Back in 2014, Tom Campbell was trying to find some inspiration. As an executive producer on RuPaul’s Drag Race — which, at the time, garnered a modest-but-dedicated following in the queer community — Campbell was looking for something new to challenge the latest cast of queens.
Noticing that the cast of the show’s upcoming sixth season had a number of bonafide singers — including alumni from American Idol and Australian Idol, Adore Delano and Courtney Act, respectively — the thought occurred to make a splash with a stage show. “We figured that we should do a Broadway challenge,” Campbell said, recalling a brainstorming session. “And as soon as we heard the word ‘musical,’ we said, ‘Oh, well now it’s a Rusical.’”
Nearly a decade later, what was meant to be a one-off challenge has become a fan-loved mainstay in the show’s construction, with each successive season bringing bigger and bolder production elements to the Rusical format.
The concept of the challenge is relatively simple; each season, the remaining queens in the competition are tasked with putting together a “Rusical,” where they dance, act and lip synch (or occasionally, sing live) in a plot-fueled stage production. Sometimes, a Rusical spoofs an existing story; other times, it tells the story of a pop culture icon throughout their life; and occasionally, you get original concepts that are simply meant to make the audience at home laugh.
As season 15 contestant Loosey LaDuca tells it, the Rusical is more than just a campy, reality-television take on musical theater — it’s an all-encompassing challenge meant to test every queen’s performance skills. “You can’t just skate by in the Rusical — you can’t just go, ‘Oh, I hope to get through and be safe,’” she says. “No, you need to make an impact. And it’s a difficult challenge; you’re putting on a pretty extensive show, and having to learn it and perform it very quickly.”
For Brett McLaughlin — the pop singer-songwriter better known by his pseudonym Leland — the Rusical challenge offers a sense of “creative freedom” that can be hard to find elsewhere. “Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of parameters technically speaking when putting together a Rusical,” the in-house Drag Race songsmith says. “But you get to check so many boxes, genre-wise. And the process is just so fun, because all we do is sit around and think about what will make us laugh, what will make Ru laugh, and what will give each of the queens a show-stopping moment.”
So, how does a typical Rusical get made? It always starts with an idea that will make RuPaul laugh. Or, as Campbell puts it, “oftentimes the best ideas on Drag Race start with a stupid pun.” Take, for instance, season 11’s PharmaRusical — as Campbell explains, the show’s writers and producers became fixated on the idea of working the pharmaceutical commercial format into a challenge, and they decided that turning them into their own “twisted” musical would be hilarious. “I’m not saying it was it was the biggest success, but we were just obsessed with it,” he says.
Upon finding an idea that they think will work, the heft of work is then passed on to McLaughlin, who spends an average of three to four weeks “writing the songs, getting them approved, structuring out the narrative, finding the comedy, trimming it down, recording the vocals and finishing the tracks.”
Writing the original songs — or in some cases, retooling tracks from RuPaul’s expansive discography — for each season’s Rusical takes up the most time, McLaughlin says. “I try to take the first five days and just sit at the piano and start working up ideas,” he says. “I will just send a lot of voice memos to the team and ask, ‘Do you like where this is headed?’”
With each season, McLaughlin’s job changes slightly; while some seasons see the queens lip-synching throughout their show to pre-recorded tracks, others see them recording and performing their own vocals, which presents its own parameters when it comes to the actual challenge itself. “If the queens record their own vocals on camera, that’s basically a whole additional day of production work for us,” he says, before wryly adding that “the skill of the queen determines how much work it takes for us after they’re done.”
But the goal of the creative process remains the same for both McLaughlin and Campbell — give each competitor an opportunity to stand out in their respective roles. “I think they all do what they’re meant to do, which is to put the queens into a challenge to see how they react and create these star turns,” Campbell says. “So, we’ve been very fortunate to be able to achieve that.”
Yet some time in the last few years, the Rusical challenge seemed to change for the better; fans noticed that the music, lyrics, set design and performances being brought to the stage were bigger and grander, making the challenge pop even more than it used to.
