Who she is: One of the hottest NYC-based choreographers of today.
What she’s accomplished: Last month, while the Miss America pageant took the national spotlight, a different kind of Pageant has been claiming NYC. Now, while the Miss America crown has officially been claimed by Miss New York, Pageant, an audience-interactive musical beauty contest parody starring an impressive all-male cast as the all-female contestants, is still a major success story you can catch 3 nights a week off-Broadway. At first glance, these two events seem to only share their love and tender care of the traditions (however parodied) the pageantry lifestyle demands, but behind the scenes, these girls and guys both have one in-demand choreographer in common.
Not only did Shea Sullivan choreograph this year’s Miss Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, and Oklahoma’s talent portions, she’s also brought her knowledge, love, and passion for the craft to Pageant the Musical. Year after year, Shea’s been rocking pageant and musical theater worlds, choreographing countless musicals, music videos, movies (you can watch The Big Gay Musical on Netflix right now!), and contestants, including Miss America 2013 Mallory Hagan, who was the second person in history with a tap talent to take the crown. And even though she’s had a whirlwind of a month, Shea sat down with Shewired to talk Miss America, choreographing men in heels, and the prospect of a queer pageant queen in the very near future.
Pageant the musical is such a fun show to watch, and it seems like even more fun to be a part of. What drew you to that show originally?
Well, I was in pageants — yes, it's part of my past — when I was really young, and I was in pageants in college. I was runner up to Miss Oklahoma. It’s a part of my life that I tried to run from, but it’s always there so I thought, screw it! Let me just embrace it! So Bill Russell, the writer, knew about my history in pageants and also that I was a choreographer and he knew that the costume designer was also a collaborator of mine in pageants and in theater. In 2009 he asked us to go to Boston with him to do a regional production, and we had so much fun. I was literally like, “Are you kidding? This is the most fun show ever!” I had seen it Off-Broadway in the early 90s, and I remembered it being fun, but I didn’t remember just how great the book was. During that process I was a budding producer as well - I did some NYMF (New York Musical Theater Festival) shows and produced an album - so I went to Bill and I said, “What are you doing with this? Don’t you think we should bring it back to New York?” We did a five performances last February for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS to raise awareness for the show again. We literally sold out in a few days, even added a show, and now here we are!
And you extended to January 4th! Congratulations, it’s very well-deserved. Now, you have this history in pageants that you were sort of blushing about, but you do choreograph for Miss America regularly.
Yes! When I was 19 I moved to New York to, you know, be on Broadway, and after about a year and a half I realized I wanted to be able to finish my education and I had a scholarship because of how well I did with Miss Oklahoma. So I went back to Oklahoma, and while I was there, somebody recommended that I do some choreography. I got the choreographer bug and that’s when I found my legs as a choreographer, which was really awesome. I took a little break from New York, and realized I wanted to be on the other side. The girl who won Miss Oklahoma was a tap dancer, and she needed help on her tap. The Miss Oklahoma people knew I had been in the pageants and was very successful at tap. That was like my thing - I told jokes and tapped dance acappella for my talent. I was nailing it, like, standing ovation nailing it at the pageants. And they asked, “Can you get her to do that?” so I started working with her in 1998. I worked with her all summer, she went to Miss America, got top 10, and won talent. From there, I got a couple people inquiring the next year about pageant choreography. Then over the years it’s really taken off, and that’s a big part of what I do. Each year I have at least 4 or 5 girls in Miss America that I’ve choreographer for, but in all the state pageants I have people that are in preliminaries and such.
So basically all over America, there’s someone you’ve choreographed?
You know, I would be anxious to see how many states I haven’t actually done. I think someone just contacted me from Tennessee recently, and I don’t think I’ve done Tennessee. It’s very strange for me to be able to say, “I haven’t done that!”
You know what, I haven’t done it, and I want to desperately. Normally, contestants come to New York for lessons, but Hawaii? Forget it. I’d be like, “You ain’t coming here, I’m coming there!”
Do you always do tap or a little bit of everything?
