DIRECTOR, EDUCATOR & ADVOCATE
April 18, 2020
J = Jeigh
David Connolly (D) in conversation with Jeigh Madjus (J) for Matinee to Z,
a series of Instagram Live Master Classes developed in response to Covid-19.
D: (Playing Lady Marmalade on iPad)
J: Is that GMA?
D: Yeah, yeah, I sure is. For those of you who have seen the Good Morning America' footage of Jeigh Madjus in that opening number, man alive. Hi, Jeigh Madjus!
J: At the end of the video, you might see it, you might not see it, my hair gets caught in the filigree…because I don't usually wear hair extensions in the Opening Number so I’m not used to navigating that one spot with it on my head, so I was trying to leave and Yikes!, it yanks my head back. How are you?
D: I'm so excited for this, I am so grateful to you for doing this, thank you. There’s so much to learn from you. I’m just excited for everybody to hear your story, because it inspires me so much on the daily. Just looking at that footage actually, it brought me back to when I saw the show, and the curtain rising and the silhouette…
J: I saw it for the first time ever, right before I went on vacation, I saw the show. I had always been on the other side without knowing what the full picture is. I was speechless and crying and all of the emotions.
D: And knowing it was you, too, you know exactly who you are right away and I couldn’t breathe… just so thrilling to see you living your dream.
So speaking of your dream, your “Until tomorrow” photo on your insta…
J: Well, sometimes you have to just show that there's a glow out, you know…’cause at that time I thought I was like, "I'm in my peak, I was in a recording group, I was like, Let's do this.” Then looking back and I’m like, my eyebrows are this thick.
D: But the soul of that boy… if you're not following Jeigh, follow Jeigh and go look at a picture, what grade were you in?
J: I think I was in either 10 or 11, at ESA.
D: The Etobicoke School for the Arts… so that boy, tell me about him and tell me about what his dreams were.
J: I’ve always had the same dreams… to be able to perform and to sing and act… I just love creating in any sense. I love visual arts, I love building things. I worked in construction, I just love the art of creating things and building things, whether it's a character, or a piece of furniture. It's just an artistic desire and need in my life has always been there and that's why I ended up at ESA. It was the perfect place to nurture and grow as a performer and just to be able to be around all the arts. I was singing every day and dancing and it was just the most amazing high school experience… the dreams were always there. It always feels, even today, that it’s somewhat out of reach. I mean, right now, I’m staring at a poster on my wall of Moulin Rouge and I can’t go there.
It’s always just like this inner desire that we all have to do it and just... You do things to be able to do it. Like I worked everywhere from restaurants to front desk at a spa to construction to anything, so that I could hopefully get chances to perform.
D: Art was in your soul.
J: Since I was a kid, there are cassette tapes of me singing and I can't even speak yet, but I'm singing in harmony with my brother. I think we're singing Lionel Richie, perfect that I have the moustache right now. There’s a recording of me singing “Hello” but I wasn’t speaking yet.
D: Okay, we have to find that recording.
J:They always said, even when I was a kid, I would just climb up onto the dining table and perform for people - my Grandfather would yell, “Get him off the table, he is gonna fall, but I just wanted to perform for everybody. I don't know if it's related to growing up and having immigrant parents who moved to Canada and so everything wasn’t always within our reach, so it's finding the ways to be able to do it 'cause even after high school, our parents were like, "Okay you had fun, you went to ESA, you were able to get that all out of your system now you're gonna become a doctor.” And I was like, no, no, no no.
Even then though, I knew. I wasn’t even going to go to Sheridan, I just wanted to record. I was like, "I'm going to work at Starbucks, and I'm gonna write music and I'm gonna record and I'm gonna just keep on this path. But it was very hard for my parents to be like, "Okay that's what you're gonna do so Sheridan was the best option of “school," but still being within my world, and then musical theatre happened.. As soon as I saw Miss Saigon, I’ve said it a million times, that as soon as I saw Miss Saigon, I said, ”That's what I want to do.” It showed me there was opportunity or the possibility.
D: And was that culturally related? You didn't see an opportunity before that... because you didn’t see representation?
J: For sure. I wouldn't have labeled it as that when I was a kid, but yes. A friend of mine who I did Here Lies Love with, Josh is the new host of Blues Clues. And for people to see that, is life changing. Kids are any type of POC to be able to see him. I did a ZOOM with my cast the other day, and one of the cast members, he has kids and they were like, seeing Josh on the computer screen, and they were just in awe. Time is gone but we can’t underestimate the impact of Moana and Princess Tiana and stuff like that. My little nieces are obsessed with Moana because she has the same colour skin she has black hair. And I guess I didn't really see it a lot of that. I saw Miss Saigon I think when I was 9 or 10, I actually was doing a bit cleaning up around my parents' house and just organizing through stuff. And I actually found that the souvenir program book and saw pictures of young Ma Anne... She was it for me, I was like, that showed me that it was possible and then I just had to somehow get there.
