directors you've worked with?
The choreographer is the buffer. You can't be selfish. A choreographer must first understand what role dance plays in a specific show. I don't walk into a rehearsal thinking: how can I take this moment and run with it? My responsibility is to determine how I can take that specific moment and use it to jumpstart storytelling through movement. It is a thin line between a choreographer and a director, in my experience, but at this line - where you cannot tell where choreography begins and staging ends - the best collaborations are reflected. And at the end of the day, these collaborations, like the ones I have with Des McAnuff and Michael Greif for example, are simply about trust.
Equally if not more important, though, is the relationship between the choreographer and his dance arranger. Once again it's like hand-in-glove. Sometimes the music preceeds the dance, and sometimes the movement inspires the music arrangement. I want to tell my dance arranger, for example, that I want it to go "bam bam bam pow pow pow" and then he can riff on that and expand on it. Unlike my relationships with my directors, I can admittedly be very, very controlling about this part of the process.
Let's talk about next to normal. That show was a color slightly darker than a lot of your other work. What inspired you to take on that show, which isn't particularly dance heavy in the traditional sense for a musical?
Oh that was a no brainer for me. I had already made my decision about the directors I wanted to work with throughout my career, and Michael Greif was one of them. I have great respect for what he does and the way he approaches the material. He has this really quirky sensibility the way he stages, and approaches a show is very smart. I also wanted to work with Brian Yorkey again. The subject matter was very challenging and I love to challenge myself. Unlike mega-musicals like Jersey Boys, or Spamalot, or All Shook Up, next to normal was a very intimate story. I was intrigued by what a choreographer's role could be with this kind of material.
In the way that enthusiasts can instantly recognize a Fosse piece, or a Robbins piece, would you say that you have a "Trujillo Signature" - a style that is all your own?
You know, I was thinking about this the other day. I was watching a movie with Javier Bardem that's coming out called Biutiful that's directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. This director has done two other movies, and if you took away his byline from each, you would never guess that these three movies were directed by the same man. He wasn't championing his method of filmmaking in favor of telling the right story. I think this same thing applies to me. My first thought when I approach a piece is ‘how can I take the material and find a way of expressing myself physically that is appropriate to the show?' Like, how do the Jersey Boys move? They are blue collar dudes that are not dancers. So I think ‘how can I make it seem like they're making up their movements spontaneously in a way that the audience will believe? The movement that I gave specifically to each one of those four boys was very different but very specific to the character. The steps for Frankie are softer than the others, for example, because he's smaller and shyer. It looks different for Nick because Nick is the big bad one. With Memphis, I sat down and thought out how I could take a black club in 1950s Memphis and make it sexy and sensual without it being distasteful? With Tarzan, the challenge was how to take the natural movements of primates and interpret them as dance? With The Addams Family, it was all about creating a quirky vocabulary of movement to attach to these well branded figures we know in 2D. I believe that each of my shows have necessitated a distinct style. And then after I create these vocabularies, I work with the director to make the movement stylistically seamless, as in a good film.
The real art is in the transitions. Transitions are the hardest thing in the show, not only because it is these moments that propel or break the storytelling, but because they are what ties a show together stylistically. Audiences aren't stupid. They know. They can tell. The movement might be simple but it's mastering this that allow audiences to stay captured in the story.
You've worked with the best of the best in our industry, but has there been one experience that really stands out?
Working for Chita Rivera, easily. I had danced with her in Kiss of the Spider Woman and she was doing her one-woman show in the mid 1990s. I was at home in LA working on choreographing a new project when she called me and asked if I would choreograph a number for her show, opening in San Francisco the following week. I would need to come the next day. Of course I said yes. She gave me such respect and tried everything I gave her. She never said no and was determined to perfect any move I suggested. That experience I will never forget.
After putting so much into transforming yourself into the industy's go-to choreographer, you now are making the transition few make into being a director/choreographer. Tell me about White Noise. Why did you choose this show to make your foray into Broadway directing?
