Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Tony Sheldon Interview
I just got off the phone with Tony Sheldon, an Australian actor making his Broadway debut in the Broadway musical adaptation of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Mr. Sheldon and I spoke during a break in rehearsals about his history with the show, the outrageous costumes, and his views on the show's secret weapon!
You are now in previews for the show. How is the show coming along and how have audiences been responding to it?
The audience s behaving as we’d hoped, screaming and yelling at the end and buying more tickets for their friends to come see the show.
You have been with the show the longest of any of the current cast members. How has the show developed since you began with the show back in Australia?
It’s a completely different animal. We stated with a script that bore no relation to the movie. We then moved to directly adapt the film and add the songs directly from the movie, which I believe is the direct feeder to the popularity of the show. The songs of the show have changed the whole feel of the show entirely.
Tell me about Bernadette, the character you play in the show.
She’s based on a very well known personality in Sydney in the 1960’s. She’s still around now, and she was the star of Les Girls. She was extremely glamorous – the first public sex change. (The real) Bernadette now is doing her own show called, I believe, the Priscilla Show (cashing in on the success of the film). When we meet her (for the first time in the show), her lover has just died and she is very bereft and that’s why she is so willing to go on this outrageous trip.
What have you learned about Bernadette in the past few weeks of rehearsals?
I wouldn’t say that I’ve learned anything about my life (from playing Bernadette), necessarily, but I have learned about the theater. Audiences are the same wherever you go. All actors have different temperaments and different goals, and I have to stop being so judgmental about other actors. I probably wouldn’t have been ready to do this show 10 years ago, but now I’m just in the right place for this show.
For those who are familiar with the movie, how much of the show is the same or different?
The story line is relatively in tact, but we’ve – what’s the word? – not, sanitized, but softened it. The film is an abrasive movie. We’ve felt from the beginning that we wanted to hit a wider audience and didn’t want to offend anyone, so we’ve softened the edges, but we wanted to keep the qualities that keep it unique. It’s not a Broadway musical – it’s an Australian version of a Broadway musical. It’s about its specific time and people. About “low rent” performers who throw together a show with a few pins and a glue gun and we wanted to keep that aspect of the film to keep it special.
Are there any fun new twists added to the Broadway production to keep things fresh for modern audiences?
The production numbers are the twist. Since we don’t have the desert, so we had to do something. Now we’ve got the bus and the costumes, which are a total fantasy. Lizzy (Gardiner) and Tim (Chappel) who won the Oscar for the film’s costumes, worked on this show and their budget was multiplied by about 100 (compared to the film), which has totally allowed them to run rampant with the costumes. This was the first time I actually laughed with joy when I first saw the costume design. We had to add a finale to add costume parade to remind people of some of the outrageous designs from the film that we couldn’t fit anywhere else in the show.
When the movie came out in 1994, it was a boundary pushing film, bringing gays and drag queens to the forefront in a way Hollywood had not experienced before. Given the changes in gay rights issues that have come about in the almost 20 years since the movie, would you say that the show’s message of acceptance is still relevant?
I’m not sure the climate is different. There’s more visibility now, but there’s still lots of hostility towards the community. Particularly where gays and trans have no rights whatsoever. I don’t think, though, that this show speaks only to gays. I feel this show speaks to everyone who feels different. I think we strike a chord with lonely people, with people of all ages, creeds and types who feel unappreciated and shut out, overlooked. It’s that message about “your true colors are beautiful so flaunt them. Be yourself.” – Kiss the glitter, as we say in Australia. The audiences we’re getting are responding to something deeper – and that’s the surprise of the show.
I opened my mail today and one was from an 81 year old woman who thanked me for giving back her faith in the Broadway musical. Another was from a priest who just said, “divine”. This relates exactly to why Priscilla was chosen to be the first Public Service Announcement for the It Gets Better campaign.
How do the cast changes effect the dynamic of the show?
This show changes all the time, particularly with all the casts. I’ve now done this with 9 or 10 different casts and one is not necessarily better than the other because each person brings something different to each role. We are all so dependant on each other, so the chemistry is important. The New York group is one of the best yet and we are really getting along fantastically. This dynamic really comes through to the audience.
Any encouraging words to those who may be on the fence about this show, given its content?
Our secret weapon is that people don’t think it will be any good – people have made up their minds before they see us. My only suggestion is that people come with an open mind and just come – this may turn out to be one of the best musicals you’ve ever seen!