D: Do you feel that you're providing that to people who see your show?
J: I mean, I hope that's always my intention. For me, as an artist now. My motivation to continue to do my work has changed. Obviously, I wanna be able to sustain my life and be able to perform because that's mainly what I wanna do forever but it's not lost on me, the fact that I can potentially inspire some other people with my representation within all the communities. Like queer community, all of that. So it's just to be able to just share that role and represent people who may not otherwise be represented. I've had a lot of Asian actors, like young actors say the thank you for representing.
We’re only here for a certain amount of time and hopefully stuff that you do can just initiate change or be catalyst for more change for the future.
Those are big pumps. You’re representing culturally, and you representing LGTBQ+ communities. Is that something that is on your mind? For those of you don't know, Jeigh plays a drag queen in Moulin Rouge named Baby Doll. And being a POC wasn’t in the casting break down right?
J: No, I was pretty much... “Baby Doll, Young Drag Queen: open to all ethnicities”
I know the impact it has on me as a person and potentially for other people, but it's not something that I... That, I think about. I’m more thinking about representing and putting myself forward, the best I can visually, vocally, performance-wise and hopefully that becomes the representation. Obviously, there is that stance of activism and representation but I don't need that validation per se, but it’s nice when RuPaul’s Drag Race girls come to the show and have Alaska say, “Girl, we had no idea…” Nina West, Alyssa Edwards… those Ru Girls are the benchmark of drag. They’re the elite. So for them to be able to say good job, it was amazing, they appreciated it was, is pretty gratifying.
D: It seems to me that your approach to it all is that the character and your work comes first and much like most of the inclusion conversations I’m having, you just happen to be a POC and you happen to be a drag queen. Do you know what I mean? It’s not your focus or agenda.
J: It’s through the lens of that character that you get the layers and the stakes become higher… I have a moment in the show where, it's not like a huge reveal, but it's they see that I'm not what I’m presenting as from the beginning of the show, and depending on where you are in the theatre, sometimes the audience really doesn't know.
So, it's definitely a moment of, if they thought that I was potentially a woman before, when I remove my wig, it's a big deal. When we did it in Boston, there wasn't that much press going out there wasn't photos everywhere, and the media was not as clued in. And people would gasp in the audience when I took my wig off. I fooled them. Even with that, it's always what my character actually needs within the world, the stakes of what I might I potentially lose, if the club closes. It’s such a weird meta thing because I’m living that now.
But before the show, it’s prep, prep, prep… drag queen, hair, getting the makeup as flawless as I can that day. And then once all that is done, it's just about the story and trying not to fall while I run around on that stage in those heels.
D: Tell us about the getting ready.
J: It is quite a process. I can grow a full beard, so it's like shaving and then it's pretty much a two-hour from top to tail of make-up and just trying to get physically ready, and putting on costumes and wigs. Before I get to the theatre, I do a full vocal warm up that's about 40 minutes while I'm showering and shaving at home before I go to the theatre. But yeah, it's like the full on beauty which is something that we have has developed through the journey of creating the show. 'Cause initially I had basically the same make up design as all the guys but with different colors but we quickly came to realize that there are certain things that need to be done in order for the illusion, or that fantasy happen. That my role is to fulfil a fantasy within the club, so it's like I can't just be like a boy with very thin liquid foundation.
I have to do powder, contour, highlighting - basically reshape my face. Also I'm beside three gorgeous real women and all the other women in the cast for the entire show, so it's like 1. I need to bake and set it so it lasts for three hours, but also so I can kind of fit in with the rest of these gorgeous women, you know what I mean?
At first I didn’t like the fact that it took two hours, but it's turned into kind of a meditation but also just it fills my visual art side. And I would change things every show, just a little bit, just to keep things fresh, but it also gets me into the character because I am... It's another meta thing where it's like, in the show, I play a drag-mean who would be getting ready for the Moulin Rouge show, but in real life is me getting ready for Moulin Rouge, the musical.
D: So there was a question earlier about what you do about doubts.
J: I think doubts are inevitable. I don't think you're human, unless you have doubts and insecurity 'cause... And it's really just how you develop ways to navigate them to be able to move forward. I’ll have been working on the show for three years, officially, this summer, and yeah, it's like every single time I’m like, am I gonna be good enough? Especially being a Canadian going into that community which is so established and tight knit... it’s Broadway.
So you go and you're like, "Am I am I good enough?” So you always have that feeling. I don't think you ever... Once I get rid of that feeling, it’s like, "What's the point?” Because there's no excitement. It’s like if you're filled immediately, it's like What is the point? So be grateful for the doubts and remember that it’s human nature.
