Fresh from another sold-out, joyful and triumphant transatlantic tour of The Jinkx & DeLa Holiday Show, actress, vocalist, and two-time RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Jinkx Monsoon is preparing to make her Broadway debut as Matron “Mama” Morton in the Tony-winning production of Chicago the musical. When the curtain rises on the opening night of her eight-week limited engagement on Monday, January 16th, Jinkx will make theatre herstory as the first drag queen to portray the iconic role on Broadway. The countess of the clink and mistress of murderers’ row with the showstopping number, “When You’re Good to Mama”, has previously been played on stage by the likes of Jennifer Holliday, Patti LaBelle, and Bebe Neuwirth who won a Tony in the role, and on screen by Queen Latifah in an Oscar-nominated turn.
With her musical partner Major Scales, Jinkx Monsoon has travelled the globe performing in shows like The Vaudevillians and released two acclaimed records, The Inevitable Album and The Ginger Snapped. Previously on stage, she’s played the title role in John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch (winning the Gregory Award), while on screen she’s appeared on the CBS cop show Blue Bloods, alongside Mama Ru in AJ and the Queen on Netflix, and she made a memorable festive cameo in Clea DuVall’s Happiest Season with fellow Drag Race alum and frequent collaborator BenDeLaCreme. Jinkx has also voiced characters for the queer animated series Steven Universe, and been the subject of two documentaries, Drag Becomes Him and The Queens.
Certified drag legend Jinkx Monsoon spoke exclusively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about how rehearsals for the show are going, how meaningful it is to her to be bringing drag to Broadway, her previous relationship with the hit musical, and her response to the current demonization of drag queens. She also spills the tea on her bags going missing ahead of her recent appearance at DragCon UK, and reflects on the difference between her two Drag Race wins.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: As opening night fast approaches, how are you feeling about making your Broadway debut in Chicago?
Jinkx Monsoon: “Well, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a little anxious and that I’m a little keyed up, but anytime I start to feel nervous I look at the team in the room. I look at the conductor and the stage manager, who’ve been doing this for 30 years, who aren’t nervous for me at all, and I think, ‘Okay, if they’re not nervous, if they’re not freaking out, there’s no reason I shouldn’t be!'”
It’s such a long-running show on Broadway, how open are the production team to you coming in and putting your own stamp on the role and the songs?
“There are certain notes, no pun intended, that you’ve got to hit and play with this character. That said, at this point, we’ve really just been exploring this character on me. What we’re really going for is: how does someone like me play Mama authentically, genuinely, truthfully, and effectively? That’s always your job as an actor.”
What are you particularly enjoying about sinking your teeth into “When You’re Good to Mama” and have you made any new discoveries in the number as you’re preparing?
“Oh, absolutely, because I’ve been singing that song for so long. It’s drag queen go-to. It’s a staple in our world and I’ve only ever played it for the innuendo. So to be encouraged to find more than just sex jokes within the song has been fun and deepens the song of course. So the sex jokes I have covered, everything else we’ve been finding in rehearsal!”
What’s the significance for you of playing the role in drag and putting drag centre stage on Broadway?
“Well, I’m not the first. Peppermint was. As far as I know, Peppermint was the first drag queen and trans woman to originate a role in the show Head Over Heels. I feel so honored and grateful to be able to take that torch and I’m excited to see who I might pass the torch to next from our sisterhood. But for me, what’s really, really exciting is that I’m getting to play a role that’s intended for a cis female to play. My whole mission statement as an artist since college essentially—when I got into a fight with my professor—was to show that audiences can handle someone with a penis playing a female role, genuinely earnestly, and not always for laughs. The Chicago team is giving me that chance and it’s one of my favorite shows, so it just feels so perfect. It’s this perfect culmination of everything I’ve ever wanted to do – so no pressure!” [Laughs uproariously with signature Jinkx cackle]
Growing up in the UK, I’ve been used to seeing pantomime dames on stage since I was a young child.
“The beautiful thing about drag is that the drag world is vast and there is room for everyone. So panto is its own style of performance and very much lives there. I won’t be doing much panto. For me, if I do my job well, no one’s going to be thinking about whether I’m a drag queen or not, they’re just going to be watching Mama Morton.”
