Here's how 'Drag Race' star Jinkx Monsoon is making Broadway history in 'Chicago'
For Jinkx Monsoon, the road has always led to “Chicago.”
Monsoon, the two-time “RuPaul’s Drag Race” winner, is making her Broadway debut with an eight-week run in the iconic John Kander/Fred Ebb/Bob Fosse musical, with performances running through Sunday, March 12.
Monsoon is assuming the show-stealing supporting role of Matron “Mama Morton” in the production that’s been on Broadway since 1996.
“Dream come true doesn’t cut it because it is everything I had hoped and dreamed it would be, plus so much more,” said Monsoon. “And then the learning experience that it’s been, everything is just through the roof. I mean, I’m exhausted, that’s true, but everything about the work is just fantastic. I’m on cloud nine.”
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For eight shows a week, Monsoon’s "Mama" Morton presides over the Cook County Jail and its inmates — including jazz-singing murderesses Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, both clients of the smooth-talking defense attorney Billy Flynn.
With a book by Ebb and Fosse, lyrics by Ebb and music by Kander, with choreography by Ann Reinking, the current production of “Chicago” won seven Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical.
The longest-running American musical in Broadway history, "Chicago" is set in the 1920s. The original production first arrived on Broadway in 1975.
But it remains undeniably timely. After all, as “Mama” Morton explains, “in this town, murder is a form of entertainment.”
“For a show to run as long as ‘Chicago’ has, the story has to serve our time and this story has not stopped being relevant,” Monsoon said. “It’s about people who commit crimes but get away with it because they’re popular. It’s also about show business. It’s also about the way our country works. It’s about a lot of things. It’s also about gender politics. It’s got a lot going on.”
When Monsoon — winner of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” Season Five in 2013 and “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” Season Seven in 2022 — arrived as “Mama” Morton on Jan. 16, she made history as the first drag performer to play the part on Broadway.
Monsoon is following in some formidable footsteps as “Mama” Morton. Marcia Lewis was nominated for a 1997 Tony Award for her turn, with subsequent performers including Jennifer Holliday, Wendy Williams and, most recently, Charity Angel Dawson.
And, of course, respect must be paid to Queen Latifah, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her performance in the show’s 2002 film adaptation.
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“What I really took from Queen Latifah’s performance and was inspired by was the kind of power she had, just moving around," Monsoon said. "Every time she sits down in a chair, it’s like you feel the power of her character and her presence, and that reminded me a lot of my own grandmother and who she was in our family.
"So (I was) starting at Queen Latifah, making a pit stop at Nana Hoffer, and then getting to my ‘Mama’ Morton. She’s scrappy, she’s rough around the edges, but she’s also calm and collected — and she’s always in charge.”
‘Oh, people still care’
Now 35, the Portland, Ore.-based Monsoon recounted an “awakening” that happened after seeing John Cameron Mitchell’s 2001 film adaptation of his gender-defying cult classic musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”: “Oh, you could create a character and look, the sky’s the limit,” Monsoon thought.
Then came Rob Marshall’s Oscar-winning, blockbuster 2002 adaptation of “Chicago.”
“When I saw ‘Chicago’ it was more like, ‘Oh, people still care about this style of performance, too,’ ” Monsoon explained. “There was something about the iconic movement and the acting performances and the stylization of everything.”
It’s not hard to spot the influence of “Chicago” on Monsoon’s performance style, a singular combination of stage-ready vocal command, gleefully quirky characterization and plenty of, yes, razzle dazzle.
“ ‘Chicago’ inspired in me that there is still a yearning for the over-the-top, the spectacle, and any style of music and performance can be good if you do it well,” Monsoon said.
It’s not lost on Monsoon that now, more than 20 years later, her turn in “Chicago” has the potential to light a spark for another generation of performers.
“The thought of inspiring younger people, I just like to think of it as paying it forward,” Monsoon said. “Drag queens before me handed the torch to me, and I took the torch and hopefully will hand it on to the next generation of young, talented queer people who want to break glass ceilings.”
Breaking a glass ceiling with a torch?
“Glass can melt,” Monsoon said. “Turn it back into sand.”
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Broadway: Drag Race star Jinkx Monsoon making history in 'Chicago'