One of the latest examples of that fact came in the form of “Wigloose: The Rusical.” What could have once been a cute reinterpretation of the 1984 classic Footloose became an emotive, poignant show that seemed to eerily comment on the bleak state of affairs for drag queens around the U.S. Filmed in 2022 before controversial “drag bans” began sweeping the country, the show centers around a small town that attempts to ban the art of drag and is thwarted by a community of expressive queens.
LaDuca, who performed in “Wigloose” alongside five of the other season 15 contestants, says that the cast immediately could tell there was something special with this Rusical. “It had this incredible cohesion to it; it was a fully realized story from beginning to end where you really get to know who each of the characters are,” she says. “The musical seemed like this very out-there parody version of what’s going on, and then it was suddenly like, ‘No, this is what’s actually happening.’”
Over the course of just two days, LaDuca and her competitors learned their respective parts, blocked out the stage and rehearsed their extensive choreography again and again. “Our choreographer, Miguel [Zarata], has got such a special talent of getting stuff done in a very well-rehearsed way,” she says. “Choreographers have to be really focused, and he was so good at letting us know, ‘Ladies, you have this amount of time left, and you have to learn this much stuff.’”
The political implications of the story, as LaDuca explains, were not top of mind for the queens — while there had been plenty of protests and discussions about Drag Story Hours, the right-wing campaign against the art of drag had not quite begun in earnest when they were filming the show. “I can only speak to my experience, but I had my head in the game. We had to learn so much material so quickly, that it was just like, ‘Let’s bang all this out,’” she says. “Looking back at it, all of us were like, ‘Oh my God, this really is happening.’ We’ve worked so hard on making this a real job, and now it’s being outlawed, which is incredibly unconstitutional.”
When Campbell and the other executive producers of the show saw the cultural moment that “Wigloose” was indirectly commenting on, they decided to act — teaming up with MTV, World of Wonder and the ACLU, Drag Race helped create the Drag Defense Fund, which actively funds the ACLU’s efforts to battle anti-LGBTQ laws throughout the U.S. “I’m so proud of the network and World of Wonder for doing that,” he says.
With such a timely plot, “Wigloose” works as well as it does in large part thanks to its expansive original score from McLaughlin. Riffing on Footloose’s ’80s setting and iconic score, McLaughlin says that as soon as the idea was passed down to him, he was able to sketch out a blueprint for the show in a matter of days.
“The second I heard about it, I watched Footloose that night and I started getting really excited and understanding the checkpoints that we would need to hit,” he says. “We immediately talked through the script, where the songs should be placed, when it should be an up-tempo, mid-tempo song, our big ballad moment, and just dividing it all up.”
While he didn’t have the task of transforming RuPaul songs into showtunes for this challenge, McLaughlin says she still went ahead and trawled old episodes of Drag Race and interviews given by RuPaul to find meaningful quotes that he could interpolate into the lyrics. “To put something like ‘drag is a protest’ in a song and find the right melody … it felt like one of those special moments that doesn’t always happen with songwriting, where the words match the melody which matches the music,” he says.
The hard work from from the cast and creatives behind the show clearly paid off with “Wigloose” — that particular episode of the show earned three of their nine Emmy nominations for 2023, including outstanding directing, picture editing and sound mixing for a reality program.
Looking back on the nearly 10 year history of the Rusical challenge, Campbell remains in awe of what he and his team have managed to accomplish. “It was meant to be a one and done challenge back in season 6 … and we just brought it back because we loved it so much,” he says. “This challenge, and Drag Race itself, is like a healthy tree that grew through a crack in the sidewalk — it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t fit the algorithm, but it touches people’s hearts and and that’s what’s important.”
With so much innovation already done to the challenge’s format, where can Drag Race possibly take the Rusical challenge in the future? LaDuca offers that, despite how difficult the challenge already is for queens, it could be interesting to get them more involved in the creative process. “It might be interesting to have the contestants be able to maybe write some of the lyrics like they do in other in other challenges — you say, ‘Here’s the story, now you put it together,’” she says. “I also would really love if the contestants had the ability to maybe even have a have a hand in designing the costumes.”
For his part, McLaughlin can’t help but think beyond the scope of reality television. “I started to write my first musical this year, and this has been the best training wheels for me,” he says. “I think we should eventually start showcasing these Rusicals in a live setting, because at this point, I think they deserve to have a life outside of the show, too.”