On Broadway: When Rock Took Off

October 26, 2009




“Art is never finished,” says Sergio Trujillo. Case in point? This past summer he was busy with a roomful of ensemble dancers preparing to open the rock musical Memphis on Broadway. Its dance numbers got great reviews when the show tried out in San Diego and Seattle, but Trujillo was intently adding to, subtracting from, and changing the choreography to suit both changes in the script and changes in the cast.


For Dionne Figgins, who’d been with the show since its beginning, it meant letting go of what she knew and opening herself to the unfamiliar. For Vivian Nixon, who’d had Broadway experience but was a newcomer to Memphis, it meant finding a way into a new world and a new character. For Danny Tidwell, who thought he could dance and had proven it on TV and in concert halls, it was all unknown territory—his first time in a Broadway ensemble.


The story that they will inhabit, written by Joe DiPietro and directed by Christopher Ashley, is fictional. But its main character, Huey Calhoun, is based on the real Memphis disc jockey whose 1950s radio show lit the spark that ignited the rock ’n’ roll revolution. Dewey Phillips is remembered not just for introducing his listeners to a record by a local kid named Elvis Presley, but for helping to turn what was then called “race music” into the lingua franca of teenage America. Like Phillips, Huey introduces his white audiences to something brand new: the catchy tunes and explosive rhythms—provided in the musical by Bon Jovi keyboardist and Broadway newcomer David Bryan—that he’s heard in Memphis’ black dance clubs.


“Chris and Joe understand the role of dance in the show,” says Trujillo of his director and writer. The dance numbers chart the first tentative breaches in the barriers separating Beale Street’s black kids and Main Street’s white ones. Figgins, Nixon, and Tidwell are, of course, part of the Beale Street bunch—though those ’50s Beale Street clubs probably never saw dancers with their kind of ballet training and professional experience. Figgins performed leads with Dance Theatre of Harlem. Nixon starred in Hot Feet and danced with Ailey II. Tidwell’s background includes gigs with American Ballet Theatre and Complexions. And even though their resumés are all over the map, and rehearsals had barely begun, and they didn’t even have scripts yet, they were already behaving like a raucous and giggly crew of neighborhood teenagers.


The cast of every musical becomes a family of sorts. And dancers who move from one ensemble to another carry those family ties with them from show to show. But these three take “It’s a small world” to a whole new level. Figgins was Nixon’s understudy in Hot Feet, Maurice Hines’ 2006 adaptation of The Red Shoes, though they’ve known each other since they were children. Figgins worked with Tidwell in Complexions, and Nixon and Tidwell studied together at the Kirov Academy in Washington, DC. As they sorted out the various threads of their joint histories, Trujillo trumped them all.


“I’ve known Vivian since she was about 2 years old, maybe even younger,” he said. He started dancing for Nixon’s mother, the choreographer Debbie Allen, in Los Angeles, and ended up assisting her. “I used to go to Debbie’s house and work in her studio. Vivian was a baby. I left a baby and now there’s this gorgeous, sexy woman.”


Nixon interrupted him: “He did tell me I was a whore on the very first day,” she said in mock outrage. “It was the character,” he responded. “The character. She likes to have fun.” He paused, searching for a polite phrase. “Let’s just say she enjoys the company of men.”


Trujillo, whose work was already on Broadway in two Tony winners, Jersey Boys and Next to Normal, went on to explain that he was trying to get Nixon to dig into the steps more, “to get a little more grounded.” He wants each dancer in the ensemble to bring a specific personality to the stage. “I don’t like a line of identical dancers,” he said. “Each of them is an individual. I encourage them, ‘Bring your own sense of character.’ ”


That’s the one area, Figgins said, where her experience with the show gives her a bit of an edge, despite all the new choreography she had to learn. When she first started auditioning for Broadway ensemble work, she said, she watched dancers with lesser skills moving ahead while she would be cut. And then she figured it out: “I didn’t have the character,” she said. “Even if you don’t know what the story is, you have to be able to listen to the music and find what that character is.”


As for the steps, Trujillo is basing them on the dances teenagers were doing in the Memphis clubs in the 1950s but adding his own spin. Read jetés, double tours, pirouettes. “I’m not interested in just seeing the twist and the mashed potatoes,” he said. “I want to add my own condiment.”



Sylviane Gold writes on theater for The New York Times.


Photo by Kevin Berne, courtesy