Several years ago I had an opportunity to direct another big show that I won't mention - that I fell in love with musically actually - but felt after I got into it that what the show as about was a copout. I feel like at times, theater has to address social and political issues, provoke thought, and inspire discussions, if not arguments. That is White Noise. I am also in a place in my career where I've done Jersey Boys, I've done next to normal, Addams Family, Memphis, so why not take a risk? Why not take a risk on a piece of theater that's frightening? That really says something? I've been waiting for a show like this for a long time and I am wanting to take these chances.
What is it about White Noise that makes it such a good fit for you?
Well in addition to what I just mentioned, White Noise is a show about pop culture. I'm very in tune with what is going on in the music industry at the moment. Theater aside, my eyes and ears are always open to trends in that arena and I understand that world. So when this show came along, about a manufactured pop group that exploits media and distribution outlets to build a name for themselves and a movement - a scary one - in the process, I was really inspired.
With a show like this there are a lot of socio-political themes that are exposed: power of the media and clever marketing, boundaries of free speech, effectiveness of a concentrated minority etc. In a few sentences, what is White Noise about to you?
White Noise is a show about pop culture that asks "is America really listening? Really paying attention to what's happening in our culture?"
Was becoming a director/choreographer always a goal of yours or was it this show that really inspired you to step up and run the whole ship?
I think being a director/chorographer has always been a goal for the right material. I am in the process of readying Havana with Frank Wildhorn as the director/choreographer. It just happens that White Noise is ready for the next step now, as Frank is very busy with Wonderland at the moment. I have three other projects in development, as well - a dance event piece with Gustavo Santaolalla who won Academy Awards for scoring Brokeback Mountain and Babel and two others that I'm directing and choreographing that I can't talk about quite yet. But I'm happy that White Noise will be the first show out of the box. Hopefully, all these projects, including White Noise, will be the next 5 years of my life.
Their talent, tenacity, courage and commitment to the piece. Matte O'Brien is a young voice to be reckoned with. He is incredibly smart, but even more than that, he is a creature of the theater. There is no young voice out there that I know that knows and understands how to write for the theater better than Matte. That excited me. He's also very committed to what the show has to say. The same is true for the music boys. They all have unbelievable courage. Joe and Robert and Steve have such a gift of melody and understand how to write hooks and tunes that make you tap your feet and get carried away in a way that you're almost not supposed to in our show. That's a gift that not a lot of composers have. Using that gift to tell a story is not something that a lot of composers understand. Their grasp on radio-ready pop and hip-hop music is spot on.
White Noise is risky in that it addresses subjects that are complex. And we are all committed to the truth of what the show is really about without watering down the themes. This level of commitment to the material - to stand on the line for it - I believe will make all the difference. I admire how these boys have been able to speak their minds through these characters in a way that is not only smart and honest, but also entertaining at the same time. This aspect really attracted me to all four of them. Since we began working together there has been tremendous growth and we have all helped each other find that common voice. Their willingness to collaborate and be open to someone like me coming in and requesting this and that after they have been working on the show for so long says a lot about them and has made the development process really exciting for me.
Are there any creative concepts for the show you're committed to that you can share now?
Not quite yet, but what I can say is that if there was ever a show that was going to be able to expose an audience to what is happening in the music industry or in the world of social media, this would be the show. This is the show that is the most present, if not ahead, of what is happening in pop culture right now in a way that has never been done before. This show will be the "Gaga Effect" on Broadway.
One last question. You have four successful shows running on Broadway right now. You've worked with most of the most admired artists in the industry. What's the ultimate goal? When you're of retirement age, what do you hope your legacy will be?
I have been lucky to have worked with true men of the theater, men of great depth, and artists of great commitment - as if they were born to do nothing else. Those are the people I'd like to surround myself with for the rest of my career and that is who I hope to be. When I'm 70+ or whatever, I'd like to be able to look back on my life and say that I've worked with true artists of undying passion on amazing pieces of theater that range in style and scope, some of which will be staples in the theater cannon forever. And I'll be proud of that.