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Priscilla: The Boys from Oz Arrive

Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical, now previewing at the Palace Theatre, is that rare creature in the West End – a hit Australian stage musical. The show’s two Aussie stars, Tony Sheldon and Jason Donovan, and its director Simon Phillips talk to Roger Foss about a transgender transition with “Down Under” written all over it.

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Of all Australia’s cultural exports to the UK, Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical is surely Down Under at its glittermost. With 500 costumes, 200 hats, 100 wigs, lorry-loads of lipstick, a mountain of mascara, a glorious gaggle of drag queens and a battered six-tonne ‘Priscilla’ bus parked on a stage where the vast Outback comes to life, the Palace Theatre will be transformed into a palace of pure Australiana.

Famous antipodeans

Of course, apart from Priscilla’s central trio of guys who dress girlie – Anthony “Tick” Belrose (aka Mitzi Del Bra), Adam Whitley (aka Felicia Jollygoodfellow) and transsexual Bernadette Bassinger – many other famous antipodeans have made Britain home too, including Dame Edna Everage, who brought us gladdies wrapped in a superstar ego; Rolf Harris, who came over on a didgeridoo; Clive James, who imported his Aussie way with words; and Germaine Greer, who brought, well, Germaine Greer.

But having Priscilla plastered over the Palace marquee means more than just a West End residency for one huge spangle of a musical about three cross-dressed Waltzing Matildas jumping aboard an old bus and travelling across the desert like a four-wheeled disco inferno, while lip-synching to a tucker bag of dance floor anthems.

Stephan Elliott’s stage adaptation of his 1994 Oscar and BAFTA award-winning Aussie film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, premiered in Sydney in 2006, since when over one million theatregoers across Australia have accompanied Priscilla on her journey, grossing in excess of A$90 million at the box office, all of which makes it the most successful Australian musical of all time.

Hailed by Variety as the “best-dressed musical ever staged in Oz”, the story of Tick, Adam and Bernadette taking a glamorous drag show to the middle of nowhere is also one of the very few Australian musicals to be staged in London – put another way, it’s one of the very few Australian musicals to be staged anywhere. Why the drought?

Development Down Under

“Many people are trying to develop new musicals in Australia with readings, showcases and concerts, but there are very few producers around brave enough to try and mount a small-scale one, let alone one that might cost as much as Priscilla,” director Simon Phillips tells me when I stop by at a south London rehearsal room, where the two Australian stars of the show, Jason Donovan (Tick) and Tony Sheldon (Bernadette), are winding down after their first run-through of Act One, while British-born actor Oliver Thornton (Adam) slides off home after a day of perfecting his Aussie-speak – apparently it takes a true digger to be able to put trannie spitfire into lines like: “Now listen here, you mullet. Why don’t you just light your tampon, and blow your box apart? Because it’s the only bang you’re ever gonna get, sweetheart!”

Phillips, an original member of the Priscilla team (which also includes several of the film’s creatives), reminds me that he has staged small-scale musicals himself at Melbourne Theatre Company, where he is artistic. At least one musical from Oz has gone global (Dein Perry’s Tap Dogs) and the American-created Dirty Dancing, which last month celebrated its 1000th performance in the West End, was launched from Sydney in 2004, while Craig Christie and Andrew Patterson’s Eurobeat (the first home-grown musical with an original score to tour Australia in 20 years) had a ten-week run at the Novello Theatre last year.

“Ironically, the idea for a stage version of Priscilla originated from London,” Phillips adds, “but the initiating producers thought it best to present it in Australia first, quite rightly as it turned out.”

In 2003, The Boy from Oz, by the late Nick Enright, became the first Australian musical to reach Broadway, starring Hugh Jackman as singer-songwriter Peter Allen and featuring songs penned by him. But that show is unlikely to reach London, adds Sheldon, “because Peter isn’t known here, whereas in America he starred on Broadway and married Liza Minnelli. On Broadway, they cut all the darkness out, but when Hugh went back to Australia with it, he wisely reverted to the original Australian script because it was better. Had they done that version, the show might have had a life in London.”

Third time lucky

Surprisingly, the multi award-winning Sheldon, one of Australia’s most respected and versatile actors on film and on stage, has never acted in London. His huge list of credits includes creating the role of Bernadette in the original cast of Priscilla, which he played for two years in Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland, after starring as the frock-wearing Roger de Bris in the Australian tour of The Producers. Australian musicals might be a rarity in the West End, but why, I ask, has it taken him so long to make his debut here?

