InDepth InterView: Sergio Trujillo On LEAP OF FAITH, FLASHDANCE, MEMPHIS, NEXT TO NORMAL & More
Today we are talking to one of the busiest choreographers on Broadway who was recently represented by four shows running on the Great White Way simultaneously (a new record) - the long-running hit JERSEY BOYS, Pulitzer Prize-winning NEXT TO NORMAL, multi-Tony Award-winning MEMPHIS and The Addams Family. His most recent Broadway credit is the new Alan Menken/Glenn Slater musical adaptation of the 90s hit Steve Martin film comedy LEAP OF FAITH featuring Broadway superstar Raul Esparza in the dazzling lead role. In addition to discussing the unique demands of his involvement with the aforementioned new musicals with a pronounced focus on the current project, Trujillo opens up about the process of collaborating with a director and what musical staging is all about at its core, as well as outlines his experiences working with a number of notable names on his impressive assortment of projects in his illustrious career so far in onstage and backstage capacities, taking a look back at his own career as a performer, having previously appeared in GUYS & DOLLS, FOSSE and the film version of CHICAGO among other impressive resume entries. Plus, Trujillo shares his infectious enthusiasm and passionate dedication to his art and reveals what he will be taking on next after LEAP OF FAITH's opening night which is tonight - a tryout tour of a screen-to-stage adaptation of the iconic 80s hit FLASHDANCE as it makes it big move towards Broadway, as well as an original dramatic tango rock musical. All of that and much, much more!
Leaps Of Faith
PC: Working under Jerome Robbins in Jerome Robbins' BROADWAY was certainly baptism by fire, I would imagine. What was that experience like for you as a young performer?
ST: Yeah, that actually was my first Broadway show. It was really something - to be in Jerome Robbins' BROADWAY and be able to perform those dances and that material with him instructing you was extraordinary and a very unique experience. You know, I didn't get a chance to work with Fosse or Michael Bennett, but I got perform for Jerome Robbins and I am very, very luck to have done that.
PC: What sequences did you perform in when you did the show?
ST: I did ON THE TOWN. I did WEST SIDE STORY - I was the equivalent of Chino; there was no Chino in the show. I did FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. I did KING & I.
PC: Do you perhaps have your sights set on the upcoming Lincoln Center KING & I revival?
ST: No, no - not at all. [Laughs.] I have to say that I prefer to work on original shows as a choreographer when I can. I sort of get a real, real joy out of being able to invent and then take it to new material.
PC: Brooke Shields recently did this column and spoke so favorably of her time spent in The Addams Family. Could you tell me about working with her as a replacement in that?
ST: Well, I am a hands-on kind of choreographer, and, especially with a big star like Brooke coming into the show, I saw that there was a lot of material that I needed to custom-make for whoever was playing the role of Morticia - you know, there's a big tango in Act Two and all that stuff.
PC: It's a star role.
ST: Yeah - it is. So, since she was following in Bebe's footsteps, I felt it was important for me to revisit the material and re-evaluate it and deconstruct it and recreate it so that it would work for Brooke. So, we spent some time working on how to re-choreograph some of the show to cater to her abilities - you know, she's so beautiful and long, so I wanted to compliment that.
PC: Bebe was a dancer first, so was it a different experience working with someone who is an actress first like Brooke?
ST: Well, I think the thing that Brooke has is that she is the hardest working actress I have ever worked with - she is unbelievable. Her level of concentration and dedication and commitment was unbelievable to me - I am a huge fan.
PC: Tell me about the new version of The Addams Family currently on tour which has been revised quite extensively since it closed on Broadway.
ST: Well, Sara Gettelfinger has been playing Morticia on the road - who is as tall as Brooke - and the idea to see the show through Morticia's eyes has actually evolved more than ever before - and I think it has become a better show than ever before. I felt that with the tour I was really able to go back and look at the show and revisit my choreography and challenge whoever was playing Morticia in particular to rise above all of it. I think the stereotype of Morticia has been taken even further.
PC: So, it has been a satisfying re-appraisal of the material?
ST: With The Addams Family, I am really proud of the work that we have done since we did it on Broadway - especially the way we have re-imagined the show and made it even better.
PC: Not unlike what Michael Bennett did with SEESAW after Broadway, among many other examples.
