Alaska Thunderf*ck 5000 has a definite Showgirls vibe.
The famed drag queen greets us from behind a pair of dark, oversized sunglasses and a red cowboy hat, a look she describes as “Crystal Connors realness.”
Alaska, of course, first achieved national prominence on Season 5 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Since then, she has gone on to win Season 2 of Drag Race All-Stars, started her own podcast, “Race Chaser” with fellow Drag Race alum Willam, and even launched her own podcast network, Moguls of Media. Earlier in 2021, she also hosted her own comedy special, The Alaska Thunderf**k Extra Special Comedy Special.
Now Alaska takes a turn in a leading role in the stage musical Head Over Heels at the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse. The 16th-century story tells of Queen Gynecia (Alaska) and King Basilius (Lea DeLaria), two royals in search of purpose and happiness in their lives and kingdom. The show integrates music of the Go-Gos in Broadway musical style to comment on the action: popular songs “We Got the Beat,” “Our Lips are Sealed,” and “Heaven is a Place on Earth” all appear in the show. Along with DeLaria and Alaska, the cast also features George Salazar, Tiffany Mann and Shanice Williams, and is directed by Sam Pinkleton and Jenny Koons.
Head Over Heels marks the first show at the Pasadena Playhouse following the COVID-19 pandemic. It officially opens to the public November 13.
We caught up with Alaska–fresh from rehearsal, no less–to chat about the show, playing a role other than herself, and her ambitions as a theatrical performer ahead of the big opening. Head Over Heels opens to the public November 13.
So how excited are you? How are rehearsals going?
Rehearsals are going really great. It reminds me how much a theatre kid I am. Theatre was my gateway to drag. I did this Shakespeare play once, and the director insisted that I play the madame of a whorehouse. So I was in full drag, screeching. It was very much a stepping stone toward drag. Now I’m back in this environment of theatre. I feel so at home. The cast is so amazing.
Wait a sec, which Shakespeare play had you cast as a madame?
Pericles. Nobody does Pericles because it’s impossible to stage. There are pirate ships and mountains. It’s very sweeping, so nobody ever does it. But we had a director who had a vision, and insisted I play the role. It was lovely.
And you say you did a lot of theatre growing up. Did you do school theatre? Musicals?
I was really shy and introverted. The first play I ever did was in preschool and it was The Three Little Pigs. I was cast as the Big Bad Wolf, which is an amazing role to get.
But the night of the show, I stood on stage and cried.
I couldn’t do it. Screeching halt. Tantrum. So I’ve been throwing tantrums since I was in diapers, my love.
So I was really shy and introverted until high school. Then I auditioned for Oklahoma. I was like they’re not going to cast me. I did it, and I sang “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” in the audition. And the teacher was like where the Hell did you come from? I felt like I belonged and made sense in that place. Then I majored in theatre in college. I love theatre.
What was your audition process like for Head over Heels?
They didn’t make me audition.
I think I probably wouldn’t have gotten it if I did. It’s really hard learning how to sing and read music on a page, or to sing with other people and do harmonies. I have so much respect for people in musical theatre. It’s really, really hard. Sam & Jenny, the co-directors, have done a great job making us all feel supported and seen. If we need anything, they are there. They’re so amazing.
Now there have been different incarnations of this show over the years. It’s based on a 16th-century pastoral romance. What version are you doing? The Broadway version, or are you veering closer to the original workshop?
Something I love about the musical is that it’s all about gender expression and sexuality and exploring that. It’s very progressive. So, just a few years ago they did it on Broadway. In just a short amount of time, the world has changed so much. The conversation around gender has evolved so rapidly. So Sam & Jenny are evolving the show to be the 2021 version—an even more progressive version of an already progressive show. They’ve also cut it down to one act—a 90-minute dance party rock concert. It has a Choose Your Own Adventure vibe. You can sit up there, or over there, or stand on the dancefloor and have actors dancing around you. You choose your own adventure. It’s going to be really fun.
In the show you play Queen Gynecia, a role originated on Broadway by Rachel York. Tell me a bit about your preparation for this. What kind of research are you doing? It’s kind of a big deal that they asked you to do it.
It really is. When they asked me to be part of the show, I asked “Who am I playing? Am I playing the part that Peppermint played?” She was like a snake queen, and I could see that for myself. They were like no, we want you to play Gynecia, Queen of Arcadia. She goes on a journey. She’s a regular, ordinary queen of a kingdom whose husband is really obnoxious. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but she goes on a journey and evolves. I’ll say that.
So how are you getting ready physically and vocally? Do you have certain images in your mind that inspire you?
