Jerry Mitchell built his career reimagining Broadway's biggest shows. He choreographed (and often directed) revivals of Gypsy, La Cage Aux Folles and Hairspray and tackled shows as diverse as Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Legally Blonde. This year he'll go to London for a staging of Blonde and as choreographer of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies (which he'll simultaneously prep for a Broadway bow as well), and a musical version of Catch Me If You Can to open in New York.
But the Tony- and Drama Desk-award winning creator of Broadway Bares, the hugely successful sexy benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, apparently didn't find all that a big enough challenge. He set his sights on the toughest crowd of all: Las Vegas tourists.
Peepshow, which opened this past weekend at Planet Hollywood, is a sexy song-and-dance show starring Mel B. as the Peep Diva -- a worldly madam of desire who guides General Hospital na'f (and Dancing With the Stars champ) Kelly Monaco through a series of songs and sexual fantasies.
Out spoke to Mitchell by phone in Vegas, where he's been for the last three months prepping the show's coming out. He tells us why gay guys are the best audience for showgirls, how he cast the key hunks, and why Adam Lambert's history on the stage is his biggest strength on American Idol.
Out:You were on Out's cover in 2000 with the headline 'Putting Sex Onstage.' I have to say -- Peep Show was the gayest Vegas showgirl show I've ever seen.
Jerry Mitchell: Part of my whole plan was, in a city that is notoriously straight, how can I cast a wide enough net that there is some inclusion for everybody. I learned from Broadway Bares that the gay guys enjoyed watching the women strip as much as straight guys did. I was shocked the first time I had a female go up and take her clothes off and the gay guys were cheering.
Why do you think that's true?
Taking your clothes off isn't about getting naked. I get turned on by watching a dancer do a strip tease because they exude confidence. Everyone wants to be confident. Nobody wants to go through life living under a shell. And that's what this show has that no other in Vegas does -- the sexuality and the sensuality, but the production values of a real show told through music and dance.
Where did the idea come from?
[Producer] Scott Zeiger's secretary was in Broadway Bares 10 years ago. She took it to him and said, 'This would be great in Vegas.' So Scott and I started pounding the pavement in Vegas. We were meeting with every entertainment director. We learned that Broadway shows don't stand a chance [in Vegas] unless they have a score that everybody knows -- Mamma Mia or Phantom. When Scott started his own company, Base Entertainment, we went back with Peep Show.
This is a hard time to open a show on Broadway or Vegas.
It's impossible to open a show here unless you're already a star -- or Cirque du Soleil. It's such a huge gamble. We've been working on this show for three years. Between having a green light and having the set built nine months ago, the world came to its knees financially. But entertainment is the one thing people will spend money on, because they want to forget.
Let's talk about Mel B. as the Peep Diva. Were you a Spice Girls fan?
I never in my life went to a Spice Girls concert. I met her doing that reality show for Bravo, Step It Up and Dance. She was one of the first guest judges we had, and I immediately fell in love with her because I thought she was so sassy. I first went after her for Legally Blonde for me in London. She thought about it and said, 'No, I don't want to go back to London.' As we were starting to create the role of the Peep Diva -- which wasn't in the show when we did the workshop in New York and sold it to Planet Hollywood -- we started talking about it. I knew she danced, but I didn't know how well until I got her alone in a room. She's sexy. She's one of the dream people you want to work with. She'd come in a half-hour early and stay a half-hour late. Then she started mothering the company.
So how do you think about replacing her down the line when her contract is up?
Part of the challenge with this show was that the Bo Peep and Peep Diva would be changed out every three months to keep the show fresh. I don't really have a second choice yet. If she's having a good time and they love it, maybe we extend it or they can come back.
There's definitely a gay sensibility to how the men in the show are styled and presented as sex objects.
Part of it is because of my sensibility. That's how I am. I knew I wasn't going to be able to have a lot of guys in a Vegas show, so I wanted everything they did to be extremely hot. There's no one who can hold a candle to Josh Strickland and the way he sings -- it's so sensual and androgynous in a way. And I had found this amazing picture, a fashion layout of a guy standing in a field in his jeans and t-shirt, holding a hose, and he was completely wet. And I thought, that. I auditioned aerialist guys with the thought that there would be a garden hose hanging over the tub, with water dripping and they would do all these magical things on the hose. But Stoyan Metchkarov was this guy who would do a trick, but not with that circus presentation at the end -- like 'ta-da!' He just came in wearing jeans and a t-shirt. And I said, 'Can you climb up that rope and take your shirt off?' And he said, 'Sure,' and did it. He didn't even ask me why. He didn't crack a smile. He just did whatever I asked. I thought, Wow, this guy is so sexy and he doesn't even know it.
You have a busy year, bouncing between Vegas and London and New York. Are you balancing a boyfriend, too?
I have a new boyfriend, Matthew Trent, who was a principal dancer with the Australian Ballet Company. We met through some dancers in New York City. He got here three weeks ago and is hanging out with me while I go with this crazy opening process. Then he's going to come with me to London. We're just getting to know each other. It's a brand new relationship.
That's very Chorus Line, the director and the dancer.
I haven't dated dancers before, strangely enough. I've never had a long-term relationship with someone who's a performer. I've always thought, Don't do that, it will never work out. But now with a little bit of age I'm thinking, Why not? Don't limit yourself. I'm here doing this show, in the theater 24/7. Anyone who wasn't in the business would be freaking out.
You've done award-winning Broadway shows and also reality TV dance competitions. How does being on stage would prepare someone like Adam Lambert for American Idol?
Discipline. Definitely discipline. People think, oh I can go and become a star overnight. The people who win those shows, they've been singing since they were 5 years old. Nobody becomes a star because you can sing. You become a star because there's nothing more important to you in the world, and you work your ass off at it. It's not just getting up and singing eight songs in eight weeks and suddenly you're a superstar.
Do you think America is ready for an out gay Idol?
Why not? Didn't they have one in London 10 years ago? I was there then. There's no difference. Talent wins out.