ST: Yeah, actually, I do it all the time - especially with MEMPHIS; but, you know, with JERSEY BOYS, that has its own formula. For me to be lucky enough to have shows that have stuck and have had a life after Broadway and have other companies, where I am able to revisit other companies and revisit the material and expand on it - or, sometimes, just make it more specific to the people playing the roles - has just been wonderful.
PC: Was the musical staging significantly altered for the filmed version of MEMPHIS done for home presentation consumption?
ST: I actually didn't change it much - they basically came in and created a shot-list based on what I had already choreographed. If it was a real movie version of it, though, then, of course, I would revisit it and make sure that I was telling the story for the camera, but this was more about staying true to what was already there.
PC: As a performer you appeared in some memorable movie musicals yourself - what was the shoot of CINDERELLA like?
ST: Oh, yes, that was a lot of fun - Rob Marshall choreographed it.
PC: Did you have any encounters with Whitney Houston on set?
ST: No, Whitney unfortunately wasn't in any of the sequences I was in. I worked with Victor Garber and Brandy, but I never got the chance to work with Whitney - because of where the Fairy Godmother appeared in the movie, I never got the chance to be there at the same time as her.
PC: Laura Osnes recently did this column and we discussed the new stage adaptation of CINDERELLA being workshopped again in a few months. Would you like to see that property on Broadway someday?
ST: Well, I was in the film version so I don't know what they are doing with the new stage version, but I think that it is wonderful they are doing it - especially for the young girls who will see it who are then turned into big Broadway theatre fans. You know, anything that we can do to attract a younger audience - especially to musical theatre, specifically - then I am all for it.
PC: The original TV version with Julie Andrews is a classic, so a stage expansion seems appropriate to bring it to a new generation.
ST: Oh, it's so wonderful to see Julie Andrews singing and dancing in that - I have watched her parts many times.
PC: What do you think of the new musical theatre TV explosion we are seeing thanks to GLEE, SMASH and the singing shows these days? Musical theatre is a part of the mainstream again.
ST: Well, as I said, I just love it when anything that is out there - especially in this day and age of social media and the way communication is happening - that attracts audiences and gets them into theatre I am all for and I will support them all one hundred percent. You know, even shows like DANCING WITH THE STARS and STRICTLY COME DANCING - those shows are incredibly popular and that is very positive for us, too. Younger people are being attracted to dance through those shows.
PC: All exposure is good exposure.
ST: Yeah. You know, we have to evolve - theatre evolves - and what happens when the current audience gets older? There has to be a new audience out there who is interested in it. So, the fact that GLEE is such a popular show and SMASH is such a popular show is proof that there is an audience out there who may have never thought of going to a musical before, but now they are interested in the artform and it is because of those shows. It's really something.
PC: NEXT TO NORMAL is such a big hit with the new generation, as well. There is a huge young fan base for it out there, as you may know.
ST: Yeah, there are a lot of younger people who love that show.
PC: What was your role on that piece versus a more dance-heavy show like ADDAMS?
ST: Well, you know, NEXT TO NORMAL was a just a totally different beast - what I did mostly was more musical staging than anything else. It was one of those shows where it would have felt out of place if we did a lot of choreography, I think.
PC: It's too contained and suffocating.
ST: The movement that we created for that show was very specific to the characters - it had to be a lot more organic and a lot more, well, pedestrian - if I may say - than other musicals.
ST: Yeah - it was all really deeply thought out between Michael Greif and I.
PC: Marin Mazzie was an amazing replacement in NEXT TO NORMAL and she just did this column…
ST: Oh, I love Marin so much!
PC: You tailor-made the role to her when she stepped into the starring role of Diana in the show - what was that process like for the two of you?
ST: Well, honestly, I didn't get the chance to spend as much time with Marin as I would have wanted to because, while she was going in, I was doing another show, too, but I knew Marin because we have worked together a couple of times and I knew how great she is. There were a few moments we worked together on - there's a little waltz she does together with her son - but the dancing wasn't as extensive as it was in ADDAMS FAMILY or MEMPHIS or even, now, LEAP OF FAITH.
PC: Speaking of the waltz in NEXT TO NORMAL, what do you think of the relationship between the mother and son in the show - what dark layers lurk there?
ST: Well, I think that, like any mother, there is that maternal love that she shares for her child - and I don't know if I can even understand it or connect to it in any way because I am not a woman. I think that love between two people may come close to that kind of love, but I can't say for sure because I have never been a mother myself! [Laughs.]