Everything. Tap is a specialty of mine, something that I started in and kind of what I was most known for, but I do everything.
When you work with so many contestants, how do you keep the choreography unique to each person?
For me, everything comes from the individual and storytelling. Musicality is very important to me too. I can’t say that I always hit it out of the park and everything is completely brilliant, but it’s an individual thing. Whenever I meet a new contestant, I get their vibe and see what they need. Some need more help in showmanship or in expressing themselves. They have the technique, but they need me to be able to help them bring it out from the inside. And some have all the personality and the performance in the world and very little technique. It’s just finding where each person's skill set is, and it’s really fun for me! I would want to be choreographing every day from the minute I wake up to the minute I go to bed. It’s fun to be able to go into this other world and take these pageant contestants - and some of them aren’t dancer dancers - but make them performers and dancers.
Now, when you choreographed the musical Pageant, were there any challenges that came with choreography for men in drag?
Yes. This cast has done a great job. I feel like it’s continuing to remind them about the femininity and their feet. We always kind of go back to the default position of a bevel, or what I call “Pretty Feet,” which is where you put your feet in a T. Whenever I go back and watch the show I’m like, “Pretty feet, pretty feet, where are your pretty feet?!” cause it’s the first thing to go. It’s just finding that carriage. The first few rehearsals seeing them in heals, some were like, ‘Oh, I’ve been doing this forever!’ and some looked like they were in their mom’s shoes wobbling around. But they’ve conquered the shoes pretty quickly and were real troupers about it. That’s the thing about this show - they make it look easy, but there’s a lot of components to it.
You do a lot of work with pageants, which could be considered a rather conservative community, and then also with Broadway cares and the theater community, which tends to be very liberal and often queer. Do you ever see any difference in those environments?
Well, I don’t really find the conservative parts of the pageants. I feel like my work is done in the studio mostly, where I’m bringing my same self that I would with the Broadway gang. I feel like pageants in a way are a show also, and I don’t want to say that I feel like it’s conservative. I just don’t come in contact with that. Maybe that’s because I represent my own thing, and yeah you have to handle people differently and there’s different auras around it, but I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it!
It was a very big deal when Miss California had an openly gay contestant a couple years ago.
I remember reading an article and friending her on Facebook and just being like, ‘Hell yes! ‘I don’t know you, but I want to!’ And we ended up hanging out in LA and it was really fun. I remember being so excited about that. The pageants are interesting because a lot of people that are around pageants and that work on pageants are in the gay community. One of my dearest friends when I was 15 and doing pageants was a gay male. I think more and more the contestants are feeling like they can be themselves. There have definitely been now- I don’t know how many at this point- but I would say a handful of contestants that have been out that have competed, which is great. I don’t know that before about three or four years ago that ever happened.
It’s always so incredibly inspiring when contestants are able to be out like that.
Yeah! I feel like that’s the thing - they’re running to be Miss America, Miss USA, Miss Universe; that represents everyone. It’s not Miss Straight America. There are values that Miss America should uphold to, but sexual preference is not one of them. As far as I’m concerned it’s not. I think it’s exciting to see how things will maybe turn around and people will be able to be a little bit more honest about everything. They’ll be able to say, “Yes, I’m gay, I love women, but I still can be Miss America. I still can go into a children’s network and sit on the floor with those kids and help raise awareness for stem cell research. I can still do all of these things whether I’m gay or not.”
What advice would you give someone aspiring to be a future Miss America?
I would say be true to yourself. Don’t change for anyone, because at the end of the day it’s you up there on that stage, and sometimes you might carry the weight of your supporters and family and backers and the people that have put a lot of finances or stock into you, but you have to be true to yourself in order for this to work. Embrace it and look forward to each challenge. Don’t get ahead of yourself, and don’t worry about what anybody else is doing. Just stay in the moment of what you’re doing so you can be as prepared as possible, because you’re also preparing yourself for life. When you go to bed at night, that’s you. You want to make sure that you know you did everything you could to be your best person.