I did this workshop once with Barbara Deutsch, and she has one idea that, when you’re in a moment of feeling insecure, you have to take a step forward and just literally step out of it. The physical action of doing that initiates the idea in your head that you’re getting past it, you’re moving through it and moving forward.
D: Is that working for you these days?
J: Well, I’m being really lenient with myself right now. I haven’t done a workout once since we’ve been in quarantine. Like the trauma and the stress, and the anxiety, and it's hard because of the media, social media and everything… 'cause you have to try and keep up-to-date with everything but you can also get so anxious from all of it, so yeah, it's one of those things like I just wanna lay in my bed all day and it's like, No, I'll just get out of bed.
And it's like the small victories of just like, "Oh I organized a drawer.” You can in this situation feel beyond stuck, so it's just that feeling of the forward movement in any sense, I guess, would hel
D: There are a couple of questions about your journey as a Canadian into the American market?
J: I'm still Canadian, I don't have my green card yet, but it was almost exactly 10 years ago that I put out my Glee audition video with help my cousin, Shameless Maya on social media if anybody follows her, she pushed me, she was like... You need to just do this and you just need to get seen. And I was like Fine. So we recorded this video and I couldn't even audition because I was Canadian and they were like, we’re only seeing Americans. But yeah, I did the video and they obviously didn't accept it, but I ended up, we ended up just sending it out to different people like Oprah and Ellen…
D: It’s still online. I remember when I saw it, I remember I couldn't in function and the fact that I kind of knew you was like, wait..
J: Yeah, I love that. It was a life-changing moment, it really was. I went from just kind of reintroducing myself to the Canadian theatre scene, because I was away singing on crushe ships, right out of college.
Anyway, Perez Hilton tweeted the video, and then that day, I was doing Peter Pan at Neptune Theatre and I woke up my morning and my phone would not stop, my Blackberry at the time, would not stop vibrating and the video had been tweeted and all these people saw it and then I got an email from Ellen with interest of having me go down but it was just so crazy, that one three-minute video, could just potentially change the course of what I'm doing.
And from that video, I started getting called down to New York to audition for stuff and it was my third audition down there, for La Cage and then I ended up getting the National Broadway tour and that kind of set me on course 'cause I did that for year and a half, and then got Here Lies Love that I worked on from 2013 till 2017. The same director and music director from that show are on Moulin Rouge and they said, “We really want you but you just need to basically prove to everyone else that you’re the one.”
That's basically my journey from Canada to the States. And for anyone out there who's daunted by it or feels like it's impossible, but it’s easy once they want you. You just have to put the work in. I’ve had a visa that was for a workshop that lasted for five weeks... So it's this dependent on whether they really wanna put the effort. It's hard on your soul, but it's not as hard in terms of the processing of it.
D: It’s all possible. So you were in Here Lies Love, same creative team, and they were headed into the workshop of Moulin Rouge?
J: There had been a few readings of it prior to me joining and one of my best friends in New York had been in one of those and he was like,"There's a character named Baby Doll that you need to play. The character sings Lady Marmalade. If you don’t get cast in this, you better quit.”
So, Alex and Justin were my friends and I thought, somehow they’d bring me in for an audition or just even bring it up, but nothing, I heard nothing from either of them over the course of different Here Lies Love runs. And then it was after we did Seattle in 2017, that my agent called and was like, “So. Moulin Rouge wants you to come in.” And I was like FINALLY! Cause we were just in Seattle and I was like, “Soooo…” If you know you're right for something, you just have to put yourself forward for it.
When I came back and crushes and I didn't have an agent and I wanted to get seen but I was like... If no one will see me, I make myself seen. I will. Back then in meant recording and putting it on a DVD and I would drop off DVDs with a cover letter in a little package to Stephanie Gorin and be like, "Hey I'm unrepresented but you should know me.”
It's one of those things where I said to them, I'm like, "Hey I know the character exists. I just want to let you know that I don't expect anything, I just wanna be given an opportunity to audition.” And finally, Justin was like., “We know!” But you have to promote, I'm selling myself and that's just the way that goes.
So I did the audition in the summer of 2017, and it was for a reading and the lab and it was weird because every step they’ve made decisions about keeping people on or not. Some people were definitely have been signed on forever. But it was like I was initially signed on for a reading and then the lab and then toward the end of the lab, I found out that I was, then I would be doing Boston, which was the out of town try out and then Broadway. They were all separate decisions.
D: Tell me about that day, was it a phone call?
J: When I initially got Moulin Rouge, I didn’t know they were going to be incremental offers so I thought, “I got it!!!” But it was a day of mixed, mixed, mixed emotions because we just finished Here Lies Love in Seattle and there had been lots of rumours that it would go to Broadway and all of that stuff from when we first opened in 2013. So there was a potential possibility for that summer, and I found out within 24 hours, that Here Lies Love was being put on pause, wasn't continuing. And then, within that same 24 hours, I found out that I got Moulin Rouge. And at that time, everyone that I knew in New York was from Here Lies Love Carlisle and that day we had this rooftop barbecue one of my friends’ buildings and there were so many mixed emotions but all my friends were so happy for me, but I was still within the group sadness of Here Lies Love 'cause it means so much to me.