PC: Definitely not.
ST: I just can't imagine what it must feel like to carry somebody with you for nine months who is such a part of you and comes from you and then what it must be like giving birth to that person and losing that part of you - I can't even imagine what that must feel like. So, I think that is one of the beautiful things about NEXT TO NORMAL - that undying love that mother has for her son - but, I can't say what that love really is because I've never experienced it myself.
PC: It's richly layered and the actors brought so much to it, as well - both casts, in addition to the touring cast.
ST: It really is. Alice is so, so special - both of them did so much with it in their own ways. Marin was exceptional, as well.
PC: Brian D'Arcy James just did this column and he appeared in the earlier version of the show at Second Stage. What was your experience working with him on the show like?
ST: Aww, Brian is just fantastic. I mean, he was such a trouper - the Second Stage production was where we were exploring and trying out different things and Brian was such a pro about it all. I mean, at one point, I had him up on the third level rolling around from side to side and doing just crazy stuff, and, like a true Broadway pro, he was right there with me every step along the way - I really admire him for that.
PC: Tom Kitt is such a gifted composer and there was so much great material that unfortunately didn't make it past that version of the show.
ST: Oh, I know - Tom Kitt is so talented. He is really exceptional, I must say.
PC: Your collaborator on LEAP OF FAITH is none other than 8-time Oscar-winner Alan Menken - another fellow InDepth InterView participant. What has the process been like since you took over as choreographer and Chris Ashley as director on this new verison of LEAP?
ST: Well, Chris and I came onboard a little less than a year ago. Chris has been working very closely with the team - with all of us. As far as Alan Menken goes, what can I say?! Oh, my goodness! I can't say enough about him!
PC: He's such a nice guy and so unbelievably talented.
ST: You know, I had never worked with him before, but, obviously, I am a huge, huge fan of his work. Ultimately, what this experience with LEAP OF FAITH has done for me is that it has really proven to me a lot of things I love about the musical theatre - just to be working with Robin Wagner and William Ivey Long and Alan Menken...
PC: The best of the best.
ST: Yeah - they are the masters of our theatre generation; people who we have admired and respected for so long. So, for me to be working with them and have them be so incredibly devoted and dedicated to a piece like LEAP OF FAITH has been a really inspirational experience for me. [Pause. Sighs.] The level of commitment and artistry and undying passion for the work is just really remarkable on this show.
PC: So, it's been a thrilling experience, all in all?
ST: Oh, yeah - this experience has been nothing but a positive one for me. I mean, Alan has been working on this show for ten years now and we are still in previews and working away at it - and, more importantly, Alan is still working away at it. At this point, it's about finding ways of clarifying the story more and more and more - Alan is still adding music and it's all so amazing to watch it all come together. It's unbelievable to be a part of it.
PC: Glenn Slater and I discussed the multitude of changes the show has undergone since LA a few weeks ago.
ST: Yeah - and Glenn is so smart and has been doing a lot of work, too. What a smart lyricist he is.
PC: Tell me about working with one of Broadway's biggest stars in the lead role, the one and only Raul Esparza?
ST: Oh, Raul! You know, in terms of the Latin community on Broadway, there is not many of us - there's Lin-Manuel [Miranda], there's Raul, there's myself and a couple of other people. So, we are sort of very, very much alone in the community and we all have been dying to work together - so, it's been nothing but a love fest.
PC: How fabulous to hear.
ST: It's been such great fun for Raul and I - sometimes in rehearsal we will break off into some Spanish. Just the other day, we were starting to speak Spanish and didn't even realize it.
PC: I believe it was his first language, was it not?
ST: Yes - he's completely fluent; totally bilingual.
PC: You were raised in Colombia, correct?
ST: Yes - I was born in Colombia and when I was 12 my family and I moved to Toronto. I didn't know any Spanish until I got to Toronto, but, since then, I have been totally bilingual, too.
PC: Have you choreographed any Spanish-language productions yet?
ST: Not yet, but I am actually working on a new piece that I am very excited about: the book is by John Weidman and the score is by a gentlemen named Gustavo Santaolalla, who won the Academy Award for writing the score for the film BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN and also did the score for BABEL and 21 GRAMS…
PC: Three exceptionally exquisite films with very memorable scores.
