Each year, the “Rusical” challenge on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is a highly anticipated one. It’s a chance for the queens to truly flaunt their talents as they perform unique song-and-dance numbers. The 12th season came with a little more pressure, though, as the competing queens had to perform to some of Madonna’s greatest hits, while also donning her most iconic looks. From “Lucky Star” to “Like a Virgin,” the task to take queens of different musical skill levels and turn them into pop stars fell to choreographer Jamal Sims.
“Every year, we challenge ourselves to think of new and better things to do. We asked, ‘Why haven’t we done Madonna?’ We wanted to see how we could push the queens. With this group, we knew from their audition tapes that they were talented in a variety of ways and across the board. We thought we’d have them record their vocals, and sing and dance. It was the hardest ‘Rusical’ in herstory.”
“Madonna is so iconic. Her styling and everything are so iconic and if you get it wrong, people are going to know. You have to be flexible [as a choreographer] and know when to pivot. With Widow Von’Du — who had hurt her knee in a prior episode — we could have made that knee worse. I had to make sure she could perform. I want them to do the best they can. I’m not setting them up for failure. It’s a fine line in finding how to push them without hurting them. A number like this should take a week and a half, but we didn’t have that luxury. It was done in two days.”
Jaida Essence Hall
“Jamal took the feel of what ‘Justify My Love’ gave, but injected what the music and the world is reflecting now. I had never seen the video before. [Judge] Michelle Visage said, ‘It’s sexy.’ I watched it twice and then knew what the vibe was. You had to learn it so fast. It was less about the choreography and music; it was more about learning who Madonna was in that period. When they pulled out the wardrobe, I saw a bra and panties and stockings. I thought, ‘There’s nothing here.’ I was nervous about wearing that outfit, but the wardrobe helped you bring out the character and made you feel alive.”
“I’m not a choreo queen, but I was excited to bring it to life. My performances revolve around what I’m wearing. I can move rhythmically but I’m not strong. I was shaky and nervous, and I wasn’t prepared to be nervous. I was confident in my ability to sing. I don’t know why I was shaky, but when we got on stage with Jamal, he said, ‘OK, what are you willing to do and can [you] push to the limit?’ I said, ‘I weigh 120 pounds and I am more than willing to be thrown into the air.’ Jamal brought out what I didn’t know I had.”
“A lot of what I shoot is dependent on what is choreographed. What you see in the rehearsals is a small snippet. It’s the first time the queens are seeing Jamal, and he has to gauge the talent because not everyone has the same ability. He has to cultivate their talent. We shoot a rehearsal and I get to learn some of the basic moves and then the group choreography. After that I’ll meet with producer Mandy Salangsang, and discuss how I want to shoot it. I’m heavily involved in the entrance and exits and how to make it all visually enticing for the viewer. But it needs to work from a choreography point of view in terms of getting one performer on and another off in a visually coherent way.”