From drag queen to director, we talk to the hard-grafting musical theatre star about his latest career challenge.

The secret to a successful performing career is a simple combination: talent, charisma and a healthy dose of good fortune. But when fate dragged its heels in delivering a lucky break for musical theatre star Trevor Ashley, he took the matter in hand by stepping into a pair of heels of his own. 

“It was a good eight years after I left school before I got my first professional musical theatre job, so I needed to do something to pass the time,” he quips. “I got into cabaret and then that led me to drag, which brought me to that first professional gig, in the premiere of Priscilla Queen of the Desert – the Musical. So in a way, all that versatility and hard graft brought me to where I’d always wanted to be. I’m thrilled I have that variety in my career now – life would be very boring without it!”

Today, Ashley is well and truly cemented as one of Australia’s leading musical theatre character actors and cabaret luminaries, particularly lauded for his drag shows such as I’m Every Woman, and his two Minnelli tributes, Liza on an E and Liza’s Back (is Broken). His climb to the top, however, has been hard-earned. A proud workaholic, Ashley is a self-made star, building his national profile brick by brick from the humblest of beginnings, performing in the bars and cabaret clubs of Sydney in the late 1990s. 

Ashley as Liza Minnelli

It may have been a spit and sawdust start, but Ashley looks back on his early career with a grateful fondness. “It taught me to entertain,” he says of his first drag and cabaret performances. “To get a gay man in a pub, who hasn’t paid to see what you’re doing, to stop and pay attention – that’s not an easy thing to do. When your audience isn’t captive, or doesn’t care about what they’re seeing, they’ve got no reason to engage with you. So those early shows taught me a lot of big lessons about what works and what doesn’t work on stage. And you know what? That learning experience is something that still rings true today.”

Since wearing in his heels in the pubs and bars of Sydney’s Oxford Street, Ashley has come a very long way. After playing Miss Understanding in the world premiere season of the Priscilla musical in 2006, he has gone on to become a permanent fixture at the highest levels of the Australian musical theatre scene, appearing in some of the biggest juggernaut productions of the past decade. His credits include Edna Turnblad in the 2010 Australian touring production of Hairspray, Franz Leibkind in the 2012 Melbourne season of The Production Company’s The Producers, and most recently (in his most prominent none-drag role to date), Monsieur Thenardier in the mammoth national tour of Les Misérables.

I’m thrilled I have that variety in my career now – life would be very boring without it!

But despite this success, Ashely has stayed true to his small-scale cabaret and drag roots, juggling engagements on Australia’s biggest musical theatre stages with the more intimate performances of his own shows. Praised for his unparalleled abilities capturing the vocal intricacies and eccentric quirks of the 20th-century’s greatest divas – most notably Liza Minnelli (at her most hilariously addled) – Ashley has honed a fine-tuned knack for channeling the camp and kitsch. It’s his sensitivity to these qualities, paired with his veteran experience as a musical theatre performer, which has led him to his next big career challenge: stepping for the first time into the role of director.

Trevor Ashley with Lara Mulcahy in Les Misérables

For his directorial debut, Ashely has imported a new, high-camp and ultra-kitsch musical adaptation of the cult 1980s movie, Heathers. “I’d seen the film of course when I was much younger, but I’d totally forgotten all about it until I stumbled across the musical,” Ashley recalls. “I completely fell in love with the score as soon as I heard the recording, so I immediately dug out the movie and rediscovering it was such a treat. It’s just so good! From that point, I just knew I had to put this show on.” 

Heathers is a blackly comic take on the trials and tribulations of “teenage bullshit.” Set in a small-town high school, a ruling clique of girls, all named Heather, control the social status quo; judge, jury and executioner for anyone they deem unfit for popularity. As pretty as they are cruel, the Heathers’ weapons of choice are peer pressure and bullying but little do they know, weapons of a far deadlier variety await them.

The musical, which premiered in New York in 2014, is both a tribute to its source material and an homage to the iconic fashions and bright, gaudy excesses of the 1980s. But beyond this nostalgia, Ashley has also been struck by how relevant some of the narrative’s themes remain, and how disturbingly prophetic the film’s plot of teen-on-teen murder would become in the 30 years following its release. “It’s a very fun show, and it’s a brilliant pastiche of the 80s, but there is something undeniably dark about it. Without me having to underline it, there’s a lot of correlations between the show’s plot and Columbine or Sandy Hooke. America had never seen anything like that when the film came out, but it certainly has since and I felt it was important not to miss that reference,” Ashley explains. “There’s a lot of levels that people can connect to with this show, and part of that is definitely how relevant and socially interesting it is all these years later.”

The Australian cast of Heathers – The Musical

After a wildly successful premiere season at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre – the epicentre of boutique musical theatre in Australia – this Australian premiere production of Heathers has now embarked on a national tour, with a beefed-up set and a new leading lady, Hilary Cole, in the role of teen-misfit Veronica. “She’s absolutely extraordinary, and she’s a newcomer, so she’s a fabulous discovery,” Ashely beams. “It’s so exciting to be giving her that first big role.”

With a sure-fire smash hit on his first outing, making the leap from performer to director has been a worthwhile gamble for Ashley. He assures me has no plans to hang up his stilettos for good just yet, but entering the mindset of a director has taken an adjustment for the seasoned performer. “The hardest part for me was opening night,” he tells me. “I was in the foyer, and I suddenly realised, I’m never in the foyer on opening night! It was a very strange experience. Once the curtain goes up, there’s nothing you can do; you just have to sit back and enjoy it. But it’s tough letting go, for sure.” 

Heathers – The Musical is at the Arts Centre Melbourne until May 22, before touring nationally.