ST: Oh, he's just amazing! So, we are conceiving this new tango piece - we are calling it a tango rock opera - and we have been workshopping it in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and we are hoping to bring it to Europe next year.
PC: KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN is the only Latin-themed show besides WEST SIDE STORY on your resume, I believe.
ST: Yes - at least out of those shows that I danced in. But, I also co-choreographed MAMBO KINGS - a show that I did like eight years ago now; it didn't come in, but that's the only Latin show I've ever choreographed.
PC: I remember seeing the marquee. Why didn't it ever begin performances? Was it a money issue?
ST: No, no. The show just wasn't quite ready yet - it just wasn't ready.
PC: You also participated in the first major production of SAVED. Would you want to revisit that material at any point if the creators wanted you invovled with it again?
ST: I think with that show I would just have to wish them well with it! [Laughs.] You know, I worked on that show because I wanted to work with the people who were behind it - Eric and Michael and Stuart Oken, who later was my producer on The Addams Family. It was a very positive experience, but I think I did what I could and I wouldn't go back now.
PC: Ruthie Henshall and I spoke a bit about PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED when she did this column - I thought that was a totally underrated show, myself.
ST: Yes! Yes! I agree. I had such a great time on that in the West End. Bob Gaudio did that - who is one of the actual Four Seasons. I did that show with him years before I did JERSEY BOYS.
PC: JERSEY BOYS is one of the biggest hits of the new millennium.
ST: Oh, I know - it's amazing! It's unbelievable - we are so lucky! I just love JERSEY BOYS so much and I am so proud of being a part of it.
PC: Did PEGGY SUE lead to JERSEY BOYS, given the Gaudio connection?
ST: No, actually - I don't think so. I knew when I was doing PEGGY SUE that Bob said something to me about working on a show about the Four Seasons, but I never put two and two together. Then, about four years later, I found out that they were looking for a choreographer for JERSEY BOYS and I called Bob and Bob said, "You know, I'm not really that involved with it right now." So, that was the last I talked to him about that for a while. Then, I met with Des McAnuff on a Sunday when I was leaving LA and he was coming to LA - we met at Burbank Studios in Studio City and we talked for twenty minutes and really hit it off; we saw things very, very similarly. That was it - that was the beginning of my collaboration with Des McAnuff, who, since then, I have done so many shows with. He is my absolute mentor - he is absolutely amazing.
PC: Have you gotten to choreograph WEST SIDE STORY yourself - didn't you work on it at Stratford with Des?
ST: Well, I did it twice, actually - in 1998, when I was in FOSSE, I did it at the Stratford Festival. Then, this time around, ten years later, Gary Griffin asked me to do it there again, but this time it was under Des's artistic direction.
PC: What was your impression of performing another great director's work as a performer in the original cast of FOSSE?
ST: Yes, I did the original company, and, honestly, for me, as a dancer, I could not have asked for a better ending to my dance career - what bookends; to have my first Broadway show be Jerome Robbins' BROADWAY and my last Broadway show as a dancer to be in the original cast FOSSE was just… I mean, I couldn't even dream of it!
PC: Beyond your wildest dreams.
ST: Yeah - you couldn't even put that on paper and imagine setting out and actually achieving that, so it was really like winning a gold medal for me. [Laughs.] It really was!
PC: You appear in Rob Marshall's Oscar-winning film adaptation of Fosse's CHICAGO, as well. What numbers can we spot you in?
ST: I did two numbers - "We Both Reached For The Gun" and "Roxie". Rob Marshall and I had worked together before - as we were talking about before - on CINDERELLA, and, then, he asked me to do ANNIE with him. I had also done KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN for him before that. So, then, he asked me to come and do the movie of CHICAGO.
PC: What did you think of his concept at first?
ST: Oh, I was really, really excited - you know, there was no way in Hell I was not going to do that movie! [Laughs.] I just knew it was going to be really good.
PC: It was a risky project at the time, though - everyone forgets that. That film and MOULIN ROUGE reignited the movie musical trend.
ST: Yeah - it was. You're right.
PC: Would you like to direct your own movie musical someday soon?
ST: Oh, yeah - you know, I've been doing some TV here and there. I think it will be part of my journey as a choreographer, but, all in time; all in time. My passion is in LEAP OF FAITH right now and then my next two projects, but I'm sure I'll mix it up in the future.
