Choreographer Patrick McCollum says he's accident-prone. So he hesitated a bit when Stephen Brackett, the director he'd loved working with on the off-Broadway musical The Lightning Thief, asked him to choreograph The Legend of Georgia McBride.
It wasn't the material that gave him pause—the author, Matthew Lopez, is an award-winning playwright, and the comedy centers on a married Elvis impersonator who chucks his glittery jumpsuit in favor of a glam gown and a career in drag. The timing and the location were enticing, too—a two-week summer run, now over, at the Dorset Theatre Festival in cool, green Vermont. But McCollum had to "give it a think"—he didn't own any high heels.
"I'd never done drag in any way, shape or form," he says, "so putting what are essentially little stilts underneath my feet kind of freaked me out." On the other hand, looking for something to do on the tail end of evenings out with friends in New York, he'd gone to lots of drag shows. "Inadvertently, I was studying for this for a long time," he laughs. "With a cocktail in my hand."
He got his shoes, size 12 Dexflex Comfort pumps, when rehearsals began in Vermont. He'd already done much of the choreography for the preening, lip-syncing drag queens—numbers like Shirley Bassey singing "Big Spender," LeAnn Rimes doing "Jailhouse Rock"—in his apartment. Wearing tennis shoes or barefoot, he worked "on my tippy-toes" to see how it felt. Then he found out, and he was amazed.
"It's very hard!" he declares. "There's an endurance to it that I wasn't prepared for. I understand why people get cranky at the end of the night when they've been in high heels." And his pair weren't even that high—"something you'd wear to a meeting." When I ragged him for complaining about 3-inch heels, he shot right back: "Hey, Sylviane—I gotta start somewhere. I can't go from working on Rocky on Broadway to wearing 7-inch heels!"
Between La Cage aux Folles and Kinky Boots, Broadway has seen plenty of men in heels. In fact, one of the reasons McCollum felt comfortable enough to take on Georgia McBride was that its star, Joey Taranto, had played one of Billy Porter's high-stepping Angels in the original Kinky Boots cast. "I knew he would be a great source of information and a great person to collaborate and conspire with," McCollum says. What McCollum didn't know was that in addition to his own experience as a Broadway associate choreographer and movement consultant, he'd done some amateur drag: "When I used to dance around as a kid to Britney Spears and Madonna, I was basically doing my own little drag performances in my room. I kind of realized I'd been doing this my whole life. But now I'm actually able to curate it in a way that feels artful."
The shoes helped. He discovered that they moved his center of gravity forward and made him walk more "lifted up. I learned how to distribute my weight, how I needed to ground myself into the floor a little bit more in a different way and how to carry myself upstairs," he says. He also found that he needed to tap into what he calls "a sense of femininity," both for himself and the characters. "You can put on heels and still manage to walk like a linebacker," he notes.
Georgia McBride looked nothing like football on the Dorset stage—the show won praise from local critics, audiences realized that "it's not degrading to put on a heel" and McCollum expanded his vocabulary. "I was trained by a male teacher growing up, so I dance like a guy," he says. "It felt nice to flex a different muscle and allow myself to dance like a woman. And it felt really strong, really powerful."
Also, his ankles and feet remained intact. He goes into rehearsal Labor Day for the Broadway run of The Band's Visit, starting previews Oct. 7. Other exciting projects are on the horizon, and if any of them require heels, he's now got some. "They're a valuable tool—as valuable as a good set of speakers or a good mirror."