Jersey Boys Goes Hollywood

May 31, 2014

Sergio Trujillo makes his big-screen choreographic debut in Clint Eastwood’s latest movie.

Above: scenes from
Jersey Boys. Top from left: The Four Seasons hit their stride; bottom: the big new finale with (from l. to r.) John Lloyd Young, Michael Lomenda, Erich Bergen and Vincent Piazza. 

Few people remember that the Four Seasons hardly budged when they belted out “Sherry” and the other monster hits that sold millions of records in the 1960s and ’70s. But thanks to the choreography Sergio Trujillo created for the long-running, Tony-winning Broadway musical Jersey Boys, the stage incarnations of the Four Seasons have been stepping smartly to those tunes since 2005. And with the release of Clint Eastwood’s movie version of the musical this month, Frankie Valli and his pals from Newark will be forever enshrined in the popular imagination as stage-savvy performers whose slick harmonies were delivered with even slicker moves.

The script, which replicates the faux-documentary style of the stage musical to recount the checkered history of Valli, Bob Gaudio, Nick Massi and Tommy DeVito, had been kicking around Hollywood for a while. Clint Eastwood might seem an odd match for a musical. But he signed on, went to New York to see the show and decided to stick with Trujillo and Trujillo’s choreography for the film. “He said, ‘I want the guy who did that choreography—I want to use that,’ ” says Trujillo. What Eastwood didn’t know: He was seeing only some of the Jersey Boys’ dance moves.

Adding Period Punch

Trujillo has racked up an impressive roster of Broadway musicals (including Memphis and The Addams Family) and award nominations since turning to choreography in 2001. But it was Jersey Boys that put him on the map, and each time a new production was mounted—for the national tour, for overseas companies—he augmented the choreography. “I was able to go back and inject it with a lot more punch, more pizzazz. After the Broadway show, the Frankies danced a lot more.” For the movie, Trujillo used choreography from both the original and later versions. And, because Eastwood wanted to add a splashy finale, he devised an entirely new number for the final scene (yes, please don’t hate us—we’re giving away the ending).

Above: Trujillo (right) runs through a sequence with Young, who reprises his stage perfrormance as Frankie Valli.

The show’s syncopated struts and sashaying, finger-snapping vocabulary seem to come directly from the dance styles of the period, but Trujillo points out that that’s a carefully crafted illusion. “I did little things here and there to make sure that it felt period,” he says. “I did the twist. But I did the twist my own way. I used staple ’60s signatures, but I also took liberties.”

Eastwood did not provide much guidance about what he wanted from the dance numbers when Trujillo went to Los Angeles to meet with him. “He’s known for being very quiet,” Trujillo says. “He just listens. It’s the shortest meeting I’ve ever had with anybody—I think it lasted less than 10 minutes. He said, ‘I loved what you did in the show. That’s what I want to do.’ ”

It’s a “huge honor” to be asked to do the film, Trujillo says, pointing out that Broadway choreographers rarely get to recast their work for the movies. He cites Ron Field, whose work on Cabaret made way for Bob Fosse’s in the movie version, and Jerry Mitchell, who had to cede Hairspray’s film version to Adam Shankman. “Jersey Boys is the show that has allowed me to have the opportunities I’ve had thus far,” Trujillo says. “I’d love to do another movie musical, but I don’t know if Jersey Boys is going to be the best showcase—the choreography is not the important thing, it’s the story. Still, I’m very lucky that Clint decided to use my choreography.”

The Eastwood “Family”

Although Jersey Boys is Trujillo’s first movie, he didn’t feel out of place. He was struck at once by the welcoming atmosphere on Eastwood’s set. “Clint is so collaborative,” Trujillo notes. “The day I walked on set for our first shoot, which happened to be one of the numbers, everybody there had been working with him for 20, 25 years. I felt like I was coming to Uncle Clint’s for brunch, because his whole team—his cinematographer, his cameraman, his Steadicam guy, his lighting designer, his costume designers, they were all, ‘Hey, Clint, how are you?’ He knew them all by name—‘How’s your wife? How are your kids?’ I felt I was being invited to be part of this family.”

Adding to his comfort level was the fact that the Colombian-born, Toronto-raised Trujillo was not exactly a novice around cameras. As a judge and choreographer on the Canadian edition of “So You Think You Can Dance,” he became accustomed to devising dances meant to be viewed through a lens. So when, four weeks into the 39-day Jersey Boys shoot, Eastwood asked for what Trujillo describes as “a huge, Bollywood-type of finale,” he didn’t flinch.

“We managed to put it together really quick,” he says, crediting his years in the theater. “When you do a Broadway show, you get a new opening number the night before, you work on it in the morning, you teach it to the cast in the afternoon, you tech it and it’s in the show the following night. So I just went into the studio, worked the finale out with my associate, taught it to the guys and then added the other 20 musicians, 15 dancers and the entire cast of the movie. I created a sequence where we could actually go nonstop all the way to the end without any cuts. It’s a Steadicam shot that starts above a streetlamp with the guys singing ‘Sherry,’ it comes down and goes into ‘Oh, What a Night,’ and as it travels down the street, we reintroduce all the characters that you met throughout the movie. It was a lot of fun.”

Above: Young on the set with director Clint Eastwood.

Christopher Walken: Fast Learner

Among those who arrive to join the dance is Gyp DeCarlo, the mobster played by Oscar winner Christopher Walken. Before gaining fame for his distinctive film performances, Walken trained as a dancer—there’s plenty of evidence from movies and music videos on YouTube—so he didn’t need much coaching to master the routine. “He was great,” Trujillo says. “He picked it up fast. I taught it to him in a half-hour—it’s very interesting, the unspoken language between dancers. His character is doing the same steps that everybody else is doing, but hopefully Clint got a good closeup—I want to see him dance.”

In late March, Trujillo had not yet seen the film—he was busy on multiple projects, including a 3-D film anthology of iconic Broadway dance numbers for a Times Square movie house. But he knew that it was Eastwood who would have the final say on how his choreography comes across on the big screen. “What I’m going to learn, probably, is that the numbers have gotten tighter, shorter, smaller. In a movie you have to compress a lot of storytelling in a very short time. People’s attention spans are very different from what they are at a Broadway show.” At the movies, he points out, audiences won’t mind going quickly from a Four Seasons song to a dramatic scene: “The number doesn’t really have to have an ending. Onstage, you want it to finish and get that release,” Trujillo says, silently clapping his hands. “But in a movie, there’s no applause.”

“I would have liked to have a little more time to explore the movement a bit more and go further with it,” he says. The best he could do was “make little adjustments here and there.” But he was grateful for the opportunity to do the finale, which Eastwood describes in an e-mail as “more in the style of a big stage production than a movie.” Because it was new, Trujillo says, “I felt that finally I was doing what I wanted to do: put my signature on the movie version of Jersey Boys.”

Sylviane Gold is
Dance Magazine’s “On Broadway” columnist.

All photos Courtesy Warner Bros.