PC: What is next for you after LEAP OF FAITH opens?
ST: Well, first, I am directing and choreographing FLASHDANCE which we will be touring this Summer and bringing in next season.
PC: How exciting. Will you be using the Giogio Moroder score from the film?
ST: Well, with the score for FLASHDANCE, we are using some of the iconic songs from the movie, but it is mostly an entirely new score. I am working with this really phenomenal composer from Canada named Robbie Roth who is writing this really delicious, sexy, amazing score for this show.
PC: What songs from the movie will remain in the stage version?
ST: We are using, of course, "What A Feeling" and "Maniac" and "Manhunt" and a couple of others, but the rest is brand new. There are like seventeen songs in the show total, so it's mostly new material.
PC: It will be a challenge to erase memories of the movie. Will you be hewing closely to it or is it much different in fundamental ways?
ST: Well, it's a stage adaptation of the show, so the way we are using the songs and the placement of the songs is a lot different from the movie. You know, the thing about FLASHDANCE is that it was originally intended to be a Broadway show before it was a movie. Tom Hedley, who is one of the co-authors of the Broadway show, originally came to New York in the early 80s with the intention of having FLASHDANCE done on Broadway as a musical, but, then, Hollywood got a hold of the script and they made it into a movie first. So, actually, we have been working on bringing it back closer to the original idea of the piece by doing this stage version.
PC: So, what will the path to Broadway entail?
ST: Well, we are going to the Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto in the Summer and we are intending to come to Broadway next season at some point after that.
PC: Plus, you have the new original tango rock musical in development, as well.
ST: Yes - as we discussed, I am also directing the tango show I am collaborating with John Weidman on and I am also developing a bunch of new material that I am both directing and choreographing in addition to those two pieces. Of course, I hope to continue my collaborations with Des McAnuff and Chris Ashley and great directors like them - you know, as long as I get to work with people that good and also work on my own material, too, I will be here. I am a lucky guy.
PC: You have worked with so many great directors, but one we didn't even discuss in all this time is Jerry Zaks, who you worked with as a performer twenty years ago in GUYS & DOLLS and worked as choreographer alongside on The Addams Family much more recently.
ST: Oh, my God - Jerry Zaks! Talk about once again having bookends to my life and career!
ST: To have been able to live to be so lucky! [Sighs.]
PC: A true thrill.
ST: You know, here I am, choreographing ADDAMS FAMILY all these years after I did GUYS & DOLLS for him. I will tell you a story I will never forget: we are teching ADDAMS FAMILY on tour and we are in New Orleans. So, I go downstairs to the basement and there is a big poster - you know, when you travel on the road with a show, they put posters up at every stop and you sign them and they keep them backstage at the theaters - and there on the poster in the basement is my signature!
PC: No way!
ST: My signature was right there on the poster - the first touring company of any show I ever did; GUYS & DOLLS, which I did it for six months twenty years ago. Of course, it was directed by Jerry Zaks, and, there I am, actually working with the director who I worked for in GUYS & DOLLS. [Pause.] Crazy.
PC: It brings everything full-circle.
ST: It was so amazing for me to have that experience - total bookends. You know, these are those crazy things that we don't always think of, Pat - sometimes we take what we do for granted and we get so caught up in doing what we do that we don't take a moment to revisit our past and look at our history and say, "Wow! What a life I have been lucky enough to have! Not a bad career."
PC: You have been associated with so many big hits - what a resume you have carved out in such a short time.
ST: I don't boast about it too much, but I am the first choreographer to have four shows simultaneously on Broadway and right now I am lucky enough to have three shows at the same time on Broadway. I feel so priveleged to be a part of so many shows that I love so much - I really do.
PC: What remarkable achievements! LEAP OF FAITH is a great way to continue that career with the pedigree of the team and show, as well.
ST: Yeah - I am really looking forward to opening. We have put a lot of great work in on it, and, you know, that's what you do - you come into town, you rehearse it and you begin to work on it. I am really looking forward to everyone seeing the finished project.
PC: What a career so far and we can't wait to see what you do next! Thank you so much for this today, Sergio.
ST: Thank you so much, Pat. And, also, thank you so much for your support of what we are all doing on Broadway - we all appreciate it so much. Bye bye.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro