Musicals starring drag queens are far from unheard of in our modern era of theater — with a few, like La Cage Aux Folles and Kinky Boots — even going on to earn critical acclaim and commercial success. But what about a musical that examines the actual day-to-day life of drag queens?
That’s the kind of musical RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars winner Alaska set out to create with DRAG: The Musical. Over the course of the last six years, Alaska and her writing partners Tomas Costanza and Ashley Gordon wrote and recorded the entirety of their new show, which tells the story of two rival drag bars fighting to survive against the financial struggles resulting from the gentrification of their neighborhood. The official studio album of the musical — featuring queens like Monét X Change, Divina De Campo, Ginger Minj, Broadway star Nick Adams and many others — is out tomorrow (May 13).
Despite making a career out of writing and releasing her own music (including her forthcoming new album), Alaska tells Billboard that creating an entire musical proved to be a wholly different challenge. “It became a full-on season of Lost, trying to figure out all of the loose-ends in the plot, and making sure everything gets figured out at the right time,” she says. “It’s tremendously hard and it’s a lot of work.”
Below, Alaska and Costanza talk about coming up with the concept for the musical, how they went about recording the star-studded album despite competing schedules and a global pandemic, and why it’s important to spotlight the peril queer spaces around the country are in through their work.
This is a fabulous concept album that you two and Ashley Gordon have created — what is the origin story of DRAG: The Musical and this creative partnership?
Tomas Costanza: So, every year for the last eight years, I go to New York to see shows for, like, a week. And about six years ago, I went to see a bunch of shows, and I remember walking out of the theater of Kinky Boots, and thinking, “Wow, I think I could do this!” [Laughs.] I loved it, it was fantastic — but at that point I had been working with Alaska and [her manager] David Charpentier for almost six years. So it felt like a culmination, like a next step.
So I came home, and I asked Ashley, “Hey, would you be interested in writing a musical about drag?” And she said yes, so I then called Alaska and said, “Would you be interested in writing a musical about drag,” and she said “[in Alaska’s voice] Yaassss.” So that was it! We jumped in a room, it took us about 3 months to get the idea, which Alaska came up with. And then we spent 2 years, in the first round, writing it — we wrote the music first, and then we started the book after.
Alaska, I know you have been working on this for the last six-ish years — what does it mean to have it coming out in the middle of promoting a memoir, releasing an album and planning for a fall US tour?
Alaska: I know! I guess everything just has to happen all at once. It’s mostly just really exciting, because all of these things that we’ve been laying the groundwork for for so long are finally happening one by one! Sure, it’s all at once, but for me? Work, I love it.
Tomas, you’ve been working in the industry at Killingsworth for years, and you’ve spent the last few years working with a lot of drag artists including Alaska, Trixie Mattel, Manila Luzon, Desmond Is Amazing and others — what attracted you to working with all of these talented queens?
Tomas: I think David Charpentier is the one who reached out to me 11 years ago, because Sharon Needles was wanting to do an original album, which in those days, no one really did. So I was a little unsure about it, and Sharon was like, “Well, I wanna do something like Nine Inch Nails meets Marilyn Manson” — and Nine Inch Nails is my favorite band. So I said, “Alright, let’s give it a shot.”
It pretty much took off from there — the first full album we actually did was Alaska’s first album, and that, to me, is where it all really came together. We were still trying to pull it together with Sharon, but with Alaska, it all came together so fast. Ultimately, we just got really good at it, and it’s been fun ever since.
I cannot imagine that writing a full-blown musical is at all the same as writing an album — what was the easiest part of putting DRAG: The Musical together, and what was the most challenging?
Alaska: Well, the thing that we are best at, the thing that just flowed the most was the music, for sure. That’s always been our language with each other that we have just developed over a really long time by making a lot of music together. So we were really in the pocket there, that was easy-peasy. Then, it was like, “Oh. We have to actually bring these characters to life.” It became a full-on season of Lost, trying to figure out all of the loose ends in the plot, and making sure everything gets figured out at the right time. It’s tremendously hard and it’s a lot of work. There were some times where we took the pieces of paper and threw them completely away and started over — and to be honest, we will probably do that again. It’s a living, breathing thing, this musical. But the music was always there.
Tomas: Absolutely — once a week while I’m walking around my neighborhood for about seven miles, I will just listen to this album over and over again, and just think to myself and think, “Holy shit, this is really good.” As far as I’m concerned, starting it and finishing it is the hardest part of writing a musical. Like, getting enough balls to start it is so hard, and then to actually finish it and say, “We’re done,” is exceptionally hard.
But Alaska is absolutely right: When we first framed out this music, we didn’t know what we were doing, honestly. We had about 18 songs, and when we finished, and the person we were working with was like, “All right, well, now you gotta write the book.” And we were like, “Can’t we just hire someone?” They said, “No, you have to do it.” I remember having the conversation with everyone saying that we needed to write the book, and it was silent. So we ended up re-writing it a lot.
