The opening number of the Oscar ceremony earlier this was memorable for its spectacle and commentary. The host-less ceremony drew upon the star power of Janelle Monáe to perform an industry-focused version of “Come Alive,” highlighting characters from films that had been snubbed by the Academy. Bringing this to life was choreographer and Monáe’s frequent collaborator, Jemel McWilliams — who was simultaneously working on the Grammys opening number with Lizzo. Now, McWilliams is Emmy-nominated for the Oscars in the variety or reality choreography category.
What was the pressure of simultaneously preparing for the Grammys and the Oscars?
God worked it out so I couldn’t get too much in my head. I had completed the Grammys opening two weeks prior with Lizzo, but I was rehearsing and preparing for [it]. I started to prep the Oscars choreography on Jan. 2. I had to get the work done and didn’t have the time to let the pressure of those moments settle in. I wasn’t until after that I had the, “Did I just do that?” moment. I thought, “This Black boy from Washington, D.C., just choreographed the opening number for the Oscars.” That’s when I got nervous.
How did the concept for “Come Alive” come together, and how did you get all of the elements together?
This is show business, and a lot of the time, it’s about “hurry up and go.” Janelle talked to me about it back in December when we were on vacation. She dropped the news on me and we started brainstorming. We started to look at what creatives would fulfill us. Janelle is a visionary. She had this vision of bringing these characters to life on stage. And it was my job to execute and stay true to her vision. I had to also service the Oscars because they have their moment of highlighting films, so we still had to hit certain beats.
What was it like to be backstage afterward and see the reaction to the number?
Janelle, the performers and I couldn’t stop screaming and crying. We were overjoyed. We got to be up there and be ourselves. We got to highlight films, honor the Oscars and do it our way. It was such a range of faces on stage. There were a lot of Black faces that you don’t often see in these moments. Janelle and I got to seize this opportunity because we got to do us the way we wanted to do us.
What is the balance of technicality and heart in your process?
I have to serve as a coach and motivator. It’s one thing to be on the dance floor, but it’s another to understand what the performance was rooted in and its message. I don’t work on technicalities, but rather I look at the heart of the performers. We’d sit in prayer circles and talk about rejection within the industry and what we were dealing with. I had dancers who felt discouraged and were on the verge of quitting. A lot of deep-seated things came out during those circles. Dancers felt seen through the job and the process. What you got to see was a group of dancers who were so connected to their process, and it was a rebirth for many of the dancers who felt like they were coming alive.