Dedicated to the 40th anniversary of the first publication of the play by Jean Poiret La Cage Aux Folles and the 30th anniversary of the musical of the same name.
This essay includes parts of an exclusive interview with a performer and professional drag queen – Vincent Celeiro aka Nomi Sas.
“…Why not try to see things from a different angle?…”
I Am What I Am – Jerry Herman
The musical La Cage Aux Folles celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. The literary basis for the musical – the famous French play by Jean Poiret of the same name – also reaches its anniversary this year – 40 years since its initial publication.
The history of theatre and cinema knows many examples of successful performances by men playing female roles. Thus, at the end of the XIXth century, the play Charley’s Aunt not only became extremely popular in 1892 when it premiered but also was made into a movie more than once. Recognized as one of the best musical comedies of all time – Some Like It Hot – is known due to its brilliant screen version of 1959.
The Broadway musical Tootsie in 2019 kept up with the tradition of men playing female roles with dignity. Drag queens began appearing in professional theatrical plays more and more after the one-of-a-kind reality TV show – RuPaul’s Drag Race, directed by Nick Murray (2009-2016). It became the catalyst of interest in drag queens as representatives of the show business industry, as well as the provider of amazing talents. And so, we received the wonderful jukebox musical Priscilla Queen of the Desert (2011), the original musical Kinky Boots (2012), and a rock musical – Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2014) inter alia.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert (book by Stephan Elliott) and Kinky Boots (music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper, book by Harvey Fierstein) have gathered a harvest of awards. Both musicals were presented on West End and traveled on regional tours across the U.S. and U.K.
Just beWho you wanna beNever let them tell you who you oughta beJust beWith dignityCelebrate your life triumphantly.
The way that the spectators received those two shows, the evaluation of the critics and professionals as well as the positive feedback from the representatives of mass media, speaks for itself: the creators found the correct tone of narration and format of presentation.
In our interview with Vincent Celeiro aka Nomi Sas, we talked about several relevant issues that exist in the creative field of the drag queens’ community. Vincent has performed in all of the major musicals which feature a drag-queen character. The so-called “Trifecta!” These are – La Cage Aux Folles, Kinky Boots, and Priscilla Queen of the Desert.
Lisa Monde: How did you create your drag persona – Nomi Sas?
Vincent Celeiro: Nomi Sas is a mash-up of Nomi Malone from Showgirls and Sas from the Rachelle Rak Show. So, if we combine the two – we get Nomi Sas. She is great – “One hundred percent trash!” (in Nomi’s voice, laughs)
LM: So, which show out of the “trifecta” is your favorite?
VC: I feel very blessed to have done the whole trifecta of musicals that tell the stories of drag queens. Each show has a different place in my heart. When I was doing Priscilla – that was my first gig out of college, so it was my favorite for a while. Honestly, every time I put on the set of heels – I think – “At least, I get to kick my heels again, one more time!” Your favorite time could be your last and so I’m always grateful for each show I get to perform in.
LM: If we compare La Cage Aux Folles and Kinky Boots, since they’re both by Harvey Fierstein, out of these two which one is your favorite?
VC: I would say, probably, Kinky Boots. That holds a very special place in my drag family. My drag mother – was a Lola on Broadway – Crystal Demure, Broadway’s J. Harrison Ghee. So, having that legacy in your drag family – makes it special. I grew up listening to La Cage Aux Folles on repeat, I saw the 2004 revival and I saw Harvey Fierstein in the title role in the second revival, so that is just classic teenage Vinny right there. (laughs)
LM: When it comes to performing in drag – is there a special set of skills, that you must learn to be able to do drag? And, I have to ask, how about being able to walk and dance in heels?
VC: I think it’s all about the art form of learning. We are a family – all drag queens learn as they go along and share, or rather, pass their knowledge and skills along to their sisters. It takes some practice. Heels…I’m a bougie girl, I’ve always performed in La Duca’s. I wanted to be comfortable. I’ve even stoned and bedazzled a pair!
LM: How do you choose the outfits for your shows? Where do you find them? Are there special places that you go to? I bet getting those heels and stilettos for drag queens is not easy, as it follows from the story of Kinky Boots.
VC: We often go to places in Soho. I’d find anything that has sequins… I make some costumes myself. I know how to sew. That’s another trait that drag queens should know. You need to know how to sew.
