Certain musicals draw theatergoers who aren’t looking for something new but for something they already know they love. They want to enjoy it once more, live and in person.
“Jersey Boys,” which comes to Columbia for a multi-show run beginning Tuesday at the Koger Center, is the latest big show to make fans come back time and again. Of course, memories were part of its appeal from the start. A lot of people who turn out for the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons arrive at the theater knowing the songs by heart.
Packed with hits including “Walk Like a Man,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” “Jersey Boys” could almost work as a concert. But it’s not a concert. It’s a full-scale, Tony-winning musical. That means in addition to a can’t-miss score, striking costumes, special lighting effects and, obviously, dances are essential.
Enter Sergio Trujillo.
The choreographer remembers the show’s early days in LaJolla, Calif., before it went on to Broadway (and four 2006 Tony Awards, including best musical). “I did a lot of research,” he said. “I had already done (the London stage musical) ‘Peggy Sue Got Married,’ so I had the dance vocabulary of the period.
“‘Jersey Boys’ had to look sexy and cool, but not presentational. The audience has to buy into it until they think they really are seeing boys from New Jersey. So the dances are simple, but very effective. I wanted it to feel as uncomplicated as the chorus to a song.”
Born in Colombia, Trujillo moved with his family to Toronto when he was a boy. “Dance is part of my makeup,” he says now, but he didn’t pursue it until he was a 19-year-old chiropractic student. “I decided to take a sabbatical,” he said. “I went to New York.”
With little training and no experience, he was nevertheless cast in “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.” It was the start of a decade of dancing in Broadway shows, culminating with “Fosse.” “I only danced for 10 years, but they were phenomenal years,” he said. “From Jerome Robbins to Bob Fosse – I had great bookends.”
And a great future. By 2010, four shows that he choreographed were playing on Broadway simultaneously: “Jersey Boys,” plus “The Addams Family,” “Next to Normal” and “Memphis.” But those shows look and move so differently from each other, you couldn’t make the Trujillo connection just by watching them.
That’s not an accident. The choreographer takes pains to give each show its own distinctive style, true to the characters and situations (rather than to the artist behind the dances). His creative approach varies, too. A few examples:
“Guys and Dolls,” 2009 revival:” I went back and read all the Damon Runyon stories (that inspired the Frank Loesser show). Des (McAnuff, who also directed “Jersey Boys”) and I decided to reach into the source material.
“After I read them, I went into the studio and created a vocabulary. I put on ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ and other famous songs of the swing area. I let them make me move.”
“Next to Normal,” 2009, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in drama: “I was attracted to the material (about a family dealing with mental illness), and I am a big fan of the composer, Tom Kitt. I wanted to work with him and his team.
“The choreography really needed to be character-driven, and I had to create a framework for each member of the family. My favorite number is ‘Alive,’ when the son is on the scaffolding. It looked as though he were going right through the walls in the house. It was meteoric.”
“Memphis,” 2010, winner of the Tony for best musical: “That was thrilling because it’s a real dance show. It has a more soulful vocabulary, which is part of who I am. You have to make sure that you land the idea that the hero (a white DJ in the 1950s who plays black artists) loves this music right away. That’s the opening scene and you have to land it as soon as he comes into that nightclub.”
“The Addams Family,” 2010: “I reacted to the material, to the cartoons. At first I wanted to create a dance vocabulary that was very, very strange.
“But it didn’t work. I had to make sure I did not stray too far from the characters in the TV show and the movies. I wanted the dancing to fit those characters, the characters the audience already knows.”