And the day I found out I got La Cage was so special because I would finally be breaking into the American industry. At that time, I had no money, I was literally going back and forth on 13-hour bus rides to New York and sleeping on the bus, getting there, showering, doing an audition, seeing my friends and going back to go back to work the next morning.I found out on my bus ride back to Toronto that I booked it... And I was just they're sitting in a parking lot on the curb, eating a Subway Sub stuff and I remember thinking, “What is going on, you know?” You feel so vulnerable and at the mercy of everything and you're just like waiting and my agent said, “You want to go on tour?”
D: Can you talk about additions just for a second? I know there are a lot of people here with the same dreams you had… any advice about what you did right for your audition for La Cage?
J: I mean, my friend Kelvin always says, depending on the show and the opportunity, sometimes you just have to learn a new song.
So I had sung “Maybe This Time” maybe once at something like Curtains Down with Jenni B and I thought, ”I feel like this could make sense for the character and that because Jacob just really wants to put himself out there and meet one of the drag queens from the show. So when I sang it for the casting directors and they said, “You just need to stand there and say for the next round. Save the acting for the scene.”
They knew I was Canadian they were like... Are you going home? And I was like, tonight, and they were like... Can you stay till next week? And I was like… uh, sure? Then they asked me if I knew that Robin DeJesus, who played the role on Broadway sang that song for his audition? I was like, no way.
D: Such great advice. Is everybody listening to this great advice? Gender bending audition material, being brave, self promoting, leaving doubt behind you…
J: I can't remember who said it, but they were like, they'll always sing the same song that everyone else sings but they do it anyway because they know that they can do it better. I'm watching Making The Cut right now…”You need to break through the noise.”
I remember in college, learning about how to present yourself, and I used to have this audition shirt, this little outfit, but if it’s not something you wear every day, you don’t feel like yourself in it. I remember the day I thought to myself, ”I'm gonna go in there, I'm gonna wear jeans and my sneakers and a black T-shirt…something that I wear every day, that I feel comfortable in, that is me. And a lot of the time in auditions, they’re seeing hundreds of talented people, but it will eventually get to:Do you wanna work with this person? Do like their personality? Do you think that you will have a good report in the process? So I can’t show them that authentic version of me if I’m wearing dress shoes and a button down oxford, that’s just not me. You have to be true to your unique energy in addition to giving them the song or the monologue. They really just wanna see you
D: And look where you following your energy and being true to the essence of who you are landed you. In one of the biggest budget Broadway show in history. That's where you are. Talk about a role model.
J: Also let me say, that there will hopefully come a time when you can be discerning about what you audition for. Like nowadays, I'm only gonna go up with things that I know I'm right for that I want to lend my talent to. There are times when you feel like you're not doing anything but you need to trust that it will pay off. It has for me. I also love to have a skill set that allows me to say, “Don’t hire me because Im not the typical hire, hire me because I’m right.”
D: People are asking about your dream role…
J: Well, Eponine, Fantine and Kim in Miss Saigon. I mean, I’m Filipino, give me a power ballad any day. Also, Prison Dancer is a show I’ve been working on for like 10 years and the role in that show of Lola is one of my dream roles, just to be in a Filipino musical. Just one that's highlighting so many important things that are still relevant today.
My desire has turned from just wanting to perform anything to stepping up to the possibility of being able to represent a community. There’s so much work that I really wanna do, further along in my career, if I have the finances to do that. Different things like scholarships and resources that I didn't have access to. Certain people and demographics don't know that this is an option for them. And sometimes people learn that later on in life. I didn’t grow up privileged in any way but my parents made sure our family went to see Miss Saigon and it was only then that I realized that this is something that's available to me.
When I think of the number of young people who see you in Moulin Rouge and have exact same feeling Jeigh, Jay. I'm just burst with joy that I know you. I just feel you changing the world and I just want you to know on behalf of everyone that you spend time with today, we don't take that for granted, and that we support you and love you so much and are so proud of the Canadian representation in that show and what you're doing for that generation of young POCs or young queer people, we just love you.
Well the show is going to happen again and we’re going to go back with so much gratitude and clarity and perspective 'cause especially in that city, it's like I'm not gonna say that I don't have days where I'm like, everyone has those days, and it's like the show is very taxing, but also so rewarding. You have those days where you’re like, my entire body hurts and I’m covered in every ointment to help myself but the bohemian ideals… freedom, beauty, truth, love, are just so necessary now I can NOT wait to get to share that story again.