Kathrine Nero recently sat down with Sergio Trujillo, the Tony-winning choreographer of AIN’T TOO PROUD, to discuss his approach to crafting the Temptations’ signature moves.
Kathrine Nero: Sergio, tell us about your career and how you got to Broadway.
Sergio Trujillo: Oh, my goodness, wow, okay. Do you have enough time? I’m originally from Cali, Columbia. My family immigrated to Canada in the seventies and while I was in Toronto, I was studying, I wanted to get a respectable career, you know, the academic way. I went to a university. I studied biochemistry and then I went to chiropractic school but the entire time all I wanted to do was dance.
In the middle of my second year of school, I decided to take a sabbatical. I talked to my parents and said, I promise if nothing works out, I’ll go back to school. I came immediately to New York City because I thought, you know, if I’m going to dance, I have to be where the best are. Things weren’t going so well here. So, I then decided to go to Los Angeles and while I was there, I auditioned for the Broadway production of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and after many months of auditions and waiting to get an answer, I got a call to join the cast. That was a month before I was supposed to re-start school. And here we are, that happened 30 years ago.
KN: So, how did you move from dancing to choreography?
ST: You know, I think I knew that it was part of my destiny, it was part of my path. When I was dancing, I was always creating, always choreographing and, you know, with choreography, you don’t go to school. It’s a craft that is learned by doing and also by studying from masters. My career as a dancer only lasted for ten years. My first year was Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, my last year was Fosse but during those ten years, I danced like mad, just did incredible shows. I also assisted choreographers like Jerry Mitchell, Debbie Allen, Rob Marshall, Michael Peters. So while I was performing, I was also studying. I knew Fosse was going to be my last show, because I had made a choice that I was going to choreograph. And low and behold, I finished Fosse and the next day, I went to choreograph my first show, a small production of Kiss of the Spider Woman at Northshore Music Theater.
KN: Let’s talk about AIN’T TOO PROUD. You had something to draw from with watching footage of he Temptations. How much did you look at those movements to decide what you wanted your dancers to do?
ST: My path to working on this show actually [started] fifteen years ago. Des McAnuff, my director and my frequent collaborator who’s an absolute genius, hired me to choreograph Jersey Boys fifteen years ago. I love to do research and study the period, study the movement, everything pop culture. But during that time, there was no YouTube. So, I went to the Library of Film and Television here in New York. I tried to get my hands on any footage that I could on the Four Seasons to choreograph Jersey Boys, and I couldn’t find anything, but I came upon a lot of footage of the Temptations. Then all these years later, by the time I came to choreograph AIN’T TOO PROUD, I had already done all of the research.
I made a very conscious decision that I was not going to recreate what they did, but I wanted to pay homage to their work and their choreography. You know, we’re doing an adaptation of he Temptations, we’re not recreating it. And so I put myself in a position of if I were the choreographer of he Temptations what would I do? And this is what I came up with.
KN: It feels like the steps he Temptations might do, but different. Is that the idea?
ST: Yeah, you know, I also felt like dances in the last 60 years evolved and it was important for me to look at dance through the lens of today, but I also wanted someone who grew up with The Temptations, somebody who knew their music and people that have seen them live, to be able to look at them and say, wow that’s what I remember. But yet, for someone who’s never seen them or heard them, especially the younger audiences, I want them to look at them and think, wow that’s very cool. So, you know, it’s a marriage of both worlds.
KN: You mentioned Jersey Boys. The rest of your resume is just as impressive, including
: On Your Feet! (about Gloria and Emilio Estefan) and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. You have a history of choreographing shows based on real people. How does that change your mindset?
ST: Well, you know, no matter who you do and what you know about them, you have to approach the material from a storytelling point of view. So, you know, choreographing for Gloria Estefan, you know, I grew up with her music but at the same time, how do I interpret that period on a stage? How do I interpret that world into our show? You have to extrapolate it and you have to take creative liberties in order for it to really work for the show.
KN: Audiences will recognize Temptations songs such as “My Girl” and “Just My Imagination,” but this show is about more than music and dance. This has a great story behind it as well.
ST: Yeah, I think one of the [reasons] that I’m excited about this show going on the road and why I’m so proud of it is because this particular story will take you by surprise. It provides great entertainment and brings so much joy to audiences, but it also has a really moving, heartfelt story. And in some ways, the music of the Temptations is the soundtrack of so many people’s lives.
KN: When I saw the show in New York, audiences loved it. It almost felt like audience participation. When you see your work on the stage, how does it make you feel when audiences react so positively?
ST: There are times when, if I’m not having a great day, all I need to do is go stand in the back of the Imperial Theater because I need to remind myself that we do this for the audiences. It’s my gift, it’s what I do, but at the end of day, it’s like a spiritual healer of sorts and the audiences, no matter what you do, will always be the best indicator about whether you’re telling the right story or not.
KN: How does dance assist the character development of the Temptations?
ST: It was a true collaboration between [director] Des [McAnuff] and I, but it was really Des who – for the first time in any of our shows that we’ve done – was insistent on having more and more dance, which caught me by surprise. Because in Jersey Boys, he kept me reined in. I was revving to choreograph and dance, and in that particular show, the guys needed to have restraint and just a different approach. They couldn’t look like he Temptations. But in this one, because he Temptations come with the reputation of being the best dancing group ever, I think that was a beautiful way of weaving in dance, but also moments that are just pure subtlety, that are not real dance but more stylized movement. Those are very deliberate moments because the movement is always underscoring the action.
KN: With all of this great dancing, was it difficult to teach your cast? Is the movement
it hard to execute?
ST: It is. But we have on that stage probably the top “triple-threats” in America: actors who sing, act, and dance equally well. This show demands that
, everyone has to be able to really do all three, masterfully.
KN: What do you think made The Temptations so much fun to watch?
ST: I think their music, there was so much soul in it. And the melodies, you can’t help but to want to dance and that’s the main ingredient of their success.
About the Show
AIN’T TOO PROUD is the electrifying new musical that follows he Temptations’ extraordinary journey from the streets of Detroit to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Twelve-time Tony Award® nominee and the winner of the 2019 Tony Award for Best Choreography, AIN’T TOO PROUD tells the thrilling story of brotherhood, family, loyalty and betrayal, as the group’s personal and political conflicts threaten to tear them apart during America’s decade of civil unrest. Set to the beat of the group’s treasured hits, including “My Girl,” “Just My Imagination,” “Get Ready” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” the unforgettable untold story of this legendary quintet takes you behind the music like never before.
Written by three-time Obie Award winner Dominique Morisseau, directed by two-time Tony Award® winner Des McAnuff (Jersey Boys) and featuring the Tony-winning choreography of Sergio Trujillo (Jersey Boys, On Your Feet!), AIN’T TOO PROUD now comes to life on Broadway and across the country.