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Theatre & Performance The artistic team behind Jersey Boys takes on the Temptations – but don’t call it a jukebox musical

Director Des McAnuff, left, and choreographer Sergio Trujillo at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto.

Galit Rodan

Few artistic teams have had as much success with a particular, controversial form of musical theatre as director Des McAnuff and choreographer Sergio Trujillo – a couple of music-mad Canadians who grew up in Toronto, a decade apart.

Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, their latest creative collaboration, opens in Toronto this month at the Princess of Wales ahead of a Broadway run set for the spring, while Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, another show of theirs with a self-explanatory title, has been running on Broadway since April.

And, of course, the two are best known for Jersey Boys – a musical about the Four Seasons, which opened on Broadway in 2005, closed in January, 2017, and has grossed more than US$2-billion in all its various incarnations worldwide.

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But while it may be true that McAnuff and Trujillo are the Canadian kings of the jukebox musical genre, just don’t tell them that.

“The term we prefer is ‘biographies,'” says McAnuff, a two-time Tony Award winner and former artistic director at the Stratford Festival, sitting next to Trujillo in a lounge downstairs at the Princess of Wales Theatre under the skeptical gaze of a portrait of Princess Diana.

With a script by Dominique Morisseau, a playwright from Detroit who’s currently the third-most produced in the United States, Ain’t Too Proud certainly does tell the group biography of the original African-American singers who formed the R&B group behind hits such as Just My Imagination and Papa Was a Rolling Stone in 1960.

And yes, those songs – as well as My Girl, I Can’t Get Next to You and, naturally, Ain’t Too Proud to Beg are all performed as a part of the show. But why would an audience want to hear anything else?

“We’re using Smokey Robinson songs and Norman Whitfield songs because we’re doing the story of the Temptations,” McAnuff says. “It would be kind of strange, I think, to make up songs to put in their mouths.”

Though by no means new to Broadway, jukebox musicals – new shows built around pre-existing songs – are somehow still a contentious topic among musical-theatre fans. Just last month, The New York Times ran a discussion between four theatre critics on the front of their Sunday arts section about them: “Is it time to defend jukebox musicals? Or at least to stop snarking about them?”

For McAnuff, whose Broadway résumé, like Trujillo’s, also contains many traditional musicals, however, the question should be why there are so many shows about musicians – and the answer is obvious.

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“Celebrity in our culture has replaced royalty,” he says. “Just as Shakespeare wrote a quarter of his plays about kings, we’re, in our culture, interested in the famous – actors, maybe politicians, but particularly musicians and singers. I think that has everything to do with the so-called jukebox musical.”

It’s McAnuff and Trujillo’s shared background as Canadian artists who had worked at the Stratford Festival – where they were surrounded by all those plays about kings – that brought the two together as collaborators on their first jukebox musicals a decade and a half ago.

Trujillo, who had made his Broadway debut in 1989 in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and later reworked Robbins’ choreography for West Side Story at Stratford in 1999 (and again in 2009), had heard that McAnuff was looking for collaborators on a musical based around the music of the Four Seasons.

Living in Los Angeles at the time, Trujillo wrangled a 30-minute interview with McAnuff, then artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, as he was passing through town for a few hours.

“It was one of those times where it was like, ‘This is my shot,'” recalls Trujillo, who is 11 years his colleague’s junior. “I’m going to walk in there and I’m going to meet Des McAnuff and I really want to work with him.”

The two ended up talking about Stratford – where Trujillo had just choreographed The Sound of Music in the Festival Theatre – and discussing how much craft it takes to create work on its famous thrust stage. The two hit it off, although McAnuff says he was probably inclined to like a fellow Canadian working in the United States.

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“Maybe it’s a bit of an unspoken rule when you’re Canadians, you do kind of look out for each other,” the director says. “I think inevitably you’re going to be more sensitive to people that you share a background with.”

When they first began work on Jersey Boys, Trujillo had what he calls “huge aspirations” for the choreography – but McAnuff quickly “reined him in,” he says.

“You had to buy that [the Four Seasons] was a blue-collar group,” he recalls. “You couldn’t have these guys all of a sudden break into choreography that looked like the Temptations.”

Now, more than a decade later, Trujillo is actually working on a musical about the Temptations – and McAnuff has let him off the leash. In Ain’t Too Proud, the dancing begins with a faithful recreation of the Motown group’s at-the-time ambitious moves – which were choreographed by Paul Williams, one the group’s original lead vocalists – and then gradually builds them in new new direction.

“I wasn’t interested in doing a replica – and I also wanted it to be accessible to a younger generation,” Trujillo says. “I want younger kids to come to our show and think, ‘That’s really cool.'”

So far, audiences of all ages are thinking that that. “When the men are snapping, swaying and slicing the air with their limbs, there is no defense,” L.A. Times critic Charles McNulty wrote in August, reviewing the show in a pre-Toronto engagement.

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For McAnuff, bringing Ain’t Too Proud to his hometown provides a chance to revisit his own youthful musical memories. In the sixties, he used to frequent places such as Club 888 on Yonge Street to listen to R&B bands with the “Toronto Sound,” he says, rattling off names including Shawne and Jay Jackson and the Majestics, Mandala, Christopher Edward Campaign like an old-school DJ.

“Toronto was very aware of what was going on in Detroit with Motown, so there was a lot of cross-pollination – even though the soul scene here was mainly white and the soul scene there was mainly black,” he says.

In the same era, Trujillo, who confesses to a kind of younger brother relationship with McAnuff, was just a child growing up in South America – and when his family moved to Toronto when he was 12, he had to play catch up on North American culture.

“When I got here, there was such a learning curve, musically,” says Trujillo, who landed his first Tony nomination for best choreography in 2016 for On Your Feet! The Story of Emilio & Gloria Estefan. “But with me with any of these shows, it’s just really about research and learning the period, getting my hands on any information I can, because having all that knowledge liberates you in the room and empowers you when you’re choreographing.”

Both are looking forward to spending time with family while Ain’t Too Proud is in Toronto – and Trujillo is particularly happy to be reunited for a while with husband Jack Noseworthy, who is currently acting in the cast of the Canadian production of Come From Away and with whom he has a six-month old baby.

For much of the past year, getting Summer up on Broadway, then working on Ain’t Too Proud, Trujillo and McAnuff – who also worked on a 2009 production of Guys and Dolls together and say they’d love the opportunity to return to Stratford to work as a team – have been joined at the hip. “There was a period where were we spending more time together than we were with our spouses," says Trujillo, as the two step outside the theatre to be photographed.

“Yeah, it was not healthy," McAnuff says – as Trujillo, his brother in musical biographies, leans over and fixes his tie.

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