Elaine Stritch told a story about Ethel Merman. She was like Ethel said to me, “Elaine, if you want to do a musical comedy and you want to do it well, you have to live your life like a f*cking nun.” And it’s true. The hours are nonstop. Rehearsing a show like this, we’re putting in a ton of hours. So I’m not drinking. I’m taking care of my voice. I’m doing vocal warm-ups. I have been living like a f*cking nun, but I love that.
So the last time I talked to you was right before your comedy special. It’s interesting: You always talk about Alaska as a character, as an alien. So, how is playing a role different from doing a drag show? Is this a different process?
Well I can say up and down Alaska is a character all day, but truthfully, Alaska is an extension of myself. Alaska can’t exist without me in there. It’s the same with a role like Gynicia. It’s not like I’m denying that Alaska’s in there, that I’m in there. But I’m coming at it from how I would respond in this scenario if I was this woman. It’s undeniable that it’s me playing Alaska playing the Queen of Arcadia. I’m interested to see how it goes. I can’t wait to have a full audience.
Do you have a favorite moment in the show, something you look forward to every night?
Yeah. I get to sing a song with Lea DeLaria who’s playing my husband, which is iconic. We get to sing a duet that’s so much fun. I’m 100 feet tall. Lea is about five feet tall. So it’s really fierce.
So is that your favorite song in the show? I know you also sing “Heaven is a Place on Earth.”
Right. Yes. Which is a huge hit. I’ve known that song in my heart and mind for 100 years and I still can’t figure out my lyrics. I will know them by opening night.
It’s the most famous song on Earth, and I’m like line? I love that song, but the great thing about doing this is that I got to know some of the other Go-Gos songs that aren’t as famous. I’ve really fallen in love with the music of The Go-Gos. Their lyrics are so subversive and progressive and empowering. Their chord progressions are gorgeous. So songs like “Good Girl” or “Beautiful” in the show will make you cry your eyes out while dancing.
This is also somewhat experimental in that you’re approaching this as an immersive experience. People will be wandering a kind of dance floor setting as opposed to traditional audience seating. What kind of opportunities or challenges does that offer you?
You know what’s blown my mind? They didn’t take out any seats. They built a stage over the top of the seats. They’re all still in the theatre. So we’re dancing and running and doing the whole show over the top of the seats. And I didn’t realize this walking in the room. I thought they took out the seats.
Oh my gosh.
So this is the big return for the Pasadena Playhouse post-COVID. This is the moment to say “We are back. Forget everything you thought you knew about traditional theatre.” It’s really exciting. That said, we will be doing our action on stage with people on the floor with us. To me, that’s not a challenge. That’s every show I’ve done for the past 10 years. I’m interacting with people next to me.
So I think it’s a really fabulous option. If you want to be in there with us, you can buy a ticket for the dancefloor. If you want to sit in a chair, you can buy a seat in a chair.
So when the audience arrives, are you pulling them into the main action? Or is it just happening around them.
You’ll have to wait and see. But yes, we will be interacting a bit. They will not be ignored.
You’ve mentioned Sam & Jenny, your directors. What do they bring out of you?
Well, it’s been a process that’s been very vulnerable for me. Like I said, usually, when I’m singing on stage, it’s whatever the f*ck I want. If I’m singing with other people, they follow me and work around it. This is totally different. We have a score. It’s a whole crew singing together. So I have to learn my parts so I don’t f*ck up what the two people next to me are doing. That has been a huge challenge for me. I knew that going into it. I told Sam and Jenny it would be a challenge for me. And they’ve been so supportive. In being there and showing up for everybody, it’s become a safe place for me to learn how to do musical theatre. That’s been really rewarding. I thought I couldn’t do this, but I can.
So does this signal a new direction in your career? I know you played Dr. Frank-N-Furter in a production of Rocky Horror a few years back. But the Pasadena Playhouse is a big deal. Shows start there and go to Broadway. Big stars do theatre there. Do you want to pursue more acting roles in addition to drag?
Of course. I would love that. There’s nothing like being in with real people doing real stuff and making real noise come out of your mouth. There’s nothing that can replace that—it’s why theatre has been around for thousands of years. So yes, absolutely. I love the process. I love theatres. I love the smell—all of it.
Is there a dream role you’re gunning for?
Who did Glenn Close play in Sunset Blvd.?
Yeah, that one.
I’d see that.
Can you imagine? I’d do it.
Norma is kind of bordering on a drag queen anyway, so it’s not far outside the realm of possibility. I’m actually surprised nobody has done that one yet.
Head over Heels opens at the Pasadena Playhouse November 13.