While he’s worked with top-tier divas in the music industry, it wasn’t Beyoncé or Taylor Swift who gave multi-hyphenate entertainer Todrick Hall the choreography challenge of a lifetime: it was four men in wigs competing for a spot in the RuPaul’s Drag Race Hall of Fame.
Though it was a monumental undertaking orchestrating a live, eight-scene musical number through the Drag Race soundstage outside Los Angeles, the show’s Emmy winner personally requested the 33-year-old’s talents in the hopes he could successfully coach Trixie Mattel, Shangela, BeBe Zahara Benet, and Kennedy Davenport to nail the intense song-and-dance number set to RuPaul’s “Kitty Girl” in a single take. The only problem? Given the nature of reality TV’s fast-paced production timeline, Hall had roughly 36 hours to bring the whole thing together from concept to camera.
For your Outstanding Choreography Emmys consideration, EW caught up with Hall to discuss everything that went into executing the seemingly impossible feat of fabulosity he brought to life during the All-Stars 3 finale. Read on for an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at Hall’s creative process — including three never-before-seen videos from rehearsals.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s important to highlight this immense achievement on such a big scale during Pride Month, right?
TODRICK HALL: I felt so proud… we as a queer community have been behind the scenes for so many years and behind so many great divas, being responsible for the lingo that they turn into lyrics… or the hair that we’ve done for them or the choreography we’ve created, the costumes, the makeup, so it’s nice that now people who would normally be behind the scenes are doing these things.
But, the producers were a little skeptical about it being done in the amount of time we had… There’s an element of nervousness they’re going through because it’s the final competition for them to decide whether or not they’ll make it to be the next drag superstar… but working with these four queens was awesome because they all rose to the occasion and the producers were blown away that we were actually able to do it in one take.
Where does the concept process start for you in terms of navigating how this dance would work in the studio space you had?
The producers were like, we just trust you to make this your playground and do something you think is cool… they said, we want to do something that can appear to be one take, but it doesn’t actually have to be. But I wanted to challenge us to actually do it in one take, so they allowed me to play there and I choreographed the whole thing. The producers left, which they normally don’t do, and let me do my own thing. When they came back and watched it, they were like, “Holy s—t this is so awesome!”
I also had to push them to allow me to bring some of the dancers in because there are all of these NDA issues where things are often leaked, and they were not super open to me letting my friends come and dance. I had to say, “Look, these are the best dancers I know, they’ve danced for Beyoncé, they’ve danced for Taylor Swift, I trust them.” And I put my name on the line… Luckily the dancers came in and filmed it and we had so much fun.
Did you end up choreographing specifically for each of the individual queens?
I was able to play and say, this looks like an area where Shangela would be able to fill this entire space strutting like Beyoncé in the “Crazy In Love” video… and I knew I wanted BeBe with the sewing machines and the fabric so they could be doing very late ‘80s, early ‘90s voguing in New York, and I knew I wanted Trixie’s area to be more colorful and cupcake-esque because she has the purple hair on. They all told me what they were going to be wearing, and I tried to make choreography for each queen that represented their brand, style, and personality.
Fun fact: I never show up with choreography planned when I go to Drag Race. There are certain things you think you’d know, that someone would be able to do. But some people’s brains just don’t work the same way… when I was working with Sasha Velour there was no way I was going to give her Shea Coulée’s choreography… it would be an awfully unfair disadvantage for me to create choreography that I think is awesome but make someone who has a personality like Sasha Velour do it… as a queer community, we’ve been put into enough boxes and I don’t want to, even if it ‘s just for a couple of eight-counts, put somebody into a box they don’t want to be in.
How much time and effort went into the preparation?
About a day-and-a-half. We don’t get a lot of time. It’s a fairly quick turnaround. I think we performed this on a Sunday, and I went to set on Friday night. On Friday evening we filmed them learning the choreography they did on stage, then they found out they were going to do a one-take number, so all day Saturday they learned it and Sunday morning at 6 a.m. we met up and they get to rehearse a couple times, and then they filmed it… Shout out to the cameraman, because [if] the cameraman didn’t catch it, if he didn’t learn his movements or his marks as if they were choreography, the whole thing would have failed. This would be difficult for a group of dancers who’d been training since they were eight years old, and these girls not only had to learn the choreography while thinking about their elimination [but also had to] lip-sync the lyrics to the songs they wrote the day before.
I don’t think people realize how many departments something like this involves. It wasn’t just you, like you said, it was the cameraman, lighting, props…
The cool part is, the number was set before the producers came and watched it, which never happens because they never leave and let me do what I want to do and just come back and watch it… the lighting people were having a difficult time creating lighting in places where it wouldn’t be knocked over by dancers running like football players the second the camera turned off of them, because we didn’t have as many dancers as it looked like: We had one group of dancers that all moved to two or three sections of the number. When their section was over, they’d run behind the camera [to the next one], so the camera had to find a perfect amount of space where he could still be filming Shangela going to the new section while leaving enough room for the dancers to run behind him to Trixie’s section to be able to do a quick costume change behind the camera. We didn’t have 35 dancers, we had 12 and had to make it look like there were more there… we also didn’t bring in actors to pretend to be crew members, which is why it was so fun because everybody on set got to see all of their peers be on camera for the first time… It was cool to see them in front of the camera because they work so hard on the show.
Does anything particular from rehearsal stick out in your mind? Were there any diva moments we didn’t get to see?
I remember we wanted Shangela to do something on top of the box. She was supposed to ride in on the box, but because there was nothing to hold her on the box, the producers were like, “You can’t do this…” and Shangela was like, “What if I just touch my foot on the box while someone carries me over?” We harassed the poor man to the point where he was like, “I guess it’s okay…” because Shangela was like, “Is that okay? Good. Great. Bye.” All of the dancers were laughing because it was such a diva moment… the way she handled it was, in a very polite way, how a diva would handle it, how I imagine Beyoncé would handle a situation like that.
What are you most proud of with this accomplishment in choreography when you watch it back?
To be able to be on this show is so game-changing. Growing up as a gay black man in Texas, I didn’t have anybody to look up to on television that I felt looked like me… To have RuPaul call me and ask me to be on the show, I compare it to what Brandy must have felt like when Whitney Houston called her and told her she’d be playing Cinderella and Whitney would be her fairy godmother… that movie changed my life in the same way as an adult how this is changing my life because I realize how many kids this is impacting and how many minds this is changing and opening. I’m so grateful because there will only be one time something can happen like this for the first time… this is the first time it’s able to be on mainstream media and I’m so excited to be a part of it.
I look at RuPaul as a mentor, a friend, almost like a motherly figure, and when he saw this for the first time — you know when you see moments like when Michelle is saying “Miss Vanjie!” over and over again, where you see that true, raw laugh that RuPaul does? It doesn’t happen all the time, but when you see it, you know it’s a real, raw, authentic emotion, and when RuPaul saw this, his face got so excited. He was like, “Todrick, you’ve outdone yourself!” And to me that was like someone bringing Publisher’s Clearing House back and giving me $80 million… that’s the moment I’m most proud of during my entire Drag Race experience: being able to bring choreography to life and getting to challenge these queens who are not dancers by trade, and being able to make them do things they never thought they could do. To watch them succeed is the reason why we’re all in entertainment.