James Alsop Walks the Walk as Choreographer of The Devil Wears Prada: The Musical
In 2010, while playing Eppie Durall in the independent film Leave It on the Floor, James Alsop got a surprise assignment from choreographer Frank Gatson Jr., who asked her to whip up some movement for a dance sequence. Impressed, Gatson recommended Alsop for another life-changing opportunity: creating choreography for Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)” video, which to date has been viewed more than half a billion times on YouTube alone. Alsop’s credits over the decade since include videos for Jennifer Lopez and HAIM, plus TV series like “Girls5eva,” “Pose” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” This summer, Chicago audiences will be the first to see Alsop’s choreography for The Devil Wears Prada: The Musical, ahead of its anticipated move to Broadway.
The Devil Wears Prada: The Musical was delayed by the pandemic. Getting extra time to prepare is sometimes a blessing. Was that true in this case?
This is my first musical, my first Broadway anything, and it’s so different for me, coming from the world of film and television and music videos. We got the time you beg for when you’re on a TV show or a video shoot. I heard “Take 14, 16 days to workshop some choreography” and was like “Huh? How long did you say?” [Laughs]
When I think about where fashion and movement intersect, I think about a great walk. Beyond choreography, are you working with the cast on things like body language and posture?
Yes! In our very first workshop, we put the dancers through James Alsop Boot Camp. [Laughs] Which, to start, was like four to six hours of walking because you see a lot of it in the show. When [Prada protagonist] Andy’s with her friends, she walks a certain way, different from when she’s at the office. I had to get that feeling into the performers’ bodies, so when you see that transformation? Baby, it’s like seeing a caterpillar become a butterfly.
It’s been said, “Sometimes people don’t want to buy the clothes—they want to buy the walk.”
And we have the most incredible, visionary costume designer on the show, Arianne Phillips, who’s worked with Madonna for more than 20 years. We came together like a starburst because I was so excited about the clothing, and she was so excited about the choreo. That ebb and flow is just so beautiful because a lot of the show is based on how you look and, more so, on how how you look makes you feel.
Both “Girls5eva” and The Devil Wears Prada feature fictional characters based on real people. Did working on one help you approach the other?
Both are stories about outsiders coming into a group of insiders, who then influence a world of outsiders. The majority of us are outsiders. So I incorporate things relatable from everyday life because most of us are like Andy Sachs and the girls from “Girls5eva.” Most of us are not like Miranda Priestly or, in the case of “Girls5eva,” part of the misogynistic machine of patriarchy that makes certain people feel inferior.
It sounds like you identify more with the outsiders in that scenario.
I never even paid attention to all that until I got older. People who came from different backgrounds influenced me just as heavily as people who didn’t, so I never really understood “They are this, and you are that.” My mom calls me her “most naïve child” because I really do walk around like “We’re all human and I love everybody.” [Laughs] So if I’m an outsider, what am I outside of, you know?
We all know what the stars you’ve worked with have learned from you—we’ve seen the steps! I’d love to hear what you’ve learned from them.
What I’ve learned from who I’ve worked with—who have mostly been women—is to not hold your voice back. On the surface, that’s “Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Stick to your guns.” Working with Beyoncé was a lot of firsts for me, and being in a room with her really taught me about work ethic. I’ve never seen anyone work harder than her, and, on top of that, she’s just so genuine and so kind. Working with Kelly Rowland and Maya Rudolph and—I’m not name-dropping, I swear, I just want everyone to know how kind all of these women are. Kerry Washington is kind. Tina Fey and everyone on “Kimmy Schmidt” was so kind. So what’s really resonated with me is that when you’re kind, that’s what you send off into the world. You never know what somebody’s going through, but a smile while you’re teaching an eight-count, as opposed to shouting at them, makes all the difference.