When we finished the book the first time, we did a reading for Tommy Mottola and Michael David, who own the Dodgers Corp, which is the biggest theatrical company in the world. After it was done, we just realized how shitty the book was, and then the pandemic hit. Alaska wasn’t touring anymore, and all of a sudden, we could be in the same room frequently — meeting up three times a week for about a year, we re-wrote it. And thank God we did.
I love the way that the book focuses on the fact that, yes, drag is glamorous and fun — until it’s a little bit gross and extremely difficult. Why was that important for you to highlight in this show?
Alaska: That is a really important part of drag! For me, it’s kind of the thing that I like most about drag — it’s not just about sequins and sparkly things. You can get very down and dirty with drag … or at least I do. [Laughs.] I always have! It was the sort of shows happening at The Stud in San Francisco, or the Blue Moon in Pittsburgh, where everything was kind of covered in beer a little bit, every surface. But, you were able to bring to life something from your imagination in that space where everything’s a little loose, people might be getting in a fist fight, and you have to scream to make sure that everyone can hear you. That sort of energy and excitement is my exact vibe, and we wanted to capture it for the show.
Not only that, but you’re also bringing much-needed attention to the fact that there are queer bars and clubs around the country that are shuttering, either due to the pandemic or the economy. What has that been like for you to watch over the last few years?
Alaska: Oh my god, it’s devastating to think about places where you have all of these memories that are just gone now! It’s not even that they’re now something fabulous to replace them; they’re just leveled, or they’re standing empty, and that’s really tragic. It’s unfortunately a reality that has been going on for a while — when we were writing the musical, we were like, “Yeah, this is sort of a thing that’s happening.” And now, it’s even worse. It’s a real-ass thing, and I hope people realize that.
In the lead-up to this album, Tomas, you said that this album was equal parts Kinky Boots, Willy Wonka, Rocky Horror, Rent, Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell, and The Sex Pistols.
Tomas: And just a little bit La Cage Aux Folles!
Of course, naturally! How do you go about blending all of these different styles into what is ultimately a very unified, singular sound for the score?
Tomas: The answer is lots of time. [Laughs.] It took us … I mean, we’re six years in right now, and when we officially finished the last round of the book, we were at the point right there where we were like, “You know what, why don’t we just release the soundtrack ourselves?” We had so much success at that point, and we felt like we were ready.
It literally took me a year just to record the music we’d written, because I had to take all of those different influences and find the right fit for each song. Just the drums sounds alone took a month — I wanted something that packed a punch like on a Green Day record, but the grit of like, the Sex Pistols. For piano, I didn’t want something so traditionally musical theater, I wanted something like Lynyrd Skynyrd or Rocky Horror Picture Show, but especially Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell. It was about encompassing all of that, while also making it cohesive and central, [which was] was very hard. I think we probably just got lucky at the end, because we did capture almost all of those elements to make it our own.
This is also a really incredible cast that you pulled together for this project, from drag stars to Broadway entertainers. How did you go about selecting and coordinating with all of these people in order to make this happen?
Alaska: Well, a lot of it was just us asking our friends to be a part of it, to be honest. It’s so wild, because everything was sort of recorded separately, because everyone had their own schedules and locations, and then there was also COVID. It all was done over a long period of time, and now that we’re promoting it, I’m seeing all of these names lined up with each other and I’m like, “Oh, this is major! This is a really amazing lineup!” I mean, hey, we’re just very lucky to know very talented people.
Tomas: We got really lucky with that, too. But it all came together — and what’s interesting is that, at the end of the day, there were 15 characters and six backing singers. So that took a year to record, and no one was in the same room ever at the same time. It took two months just to edit it together and sound like they were. Another thing is that, I don’t know if Alaska, Ashley and I knew precisely what these characters were all about; we certainly had an idea, but these performers brought it all to life and gave each character their own identity. When it came onto tape, it was just fully formed. This whole record is pure magic, as far as I’m concerned.
Time for the hard question — if each of you had to pick a favorite song off the album, which would it be?
Alaska: Well, mine is easy, it’s “Queen Kitty,” which is the entrance song for Kitty Galloway [Alaska’s character]. She’s such a b—h and she’s so mean and c—y, and I absolutely love that about her. Her entrance music is so grand, it feels like high drag.
Tomas: Yeah, I would have to say mine is “Jerry’s Dead.” I’m a Long Island metalhead punk-rocker, and it’s just so punk. I was like, “Let’s add something extremely punk into this,” not knowing if it would work. But it’s so amazing how it all comes together. It’s also kind of Book of Mormon in the lyrics — we’re giving comedic tension through lyrics about someone taking a s–t on a rug when they die.
So the album is coming out — once that’s done, what do you see happening next for DRAG: The Musical? Can we expect to see a stage production soon?
Alaska: Absolutely — I’m really excited to start putting it on its feet with people in a room, because so much magic happens during that process. I’m really looking forward to getting it on the stage. I don’t think we can say exactly when, but truly, it is coming sooner than you think; like, foolishly soon. That’s the next step for me, that’s sort of what I’m focused on with this at the moment.
Tomas: I think the goal for all of us is to go to Broadway — the dream is to win a Tony. And I think we could maybe do it.