When RuPaul’s Drag Race returns for its ninth season on March 24, viewers across the country will meet Alexis Michelle: a New York drag queen with Broadway dreams, a strong belt, and a natural ability to put on a show. Fans at the March 7 premiere party got an early taste of her theatricality when she performed Chicago’s “All That Jazz” with live vocals, Fosse choreography, and an ensemble of alumni from the musical. Take a look above.
The art of lip syncing is a drag fundamental—each episode of the reality series ends with the two bottom queens from that week’s challenge to “lip sync for their life” (i.e. their place in the competition). While most of the 12 additional contestants offered high-energy lip sync routines with effects ranging from projections to original compositions, Michelle treated the PlayStation Theater stage like a Broadway venue—where live vocals are sacred.
“I was preparing to do a pop song,” Michelle told Playbill prior to the performance, “and I told some close friends, and they said, ‘Girl, this is the RuPaul’s Drag Race season nine premiere in your hometown. You need to do the most Alexis Michelle thing you’ve ever done.’ And I listened, because [theatre] is what runs in my veins.”
The rehearsal process for the number mirrored a traditional put-in for a replacement. Michelle worked with friend Brian Spitulnick—a long-running member of the Broadway company and current swing—and Andrew Fitch to stage the number for the new setting and to explore the nuance of Bob Fosse’s iconic choreography before bringing in the ensemble.
Michelle’s drag frequently incorporates musical theatre. While competing in New York’s So You Think You Can Drag competition in 2014 (which she won), her performances included “Defying Gravity”—flying included—and a live rendition of the Witch’s rap from Into the Woods that led into a dramatic costume change and The Apple Tree’s “Gorgeous.”
“I’m truly being my most authentic self if I’m being theatrical,” Michelle explained. “I have a male side and female side, and drag is the fullest expression of my female side … It’s been a huge surprise to me that being my most authentic self—including honoring my drag life—has brought me back into theatre.”
Michelle (out of drag, Alex Michaels) studied at University of Michigan’s famed musical theatre program. Dani Spieler and Anne Horak—both fellow Michigan alums who’ve appeared in Chicago on Broadway—were among the eight performers flanking Michelle on the PlayStation Theater stage.
“She came to a Halloween party as Elphaba,” Spieler says as she recalls her first time seeing Michaels as Alexis. “I was like, ‘Who is this?! She looks amazing!’” Horak remembers seeing Michelle uncannily impersonate Liza Minnelli in a college drag show. “She’s clearly come a long way,” Spieler adds, “but she was a Broadway queen at the beginning, and she’s a Broadway queen through and through.”
After performing the musical’s opening number for Drag Race fans, Michelle is ready and willing to take the act to Broadway—as long Chicago producers Barry and Fran Weissler are on board. “Weisslers, I’m ready,” she says. “I’ve actually had this cuckoo fantasy of doing a repertory situation of going between Velma and Roxie on different nights.”
Horak supports this proposed double act: “Alex told me when I was a freshman, ‘You’re gonna do Chicago on Broadway.’ And he was right. I hope he gets to do it, too. Alexis came out of the womb doing this.”
Until then, catch Alexis Michelle on RuPaul’s Drag Race beginning March 24 on VH1. She is also set to return to Feinstein's/54 Below with four performances, beginning March 28.