How Choreographer Jamal Sims Made the Movements Fresh in Three Musicals

How Choreographer Jamal Sims Made the Movements Fresh in Three Musicals

When choreographer Jamal Sims was working on two of the projects for which he now has Emmy nominations, he was experiencing a bit of whiplash. After all, he was planning ABC’s Beauty and the Beast: A 30th Celebration and Disney+’s Encanto at the Hollywood Bowl at the same time. “I would leave rehearsal from Beauty and the Beast and go down the street not even a mile and go into the rehearsal for Encanto right after,” he says. “Usually you can decompress after. I didn’t have that.”

The music at least helped him get into the right headspace. “They are such different sounding shows,” he says, noting of the latter, “The minute those songs come on, you are in Encanto.”

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With Beauty and the Beast, Sims — who also received an outstanding choreography for scripted programming nomination this year for Paramount+’s Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies — had to tackle a musical that audiences already know extremely well. “People who love Beauty and the Beast have seen it all,” he says. “They’ve seen it on ice.” So how do you reinvent a classic?

Sims was nominated, along with co-choreographers Phillip Chbeeb and Makenzie Dustman, for his interpretation of the classic number “Be Our Guest,” featuring Martin Short as the French candelabra Lumière. Working from a concept that originated in part with executive producer Jon M. Chu, the action starts with gloved hands reaching up from below a giant table to portray the dancing cutlery as the musician H.E.R., playing Belle, watches on.

ABC’s Beauty and the Beast: A 30th Celebration.

ABC’s Beauty and the Beast: A 30th Celebration.

Christopher Willard/ABC

“Funny enough, they were sitting on these little saucers that have wheels on them, so some of (the performers) would have to slide to the other side to do another part,” Sims recalls. “I wish we could have filmed what was happening underneath, because that was the show, what was happening underneath the table when all those props were going around.” They also had to make sure they didn’t hit Short.

During his long career, Sims has worked in the Step Up movies, among many others, and has spent a lot of time in television — namely, choreographing RuPaul’s Drag Race. This year marks his first recognition by the Emmys, however — but he admits that the nomination for Pink Ladies is a little bittersweet given that Paramount+ has canceled the series, a prequel to the beloved 1950s-set musical, and removed it from its platform.

Sims was “so disappointed” upon learning the series wouldn’t be available for streaming any longer. “I don’t think there’s ever been a show that has as many original songs and musical numbers in 10 episodes,” he says.

In Pink Ladies, Sims paid tribute to the iconic moves of Patricia Birch, who choreographed the 1978 movie and directed its 1982 sequel. “We were actually doing something that was new,” Sims continues. “It was groundbreaking, and I just loved it so much. Having it taken down really shows where we are in the industry, as well — because as artists, all we have is our art that we make.”

Paramount+’s Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies.

Paramount+’s Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies.

Eduardo Araquel/Paramount+

When it came to Encanto, Sims was very familiar with the material because he had been the choreographer for the animated version. “I got to take it and just blow it up,” he says. On the Bowl’s stage, the opening number, “The Family Madrigal,” for which Sims received his nom, becomes a colorful spectacle during which the audience meets the principal characters.

“Every person that we introduce has to feel exciting, and the kids should feel like, ‘Oh, this is magical and this is happening right in front of my eyes!’ ” says Sims. And while it’s the filmed live version that caught the TV Academy’s attention, the most “incredible feeling” for Sims was watching kids react when the show was performed live. “It was so amazing,” he says.

Stephanie Beatriz (in blue) and the cast of Disney+’s Encanto at the Hollywood Bowl.

Stephanie Beatriz (in blue) and the cast of Disney+’s Encanto at the Hollywood Bowl.

Courtesy of Disney+

This story first appeared in the Aug. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.