Jamal Sims walks EW through his Emmy-worthy choreography in exclusive behind-the-scenes footage from off-camera rehearsals with the queens.

By Joey Nolfi
July 06, 2020 at 11:35 AM EDT
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For seasoned dancer and choreographer Jamal Sims, re-teaming with RuPaul — whom he affectionately calls "my Yoda" — to plot a Madonna-themed Drag Race musical was a religious experience.

"I just put on Madonna’s tracks and started dancing," says Sims, who tells EW that, while preparing to thrust season 12's cast of queens into the grueling song-and-dance challenge, he forewent classical modes of research and let the Holy Spirit of Madonna take over. "Whatever came out [I used]."

With a groovy schematic outlined almost entirely from Sims' memories growing up watching Madonna on MTV, the 12-minute production (dubbed a "Rusical" in Ru's queendom) still puts nine queens of varying skill levels — including Heidi N Closet, Jackie Cox, Jan, Gigi Goode, Jaida Essence Hall, Brita, Widow Von'Du, and Crystal Methyd — through an authentic wringer as they pitch-kick and slide through moves that immediately speak to some of the Material Girl's most iconic body-talking stunts from the Blond Ambition Tour, the MDNA era, the "Papa Don't Preach" music video, and more. And stuffing the Queen of Pop's entire career into a bite-sized narrative was the easy part.

"I have an hour [to teach the queens] on camera, and then I have 45 minutes to an hour after, off-camera," Sims admits. "Normally, something like this would require a week’s rehearsal. It’s intense."

Below, just in time for Emmys voting, Sims breaks down how the epic Rusical came together in record time and shares exclusive, never-before-seen clips of the queens rehearsing their moves in the Drag Race studio after the main stage cameras switched off.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How was this concept first pitched to you?

JAMAL SIMS: Tom Campbell called me and told me they were doing a Madonna Rusical, and fear shot through my body. Madonna is an icon and people are very critical of [things related to her]. It was important to get it right for Drag Race fans and Madonna fans. Knowing Tom and the brand, they were going to do it right.

From there, where did the process of creating the choreography start?

It was about identifying which Madonna eras worked for each song. Once I decided on that, I moved on to the dancing. I was going to look at reference videos, but I know Madonna, I’m a fan, and I’ve worked with her, so I wanted to see how many iconic moments I knew without having to consult videos. If I knew the iconic stuff, then it would connect. Some of the moves were fusions of two numbers or two videos.

You weren’t just lifting stuff from major videos, you referenced things from performances on the Blond Ambition tour, the MDNA tour, but that was all from memory?

That’s how much I knew Madonna. I grew up on her and knowing that vocabulary already, so it was in there. I just had to reach back a little bit.

Jan and Gigi’s parts, especially, there are moves directly inspired by the “Holiday” video and “Papa Don’t Preach.” How did you decide, from memory, which moves were right for this?

I danced the songs first. I just put on Madonna’s tracks and started dancing. Whatever came out [I used]. Once I started to figure out what the movement and vocabulary was, I listened to the track and started narrowing it down to what would fit with the actual lyrics to convey the feeling of what we were trying to do.

Were there any surprising things you incorporated or Easter eggs that you haven’t seen fans notice yet?

“Justify My Love,” it was a little edited because I kind of went there with that one. They didn’t show everything

So it was a little raunchier?

Yes!

Beforehand, do you get a rundown of the queens’ skill levels or are you adapting for individual queens’ skill levels only when filming starts?

I’m adapting as we go. I have no idea what they can do. Some queens say they’re an amazing dancer, but you get there and they can’t catch it! Some queens say they can’t dance at all but they go go balls to the wall! It’s funny, some of the confidence they have, sometimes it’s way more than what their ability is. I go in there with what I want in my dream world, and then I fine tune what works for them in the moment.

When a queen isn't getting it, what’s the most effective teaching method?

If it’s not connecting, I move to the lyrics. If we can connect to the lyric and what it’s saying, that’s easier. When they hear what the lyrics are, they can attach them to the moves. If that fails, then I say, "If you were at a party and started dancing, what would you do?" I see their style, whether it’s rigid and hard or a little smoother. I can mold it to what their body naturally does. With Drag Race, I don’t have a lot of time. I’m dealing with minutes. It’s a challenge. I’d rather push them! When I left after rehearsing, I was like, I don’t know if they’re going to make it…. Brita was challenged! Although she struggled more than Gigi, I was thrilled with what she pulled off.

How long did you have to teach them the choreography in addition to what we saw on camera, and how does that compare to the time you usually have to teach someone choreography like this?

I have an hour on camera, and then I have 45 minutes to an hour after. Normally, something like this would require a week’s rehearsal. It’s intense.

What do you think of the final product and how the queens executed it?

I was so proud. I can’t watch it live, so I didn’t see it [on set] when [the judges did]. When it came on TV, it was amazing…. I want each queen to shine and I don’t want to see them go down in flames. I’m so happy that everyone liked it!

You've actually worked with Madonna on the Sticky & Sweet Tour, how did this experience compare to working with her?

The challenge with Madonna is that she’s done everything, through every genre of dance. Nothing is new for her. My challenge with her is to make it fresh. It’s intimidating. Compared to the queens, I feel like I wanted them to look like Madonna. How do I make that come out? It feels so good because I’ve been working with the show for years, and having this choreography recognized for the hard work [is great] because the queens put in that work. As a gay man, having Madonna as somebody I loved growing up, to connect with her music in this way feels good!

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