The Rusical challenge is perhaps the most polarizing recurring challenge on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Alright, well, it’s my most polarizing. I know they’re popular, but off the top of my head, I can’t think of any Rusical that I’ve been outright delighted by. I can certainly appreciate the amount of effort that they require, but they just do not do it for me.
Trump: The Rusical, an astonishingly useless parody of a presidency? What about the dreaded Lunesta fever dream that was the PharmaRusical? Yes, I even stay underwhelmed by Season 15’s Wigloose Rusical, despite it being a very culturally timely sensation. I’ll bite, though: Miz Cracker simply saying “vocoder” in Cher: The Unauthorized Rusical does often pop into my head more often than most intrusive thoughts.
Like that Miz Cracker bit, the Rusicals can occasionally penetrate my cold, jaded, musical theater-cynic heart. They’ve got to have spunk! They need to have a gifted cast of queens participating! And most importantly, they have to make me giggle and kick my feet to and fro! In this week’s episode of Drag Race All Stars 8—“JOAN: The Unauthorized Rusical,” about none other than Hollywood legend Joan Crawford—the spectacle managed to provide those necessary components. It was both well-crafted and outright ridiculous.
That success is likely because JOAN: The Unauthorized Rusical is partly the work of Adam Shankman, director of Hairspray, and that movie where Tom Cruise and Alec Baldwin were given wigs as horrible as their personalities. Thanks to Shankman, this Rusical has some of the finest, most considered choreography that the main stage of Drag Race has seen since Katya’s taint irreparably obliterated the structure in Season 7.
Each of the queens is assigned to tackle a different era of Crawford’s career, with a few contestants taking on the parodic Faye Dunaway version of Crawford from 1981’s Mommie Dearest. All of the versions of Crawford are undeniably strong, with no queen making any noticeable flubs this week. But it’s Kandy Muse’s “No Wire Hangers” Joan and LaLa Ri’s Mildred Pierce Joan that rise to the top. Kandy and LaLa’s takes are almost tailor-made for their individual skill sets, and both are prime examples of what the Rusicals can pull off when a queen finds her light.
Kandy’s performance is one of the most difficult to execute, since she was tasked with embodying a fictional version of Crawford from Mommie Dearest that has culturally surpassed the real woman. Kandy had to be three people at once: Crawford, Dunaway, and herself—and she wore all three of those big personalities on a blue satin sleeve. The “No More Wire Hangers” number started off as a silly monologue and evolved into a call-and-response disco number so good that Dua Lipa has already destroyed several pieces of Versace couture in a jealous rage.
A few numbers later, LaLa Ri nearly upstaged Kandy with an exceedingly goofy number, that combined fictional parental abuse with vogueing—which is exactly how cockamamie every Rusical should sound on paper!
LaLa’s stage presence was scorching, and her ripoff Madonna instrumental combined with Mildred Pierce-era synopsizing lyrics was pure genius. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, the section was punctuated with a hilarious slapping sequence, where LaLa recreated Mildred’s famous thwacks at her insolent daughter. The way the slaps work as both a vogue beat and a film reference is inspired, and performing them was the first time LaLa—who has been consistently safe in the competition thus far—became a surefire contender for the crown.
It was Kandy who ended up winning the entire challenge (and rightfully so, that catchy-as-hell “no, no more wire hangers” melody is still reverberating through my head), but JOAN: The Unauthorized Rusical was a robust display of everyone’s talent. Not only that, but it was an indication of what the Drag Race producers and creative team are capable of churning out for this challenge in the future.
The Rusical was catchy and queer-coded, but still totally accessible to everyone—even a musical theater skeptic like myself—regardless of whether or not they knew who Joan Crawford was. I think this is a measurable step in the right direction for the Rusical; it just needed some sense slapped into it.
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