BWW Interview: Sergio Trujillo Talks Choreographing the Iconic Temptations in AIN'T TOO PROUD
Since 2005, Sergio Trujillo has been dazzling Broadway audiences with his fancy footwork for hit musicals like Memphis, Jersey Boys, On Your Feet! The Emilio and Gloria Estefan Musical and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. The Columbia-born choreographer's latest, Ain't Too Proud-The Life and Times of The Temptations is another crowd-and-critics pleaser and has been nominated for 12 Tony Awards, including a nod for Trujillo in the Best Choreography category. Broadway World Dance caught up with the busy, award-winning showman via telephone and discussed how he managed to make the legendary dance moves of Motown's The Temptations even more iconic, his process, his influences, and more.
The music of The Temptations is iconic and so are their dance moves. For Ain't Too Proud, was it a challenge for you to refresh their dance routines?
You know ultimately what I set out to do was to create my own choreography, my own vocabulary, my own signature for The Temptations. Because what I wanted to do is to put myself in a position if I were the choreographer for The Temptations today, what would I do? And also I wanted to look at it through the lens of love today. You know dance has evolved in the last 60 years since The Temptations came out. Obviously, they were the pioneers in terms of singing groups and creating a sense of style. But ultimately I felt that it was important for me and for our show because it is an adaptation -- we're doing a musical about The Temptations and creating our own identity and our own story. So [that] was the ultimate goal and my mission statement for the show.
How did you approach your work as a choreographer for this show as opposed to other shows that you've done?
Luckily, during my 15-plus year career I've done a handful of musicals that have taken place [during the] 1950s, 1960s and 1970s like Memphis, All Shook Up, and I did a show in the West End called Peggy Sue Got Married. So when I knew I was going to do those shows I did a lot of research. This was back in and early 2000's [before] YouTube, [so] it wasn't as accessible in terms of being able to see videos and stuff. So I had to go to the library of film and television here in New York City and then when I was living in L.A. there was a video store called Hollywood Video in the Valley that had videos from all of the TV shows like the T.A.M.I. show, Hullabaloo and American Bandstand. So I went crazy and did tons and tons of research. So when it came time to do [Ain't Too Proud], of course I studied The Four Tops, the Cadillacs and The Temptations. And all I had to was trust that the wealth of information that I had was going to be my resource. And of course when you get to a dance studio and you start to choreograph to that music, I mean it is absolutely timeless.
Was there a big learning curve for the actors to master the moves?
The five [actors who portray] The Temptations had a range in terms of [dance ability]. Ephraim [Sykes] is avirtuosic dancer who trained with Alvin Ailey. And so is James Harkness. So the two of them are exceptional. Jeremy [Pope] is an actor and he's kind of hip-hop-y and he can access contemporary movement very well. And Derrick [Baskin] actually out of all of them worked the hardest. He's not a trained dancer, but ultimately Derrick became the one who has the style down the best. We grew up around the same time. I'm a little older than him but he understands the period. And they all do. We make sure stylistically...I didn't want the show to look contemporary. I want the audience to feel as though they're revisiting the past but yet a younger person will look at it and see it with fresh eyes. But they worked really hard. And ultimately we were able to create a dance company of sorts. The entire company, all sixteen of them. I can turn around today, go into the studio and choreograph something really quick and they'll get it, they'll understand. So we've created this world of dance, this vocabulary that's really accessible to all of them. And it's great because we communicate really well and they understand what I want from them.
Who are your biggest inspirations as a dancer and choreographer?
My career as a dancer was very lucky because I bookended my career with my first Broadway show -- Jerome Robbin's Broadway [in 1989] at the Imperial Theater - which by the way is where [Ain't Too Proud] is being performed 30 years later, and the last show I performed in was Fosse . So to be able to dance with these two masters, these ingenious director-choreographers and sort of study them is like a master class in choreography. So obviously [Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse] were two incredible influences for me.
Ain't Too Proud runs through November. Are you still hands-on with the show?
The biggest lesson I learned from Jersey Boys which is still running for 15 years - we've had multiple companies and we still have touring all over the world - is that in order to protect the show you have to keep it always the best quality possible. So I'm incredibly hands on with every production that I do of every show. And I'm very meticulous about my dance captains, and who I hire and how they maintain the shows. I check on all of my shows a lot, I think perhaps more than other [choreographers]. And that's really a testament to my Jersey Boys producers and my [Jersey Boy sand Ain't Too Proud] director Des McAnuff, who has been a teacher for me and and we both stay on top of [our shows].
Do you have another show in the works as of yet?
Oh my God, yes of course I do. When I'm doing one show, there's always three that I'm preparing. The show that I'm working on right now, we did at the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) two years ago, and in 2018 we won the the Elliot Norton award for best musical and I won for best direction. It's a tango-inspired piece called Arrabal, and we just have to figure out exactly where we're going to put it here in New York.