When Tony Sheldon slips into heels, frock and wig to play Bernadette in the 10th anniversary production of the musical Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which begins a national tour in Melbourne this month, it will be but the latest stop on a journey that began well over a decade ago.

When director Simon Phillips oversaw the very first workshop to adapt Stephan Elliott’s 1994 award-winning Australian film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert into a stage musical, Sheldon played Bernadette, the fabulous, tough-yet-tender transsexual woman played on screen by Terence Stamp. Sheldon subsequently starred in the show’s Australian premiere in Sydney in 2006. When it returned two years later having truly found its heart and really shaking its groove thing after significant revisions while touring, his Bernadette was an even more divine creation.

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Tony SheldonTony Sheldon as Bernadette. Photograph courtesy of Michael Cassel Group

Over the years, Sheldon has frocked up for the role more than 1750 times, performing in the West End production and on Broadway where he received a Tony Award nomination and the Theatre World Award for Outstanding Broadway Debut. Now based in New York, he didn’t take much persuading to return to the role again in Australia, ten years after Priscilla was last seen here.

And yet, as he candidly admits, when he was approached way back when about the initial workshop, he wasn’t that enthusiastic. “I took it because I wanted to work with Simon who was running the Melbourne Theatre Company at the time. I didn’t think the idea of a musical of Priscilla was a particularly good one, but I wanted to get in front of Simon,” he says.

Priscilla tells the story of three friends – glamazon Bernadette and drag queens Tick/Mitzi and Adam/Felicia – who journey on a dilapidated bus called Priscilla through the Australian outback from Sydney to Alice Springs. A tale of friendship, self-discovery and acceptance, which unfolds to a disco soundtrack, the story made for a dazzling, outrageously glamorous, camp, feel-good extravaganza on screen and stage.

Despite his initial hesitations, Sheldon quickly became committed to the show during the workshop process. “The wonderful thing was that Simon allowed me to have a creative voice in the room. Because of that, I found I had a vested interest in the project. By the time we did the presentation to potential backers and potential collaborators, I suddenly thought ‘this show has legs! This is going to work, and I want to be a part of it’. But then I had to sit back and watch everybody look for a bigger name,” he recalls.

“Finally, our producers Garry [McQuinn] and Liz [Koops], and Simon, decided that the bus was the star, and that they didn’t need big names. So, they went with me and Jeremy [Stanford as Tick] and Daniel [Scott as Felicia]. Then we did those first three previews where the bus never got on stage [due to technical problems]. The star didn’t come out of the dressing room! So, we mimed the bus. I stood in the middle of the stage, pretended I was steering! Props that were supposed to be on the bus, people were throwing on from the wings. We were flying by the seat of our pants! But the response was so huge and so affectionate that we realised if we could do the show without the bus, without the nominal star, then it had to be good. That was the first moment that all of us realised we had a hit on our hands. The bus became the icing on the cake.”

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Tony SheldonTony Sheldon and the cast of the Australian production of Priscilla. Photograph courtesy of Michael Cassel Group

Returning to the show now with David Harris as Tick and Euan Doidge as Felicia, is a “thrill” says Sheldon. “I always said: ‘if you do a tenth anniversary, please ask me – though I don’t know whether I’ll be physically in any condition to do it, because I will be that much older’. In fact, it’s 12 years since we did that workshop. I had just turned 50, and I’m 62 now. But when they called, I thought ‘Yep, I can do this’. I’ve done enough in the interim, enough other shows, that I don’t feel ‘oh, typecast’ or anything like that, or ‘this is all I can play’ – all of those fears have gone. So, I’ll be coming back to it afresh. When they sent me the script, a lot of it didn’t ring any bells. So, I thought, ‘this would be fun to start again’: a whole new cast of people to play with, and a whole new audience, a whole new generation of people that never got to see it.”

Casting his mind back to the workshop, Sheldon recalls that a great deal of time was spent developing the idea of the three divas, who sing the disco songs that the drag queens lip sync to. “That came very late; initially we sang everything. I remember [choreographer] Ross Coleman [who died in 2009] saying ‘if I don’t hear a female voice soon, I’m going to scream!’ He said, ‘it’s so monotonous, these three male voices singing all these disco songs.’ But we couldn’t work out how to do the thing without miming to records, because we were playing three people who made a living miming to records.”