What’s your own relationship been with Chicago over the years?
“Chicago the film was one of the reasons I started doing drag. The music in Chicago is so my taste. I fell in love with the score and that’s when I started working as a young performer. All the roles in it are female roles, thank God, but that meant I started doing drag so that I could do the songs that I thought I was most apt to do.”
I saw Chicago again recently when Angelica Ross was in it and I’d forgotten how many good songs are in in it. With other musicals you’re lucky if you come away with one or two you can hum.
“Well, I’m a musical theatre person, but there are plenty of musicals I don’t like. I took my friend who has never seen a musical before to see Chicago. If he hears show tunes he thinks he’s not going to like it, but he told me there wasn’t a single song in Chicago that he didn’t like. I mean, there’s a reason why it’s been running for so long. It’s such a well written show, the score is contagious. You walk away from it singing songs from the show. It’s just one of those shows and I feel so honoured to be part of it.”
At the end of your recent holiday show with BenDeLaCreme here in New York, there was a very poignant moment when you spoke about the demonization of drag and the hateful rhetoric being thrown at drag queens today. Given that, does it feel particularly meaningful to you to be bringing drag to Broadway right now, as audiences from across the country and around the world will see you in Chicago?
“It does definitely feel meaningful, but it also all feels par for the course. I know that right now we’re seeing an influx, but when you are a drag queen you pretty much see it every day because you’re sensitive to it. You know how to hear the hatred in certain statements that are meant to be innocuous, it’s just one of those things that you kind of become desensitized to after a while, but it also empowers me in my work. I think one of the best antidotes to that hatred and bigotry that exists in our world and in our country, is to just keep living life unapologetically, authentically, and bringing joy to my audiences. And every year the audience is getting bigger and more bombastic, and drag is sweeping media in a way that I don’t think drag queens ever expected. So we’re just taking every day one day at a time and loving every minute, whether people hate us for it or not.”
Well, your outfit obviously arrived today!
What gave you the idea of holding that sign when you appeared at DragCon UK? .
“What gave me the idea is I wanted to nip any speculation in the bud. My suitcases didn’t arrive. Luckily it was one of the days I had dressed up for the airport so I had something nice to wear, but I was petrified about doing DragCon out of drag because they’re there to see me in drag. The drag fan base is just so loving—I mean, there’s trolls everywhere—but ultimately, it was just this outpouring of, ‘We don’t care, we just want to meet you, we just want to say hi’. And that’s what the day was, it was just really joyful. The hastily written sign was done seconds before they had me trot down the pink carpet. I just wanted everyone to know it wasn’t that I didn’t care, it wasn’t that I wasn’t putting in the effort, it was just literally that my bags got lost!”
Sticking with Drag Race, now that you’ve had some time to reflect on it, how would you say your two wins differed?
“Well, I was so young the first time and even though I had been doing drag and performing for quite a while, nothing can prepare you for going from being locally known to being internationally known overnight. That’s how it was, it just happened overnight. There was no way to prepare myself for it, even though it felt like something I had been working for my whole life. 24 years is not that many years in the grand scheme of things! Now, 10 years later, I have all this different appreciation for what I do. I have different intelligence for the industry that I work in, I have different experiences that I’ve lived through. I’m a different person, and I feel like I am really present in this moment in a way that I maybe wasn’t the first time because I didn’t know what was going to happen then and now I do. Now I feel like, I got this, this is what I do, this is my job now and this is who I am.”
And you have the crowns to prove it!
“And now I finally have a scepter.”
You didn’t get one the first time?
“No! They hadn’t done the scepters back then! I was the last queen that RuPaul put a crown on and she did it off-center and I think that’s why they switched to scepters! But I have no confirmation, that’s just my own conspiracy theory, okay, no one told me that!”
By James Kleinmann
Jinkx Monsoon will appear as Mama Morton in Chicago the musical at Broadway’s Ambassador Theatre (219 W. 49th Street, New York) beginning on Monday, January 16th, 2023. She will play an 8-week limited engagement through Sunday, March 12th, 2023. Tickets are on sale now at chicagothemusical.com.