“I nearly made it, twice,” Sheldon responds with a wry smile. “First, it was to play drag queen Arnold in Torch Song Trilogy, but the management changed and they decided to go with Antony Sher instead. Years later, in the second week of rehearsal for The Producers, I asked the musical director, ‘so who’s playing my role in London?’ and he said ‘at the moment it’s you’. For one glorious week, I thought I was going to come to Drury Lane – then they found Conleth Hill.

“I’m third generation in a theatrical family, so the West End has always been one of the dreams. But my aunt, Helen Reddy, got here first in 1997, when she played Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers. So now, at long last, I’ve been brought over – and presented on a red velvet cushion like a precious jewel!”

The Neighbours phenomenon

“And thanks to the Neighbours phenomenon, I arrived here on a red carpet,” chips in Donovan, who made his stage debut at the London Palladium in the 1991 Stephen Pimlott revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. “Luckily, at the time I had a management who knew that doing Joseph was a good career step to make from the world of pop. The theatre world then opened up to me.”

“I’m amazed at the number of Australian actors and theatre people who do work in the UK today,” says Phillips. “When Australian soaps and film productions started to be seen on screens over here, the world suddenly shrank and more and more actors made it here. The old days of the ‘cultural cringe’ were probably over a long time ago, but if you’re in Australia, the West End is still like a glittering light on the other side of the world.”

“We also had this thing about America, which was always seen as the place to go, but it’s much more of a global industry now for Australian actors,” says Donovan, who now switches work between his London home and Australia, where he has made films and appeared on stage, most recently in Phillips’ 2006 Melbourne production of Festen.

Cross-dress for success

What really gives Priscilla it’s Oz-ness, is not just the stunning staging of that vast desert hinterland between Sydney and Alice Springs, or the Aussie slang (“We’ve tried to change as little as possible for the London production because we figure that the Brits have got to know Australian pretty well know,” says Phillips), but the cross-dressing.

It’s no coincidence that Australia’s first lady is not Kylie Minogue but Dame Edna Everage (aka Barry Humphries), and only Sydney – surely the drag capital of the world – would think of including drag queens in its closing Olympics ceremony.

So what is it about diggers who do drag? Is there some historic cultural link between transportation and transvestism? What possesses macho Aussie rules footballers to parade in tu-tus and wigs at the end of televised matches?

“I think the climate has a lot to do with it and that brash Australian sense of humour,” says Donovan, who has previously slipped into fishnets himself for a UK tour of The Rocky Horror Show. “It’s a body-obsessed culture, like Rio and San Francisco. But just about anyone will slip into a frock – just for the freedom of it!”

“That’s exactly what Priscilla is about,” Sheldon continues. “It’s about bringing these Australian forces up against each other and seeing both the good and the danger that can come out of it.”

Unleashing the inner woman

But frocking-up is no doddle. “It’s a challenge and it’s stretching me,” says Donovan. “There’s a subtlety between being flamboyant and camp and trying to play the realism of frazzled Felicia’s alter ego Tick having a child and yearning to see it. I’m amazed how each day I walk to and from rehearsals going through the complexities of it in my mind.”

Sheldon nods in agreement: “Playing Bernadette is no walk in the park – remember she’s not a man in drag but a transsexual woman. My job is to make the audience completely forget the man beneath the make-up, but I wouldn’t have taken the role on if I didn’t think I could honour it.

“I did the first workshop wearing a full beard, a pair of shorts and sneakers, but once I knew that Bernadette was inside me, I could empathise with her without any embarrassment or without overloading the character in any way. I actually don’t consider it a drag performance at all.” Having been favourably compared to Lauren Bacall, Eleanor Parker, Greer Garson and Cate Blanchett, perhaps only an Australian could pull that one off. Bring on Shane Warne the Musical?

Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical opens at the Palace Theatre on 23 March 2009 (previews 10 March). A version of this article appears in the March issue of What’s On Stage magazine, which is out now in participating theatres. NOTE: After the April issue, the magazine will be available on subscription only as one of the many benefits of our Theatre Club. To guarantee you receive all future editions, click here to subscribe now!!


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