“Some genius came up with the idea of the three divas, that whenever we were performing as drag queens, we mimed to the girls, and they became ‘the spirit of disco’. Then when we were [playing the characters] off stage, we sang in our own voices. That was a huge breakthrough. The other thing being decided was whether or not to go with an original score – that was a real moral dilemma, because we knew it would be furthering the cause of the Australian musical to create a score. But so much of the film’s appeal and people’s memory of the film [is because of the songs].”

As the show evolved, and toured internationally, some of the songs were changed. “When we got to England we lost the rights to some of the material. Then between London and New York, there was a conscious decision to change all the Kylie material to Madonna, because Kylie wasn’t as well-known over there. So, while we were there, they came up with a new opening number, and we changed Both Sides Now for True Colours, so I think those changes have stayed,” says Sheldon.

“It’s a better song for the moment. I’m sorry we’ve lost our original opening number which was Down Town, but we’re doing It’s Raining Men, which was the Broadway opening number, and which better established the character of Tick on stage.  It was a gutsier, bigger opening [but] a lot of it came down to losing rights, from country to country.”

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Tony SheldonTony Sheldon is his Gumby costume. Photograph courtesy of Michael Cassel Group

The encounter with the Aboriginal character Jimmy, played in the original Australian production by Indigenous performer Kirk Page, has also changed over the years. “We have a wonderful Aboriginal dancer [Leonard Mickelo who has performed with Bangarra Dance Theatre] playing the role now,” says Sheldon. “That went through a lot of changes, because we had a whole bunch of Aboriginals played by white people [in the scene with Jimmy] when we first opened, which was culturally very insensitive. They were changed into international tourists by the time we got to London. It was interesting watching the show continue to evolve every step of the way.”

“When we got to New York, suddenly we had all these new people in the room – the Americans had other people there for insurance like Jerry Mitchell, the director, and David Thompson, the author. Then we had Judy Gold, the comedian, who was suddenly writing new lines for us. Bette Midler, who was one of our producers, was making suggestions. But by that time, having survived the London experience, our Australian team had the strength of their convictions to say: “No, this is the product. This is what we’re going to say.’ They put up more of a fight by the time we got to Broadway.”

To preserve the Australian sense of humour in it? “Well, I think the quality about the show is that it wasn’t slick,” replies Sheldon. “I always refer to it as the rat-baggy element of Priscilla – there’s something hand-tooled about it that I think is part of the joy of it. Much as I love Kinky Boots, Kinky Boots is very streamlined. So, I think our show has a wonderful rough-edged quality that is very Australian.”

Priscilla has since been a hit around the world with productions in The Netherlands, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Canada, Brazil, Italy, Ireland, Sweden, Israel, Argentina, Korea, Philippines, Singapore, South Africa, France, Japan, Spain, Greece, North America, the UK and on the high seas with Norwegian Cruise Lines, with a number of other international productions in the pipeline.

Sheldon has been based in New York since arriving there with Priscilla. A third generation performer, almost literally born in a trunk to cabaret legend Toni Lamond and her late husband, vaudeville performer Frank Sheldon, it was always his dream to perform on Broadway. As a child, he was so obsessed with musicals that from a young age he developed an encyclopaedic knowledge about it which he retains to this day. Now he’s living the dream, having recently performed in the musical Amélie on Broadway, and he is loving living in the Big Apple. “I’ve got such a strong support system in New York – and it doesn’t hurt that my landlady is Audra McDonald!” he says.

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Tony SheldonTony Sheldon

“This wonderful community just welcomed me – it was like finding my tribe. It doesn’t hurt being a theatre archivist/historian so that you know everything about everybody when you hit town, and you’re able to meet all the people you’ve been reading about and talking about all these years. Then suddenly I’ll be sitting in a room with my close circle of friends and there’s Donna McKechnie [who played Cassie in the original A Chorus Line] and there’s Sondra Lee, the original Tiger Lily from Peter Pan, and there’s Harvey Evans who danced in every Gwen Verdon musical, and there’s Lee Roy Reams, who starred in 42nd Street, and you think ‘these are my closest friends here! This is so surreal! These are the people that I was watching as a kid on the Tony Awards!’”

Asked if they were surprised by how much he knew about them and the shows they’d been in, he says: “Well, they were! That’s the thing, they all sort of reared back and went ‘you actually know a lot more about Broadway than a lot of people on Broadway!’ Jim Caruso, who runs Birdland – the wonderful jazz club – said ‘how would you feel if maybe when you come back doing a weekly interview show?’ I thought ‘they’re asking some Australian chap to come out and do something like this’, so I feel very much a part of that scene,” says Sheldon.

