From Ancient Greek and Elizabethan theatre to Broadway’s La Cage aux Folles and Kinky Boots, men donning women’s clothing has proven a vital component of the performing arts. Folklore suggests the term “drag” originated as an acronym in a Shakespearean stage direction (“DRessed As A Girl”), and though its etymology is cloudy, its prominence remains a stalwart expression of acceptance, barrier breaking, and resistance.
RuPaul’s Drag Race—set to return for its tenth season in 2018—has become an international platform for drag culture. The reality competition showcases various schools of styles of drag, including queens who specialize in live, musical theatre-style performance.
Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey founded World of Wonder (the production company behind the series) in 1991. The two met as NYU film students, and the rich, queer performance culture of the East Village inspired their passions and aesthetic.
“The place was exploding with art, theatre, and—of course—drag queens,” says Barbato. “We spent most of our free time at the Pyramid Club, featuring all kinds of shows and avant garde theatre, and places like 8BC and the Limbo Lounge with new music and experimental theatre.”
Bailey adds, “These shows ripped off and mashed up Broadway. The epic performances of [playwright-artist] Ethyl Eichelberger—to pick just one—were all the glamour, madness, and heartache of Broadway crammed into a one man/woman show—with an accordion.”
More than an exchange with theatre, Bailey explains an ongoing cycle between underground drag and pop culture: “The symbolic act of drag—breaking gender norms—is a license to take anything in our culture and turn it upside down. That commentary then feeds back into the culture.”
Ginger Minj and Alexis Michelle are two Drag Race alums who have embraced the cycle, bringing a theatrical sensibility to their drag—and in turn, a drag-inspired outlook on theatre. The two, from seasons seven and nine, respectively, are both set to appear at the inaugural New York mounting of RuPaul’s DragCon, September 9–10.
In the conversation excerpts below, Minj and Michelle share their Broadway inspirations, blending drag and theatre, and more.
Discovering the Intersection of Drag and Theatre
Minj: My first time in drag for theatre was when I was costuming a production of Gypsy. The woman playing Rose was about my size, and she happened to walk out the night before final dress. I was the only one that fit the costumes and that knew the show—from being at every rehearsal—so they stuck me in, and I played Rose for two weeks until they flew in the new girl. I found it more freeing to take on the female characters; they were an extension of myself, but they weren't me. I was able to lose myself more in the role. And it was my lifelong dream to be Patti LuPone. It still is.
Michelle: The first two women I saw in the Chicago revival playing Roxie and Velma were Bebe Neuwirth and Karen Ziemba. There was something about both the show, [and] the material, and particularly the Fosse movement vocabulary. Just before my senior year of high school, I saw the drag performer Edie, who clearly had very similar theatrical inspirations as I did. I saw her at a post-Wigstock party at Webster Hall. I saw her perform “Son of a Preacher Man.” She was in a little black bob in a little black dress with black character shoes, and had two guys behind her dressed in black. It was a very stylized Fosse rendition, and my mind just exploded. I saw someone taking that inspiration that I had found from Chicago—and drag—and putting them together. It really sparked things for me.
Queens Worshipping Queens
Minj: If I modeled myself after one musical theatre legend, it would be Ethel Merman. My look is very Merman; my voice is very Merman; my jokes are very Merman. She's loud and she's brassy…. I remember watching The Love Boat with my grandma and grandpa when I was really young. I didn’t know who she was at that time—I just thought she was cool. She was so ballsy. She just took over every scene she was in.
Michelle: Having grown up in New York, I was exposed to a lot of theatre at a young age, most notably seeing the original production of Into the Woods. Bernadette Peters and Joanna Gleason left a very big imprint on me at that young age. I’ve been drawn to strong female performers in general. Both those women on stage—as well as the women I would see on screen in the movie musicals—it was a combined interest in women and musicals. Unconsciously, the two worlds were always very connected. If I saw a musical, I was really drawn to the heroine.
Dream Drag Roles
Minj: I really connect with Annie Oakley from Annie Get Your Gun. My life kind of mirrors that story: a small town hick who had no idea what the world was, found something they were good at, and went on from there. I love that story. And the last Broadway revival we had took place under the circus tent, so that lends itself to being a play within a play. You can take more liberties, and it would be just as valid.
Michelle: Because I’m a purist, it would have to make sense in some way. That being said, I think there are different roles where it would play more effectively than others….Mrs. Lovett [of Sweeney Todd] is one of the greatest roles in all of musical theatre, but there’s a couple bits about her that I think would play really well with a man in drag. She’s lived this spinster life; maybe she’s had a few flings, but she doesn’t have a man, and she’s childless. There’s lots of reasons a woman could be childless, but one reason might be that she doesn’t have female reproductive organs.
Editor’s Note: Playbill Managing News Editor Ryan McPhee will moderate a panel discussion September 10 at RuPaul’s DragCon, titled Glitter and Be Gay: Broadway Queens. Speakers include Michelle, Minj, Tony nominee Sheryl Lee Ralph, and Broadway alum J. Elaine Marcos. For more information, visit RuPaulsDragCon.com.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.