LM: So, we’ve talked about your first show and your favorite show. What are the shows on your bucket list, that you would still love to be a part of in drag?
VC: I would love to play Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity – that is my dream role. Sally Bowles from Cabaret would be fun to play. Also, Chorus Line – I would love to be Sheila or Cassie. Theatre is opening up to having drag queens and having more representation of drag than what we’ve seen before. And that is hopeful for a drag artist – to play all these different roles and hopeful for anyone to play whatever they would want to play, without limitations.
LM: From what I’ve noticed, the drag community became more present on the stages of New York City over the past couple of years. There are more appearances in the cabaret world, and drag performers are doing their own acts as well as performing in theatre. And I know there were a couple of shows, which were not the usual musical theatre shows where drag queens were involved. I believe you did a couple of those – The Housewives of Secaucus and My Big Gay Italian Wedding. Could you tell me a bit about those? That’s a different kind of theatre.
VC: Those theatrical experiences were very much like putting on an actual drag show. It was so fast-moving. In My Big Gay Italian Wedding – the cast has done the show before, whereas for myself – I was new and learning it for the first time. My character in the show turns into drag to help out his best friend at the wedding. I just had to rely on everyone to guide me through the performance and the process. Same with Secaucus – there were other drag queens in the cast, but a lot of them were new to the theatrical life and language and the setup. So, there were drag queens, as well as male-identifying performers turning into drag queens for the show and we had women who were doing drag as well, where they amplified their femininity. Drag – is an art form, so anyone can do it.
LM: Are the drag kings – a separate community? Or do they stick together with the drag queens?
VC: We are just one big “drag community.” I’ve done some cabarets with drag kings, and burlesque shows, they are just as immersed in various nightlife cultures as we are.
LM: Would you say that most of the drag queens in the community are musical theatre people?
VC: Not necessarily, but we all do have a touch of theatricalism in us. We all express a certain theatrical point of view.
LM: What are you focusing on right now?
VC: I’m focusing on theatre, auditions, booking a cruise ship gig, a national tour, and the main goal – making my Broadway debut.
LM: What kind of shows do you prefer to do? When you have an opportunity to do drag in the show?
VC: I have always done drag ensemble work or drag shows. And this past time, I did All Shook Up out in Long Island and it was my first time not being a drag queen on stage. I got to be a boy and use my real hair… I thought it would be fun. I think I prefer being a woman on stage though. I prefer wigs. (laughs)
LM: How long does it take you to do your makeup?
VC: About an hour and a half, if I’m trying something new, doing something I usually don’t do. And an hour if it’s my regular look. I usually need two hours before the show to get into drag completely. Especially in Kinky Boots, there are a lot of pieces, and the second time we did it- we used original costumes. So, it took a bit to get into costumes.
LM: I would like to wish you and other drag queens the best of luck in new musicals using the lyrics from a song: ” Feed your fire, to take you higher/We’ll light you up like a live wire!”
The modern drag culture is only starting its journey down the path called “showbiz.” At last, many lawmaking initiatives related to equality in rights for the representatives of the LGBTQ+ community have been realized. The vector of self-realization has changed its course in their lives. If until now a drag queen’s goal was to imitate and copy a collective image of a woman, at present – it is all about accepting oneself as you are, showing yourself to the world and showing your peculiarities, peppering it up with some light kitsch, parody. And that – is true creative work, in every sense of the word.
Today – drag queens are startling and active members of the contemporary theatre world. The brightest representatives among the successful drag queens are, just to name a few: RuPaul, Shangela, Chelsea Piers, Nomi Sas, Paige Turner, Jackie Cox, and many others. They are known within the community due to the popular original cabaret shows, and among everyone else – thanks to the competitions and shows and TV. We see more and more drag queens appearing in musicals and dramatic plays. They are not just part of the ensemble anymore but also perform a variety of leading roles. No doubt that those who have professional acting training in their set of skills – will please the spectators and will grace the stage in plays by William Shakespeare, Jean Genet, Carlo Goldoni, Brandon Thomas, and other playwrights, who didn’t miss a chance to tell their future directors and producers that the female roles in their works MUST be played by men. And who else, if not the drag queens, can do it best?
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.