“Everything is building blocks in New York, that’s what I found. I was concerned after Priscilla that the Tony nomination wasn’t immediately leading to something else. I did that terrible thing that actors should never do, which is not staying in your own lane – looking sideways, going ‘everybody else who was nominated in my year has got another job on Broadway, and I haven’t’. It was because nobody knew me, basically. So, you do the workshops and you go and you do the regional gigs, and suddenly directors start asking for you. It’s not about auditioning. People start to ask specifically for you to do stuff.”

“There was a wonderful moment [in 2014] when the City Center did a production of The Band Wagon based on the MGM film, the Fred Astaire film. The cast had been announced and it was Tracey Ullman and Brian Stokes Mitchell and Laura Osnes, who was coming off Cinderella, and Michael McKean from Spinal Tap, and Roger Rees playing the Jack Buchanan part. I thought ‘I would have liked to have had a chance to have gone for that. That would have been very me’. Then suddenly I got a call two day before rehearsals started that Roger was ill, and was unable to do the show. Suddenly, there I was in this cast, where I had six major numbers and a principal role. The producer took me aside and he said, ‘I just want you to know that we had a long list of major names in mind to replace Roger and all the creatives pointed at your name. We want him! Because you have a reputation of being reliable, of being pleasant and easy to work with’. He said: ‘I think you should know that people think well of you here.’ That was really important for me to know at that point, because I was fretting that I wasn’t getting where I was supposed to be. I thought ‘I’d rather be known as easy to work with than anything else at the moment!’ It was a good thing for me to just settle down and just let your career take its course – you’re where you’re supposed to be!”

He may now be into his 60s but Sheldon is looking trim and fit as a fiddle. Asked if he watches what he eats, he admits he does. “I always had weight issues, all my life. I’ve also been having problems with my ears. I’ve had deafness problems for many years. In fact, I had to leave The Producers for three weeks in Melbourne to have an operation because I went stone deaf. I couldn’t hear the orchestra. I couldn’t tell if I was in tune, and I was absolutely terrified,” he says.

“They never worked out what it was. But I’d been having these problems since I was a teenager. Anyways, they did a big operation where they perforated both my ears drums. Anyway, it started happening again when I started doing Amélie in San Francisco. There was one specialist that was treating me with ear drops for horses. He said ‘oh, well. let’s give it a go’. It was like I became a guinea pig.”

He explains how his partner Tony Taylor was researching on the internet and discovered that candida can affect hearing, so he went on an anti-candida diet, which is completely sugar free. “You can’t have fruit, you can’t have honey, nothing. All dairy has to go and you can’t eat mushrooms or anything that forms yeast. So, we went on that diet. I’ve been on that for two years. I find that whenever I fall off it in any way [I have a reaction]. I decided to go back on fruit when I arrived back in Australia and I was eating apples and pears and immediately I had a reaction to it in my ears. I’d wake up, and I couldn’t hear.”

Tony Sheldon and Phillipa Soo in Amélie. Photograph © Joan Marcus

For the foreseeable future, Sheldon says that he will remain in New York. “Only because of the new work that’s being developed all the time, and that’s what I want to be doing. That’s not happening here, certainly not as much as one would hope, and especially when producers are saying that they’re not going to take a chance on new work. It’s wonderful that Michael Cassel is reviving Priscilla and that the Sydney Theatre Company is doing Muriel’s Wedding [with Global Creatures]. But there aren’t enough big, commercial producers taking a punt on new work out here,” he says.

“Over there, there’s workshops every week of new material [and] you’re there working for the best people. You’re all doing it for no money, they’ll slip you 100 bucks or something at the end of two weeks. But there you are performing, then you look out into the audience and there’s Stephen Schwartz and all these people. Often they die on the vine. You do it once and it’s never heard of again. But then sometimes, it’ll take off. There’s one show I’ve been working on called Empire, which is about the building of the Empire State Building. Well, I think, more than ten years that’s been in development. We did it in Los Angeles, Christmas before last. Then I came back and did another workshop, and there’s a whole new bunch of characters in it. People are constantly working on and refining this new stuff.”

“So that’s what I love, that’s my joy. I’m not getting any richer as a result of it. But everybody is waiting to see what’s going to take off, and so you take a chance. I got to do Ever After that musical of the film. There I was, on stage with Christine Ebersole. Those workshops were incredible! Then Empire then Amélie, so the chance of being in an original piece is always present, and that’s what I want to be doing.”

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert plays at the Regent Theatre, Melbourne from January 21, then the Capitol Theatre, Sydney from May 13, Adelaide Festival Centre in August, and Brisbane in September


Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine