On Broadway

February 23, 2009

The list of roles in the 1950 classic Guys and Dolls evokes a colorful, bygone world of charmingly harmless bums, bookies, and wise guys. Nicely-Nicely Johnson. Rusty Charlie. Angie the Ox. Harry the Horse. Along with the musical’s main characters—the inveterate gambler Nathan Detroit, his rheumy sweetie Miss Adelaide, their handsome pal Sky Masterson, and his prim “Mission doll” Sarah Brown— they sprang to musical-theater immortality propelled by a wonderfully comic book by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling, a brilliant score by Frank Loesser, crackling direction by George Abbott and dazzling choreography by Michael Kidd.

But these characters, their grandiose slang, and their amusing adventures originated in the stories of Damon Runyon, who began life in Manhattan, Kansas, and ended as the most famous chronicler of that other Manhattan in the 1930s and ’40s. His writing is little read today, so librarians in La Jolla must have known something was up last summer, when Sergio Trujillo, in town to choreograph the rock musical Memphis, began combing through all their Runyon material.

What was up was the Guys and Dolls revival that opens on Broadway March 1 under the direction of Des McAnuff. McAnuff and Trujillo, who collaborated on the 2005 megahit Jersey Boys, were trying to figure out their approach to the show, which had, after all, been an instant success when it opened (Robert Alda, Alan’s father, was the star, and the ensemble included choreographers-to-be Onna White and Peter Gennaro). And it was gloriously—and indelibly—revived by Jerry Zaks and Christopher Chadman in 1992, with Nathan Lane and Faith Prince and, eventually, a chorus kid named Sergio Trujillo.

“The great thing about doing a revival,” Trujillo says, “is that it’s like doing Shakespeare, or opera. What a great joy, to bring a fresh point of view to a classic.” Adding to his joy is the admiration he feels for his partner: “Des can figure out a way of making it fresh and new while staying incredibly loyal to the original work, to the characters and the heart of it.”

McAnuff and Trujillo decided they wanted to keep the production focused on Runyon, and they set the show in the ’30s, when the stories were written. Which is why, Trujillo says, he spent  hours in the library delving into the Runyon literature. “I became obsessed for a while,” he cheerfully admits. “I needed to really find out who the characters were, what that world was like.”

He came away with a movement vocabulary drawn from the staccato rhythms of Runyonesque dialogue and from the burlesque shows that provided urban America a temporary escape from the grim realities of the Depression. Trujillo watched tapes of Gypsy Rose Lee and other burlesque queens. But, he says, the show’s nightclub chorus line will not be reproducing the routines of the era. “I try not to be puritanical about period,” he says. “I take the information and make it my own. For Guys and Dolls, I tried to come up with a vocabulary that suggests 1935, 1936, without strictly sticking to it.”

The show’s dance numbers range from the comically tacky girlie entertainments at the Hot Box club, where Miss Adelaide is the star chantoozie, to the all-male action at the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York, to the sultry couples-dancing of a hot night in Havana. Finding dancers with that versatility turned out to be easy: “I had the cream of the crop,” Trujillo says. (He’s not kidding—one of the dancers in the ensemble is John Selya, who starred in Movin’ Out.) The hard part, he found, was deciding whom not to hire.

“I fall in love with so many dancers,” he says. “I am a dancer at heart, and I know how hard it is to train and audition and set yourself up and have your heart broken. It’s always so hard for me to audition people and then not be able to hire them. I did have to break some hearts. But in the end, it’s about heights and characters.”

Trujillo had another ticklish problem. The big Havana scene, when Sky lures the straitlaced Sarah away from the Save-a-Soul Mission for a night of romance in Cuba, is set in a club crowded with dancers. As the choreographer of the ill-fated 2005 musical Mambo Kings, which never made it to Broadway, Trujillo has a large inventory of Cuban dance numbers stored in what he calls “my little library in my head.” Those dance numbers represented months of work, and they were just about the only part of the musical that got good reviews during the show’s San Francisco tryout.

“I set myself a challenge: How can I do this without using one single sequence from Mambo Kings?” he says. “I wanted to keep the vocabulary unique to Guys and Dolls so that the Havana number wouldn’t stick out, so no one could say, ‘That feels like it’s from another show’.”

Anyone lucky enough to have seen samples of Trujillo’s choreography for Mambo Kings—whether in San Francisco, in YouTube snippets, during the show’s New York rehearsals, or at a Ballet Hispanico gala—can’t help wishing for the terrific dance numbers to finally get some Broadway exposure. The Colombia-born, Canada-bred Trujillo offers some hope: “I have a couple of other shows that I want to do that in,” he says with a twinkle.


Sylviane Gold writes for
The New York Times and other publications.


Photo: Joan Marcus, Courtesy Barlow Hartman