Australian actor Tony Sheldon may have caught a plane over to London to make his West End debut, but he is actually on the latest leg of an ongoing road trip, finds Caroline Bishop.
Putting a road movie on stage may not seem the smartest of ideas; especially one which involves travelling in a bus across the impossibly vast expanse of the Australian outback. After all, there’s only so much desert you can fit under a proscenium arch. Tony Sheldon agrees. “I thought what a silly idea to do a show that’s set in the desert and put it on stage,” he says cheerily, after arriving to meet me following a fitting for one of the elaborate head pieces he wears for his role in Priscilla Queen Of The Desert The Musical. Something changed his mind then.
For more than two years the 53-year-old Australian actor has worn the frocks of transsexual Bernadette, one of three characters who traverse the outback in search of themselves in the new musical based on the cult 1994 film. “The more we worked on it, I realised it was actually a show about four people basically… and that it’s a very small story really, so the desert is just like a conduit, a catalyst for all the incidents that happen. And then I committed to it once and for all, I thought I really, really want to be a part of this, and I’ve never regretted it.”
Since participating in the initial workshop, leading to the show’s premiere in Sydney in October 2006, Sheldon has been on something of a road trip himself, taking the musical on tour to Melbourne and New Zealand before arriving in London for the UK leg of the journey, making his West End debut in the British production of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert The Musical at the Palace theatre.
The show is, Sheldon tells me, very true to Stephan Elliott’s film in which Guy Pearce, Terence Stamp and Hugo Weaving played the three performers who take their drag act on the road through small-town Australia, encountering love and hostility in equal measure. Sheldon was not a fan. “No, not at all, NOT AT ALL,” he says with theatrical emphasis in his soft Australian lilt, before adding “Stephan will kill me for saying that. But I found it a bit vulgar for my tastes, I thought it was a bit crass.” But in fact, Sheldon’s reaction to the film was apt, given the character he now finds himself playing in Elliott’s musical version. Having grown up around his performer parents and his aunt, the rock singer Helen Reddy, Sheldon identifies with the glamorous, classy world of showbusiness in the 1960s and 70s, the world that Bernadette – a transsexual performer, not a drag queen – is from. “But this was about modern drag, which is a lot rougher and cutting edge. And sure enough the story is Bernadette gets thrown into that world on this journey and she has to adapt.”
Sheldon, too, has come to adapt to the brash world of Priscilla – albeit a toned down version, given the family audience the musical is aimed at – and has developed a fondness for Bernadette, whom he describes as a survivor. “We catch her in the show at a very low point. She was a big star in her younger days, but her glory days are behind her, and her most recent younger boyfriend has suddenly died unexpectedly in an accident so she’s not got really anything to look forward to. So this opportunity to go and do a drag show in the middle of Alice Springs, with an old friend, and an old enemy, on a bus, she takes it because she really has no alternative. But she’s tough, and she knows how to make it work for her. And she unexpectedly finds a new lease of life through it,” he says. “I love her because I think she’s been through it all and she’s very sensitive, she’s very mumsy, she’s very loving, and she’s got a lot of colours to her. And she’s so different from me. My friends all say, ‘oh we really like her, why can’t you bring her out more often?!’ So it’s nice, to assume her every night.”
“I thought what a silly idea to do a show that’s set in the desert and put it on stage”
It takes him more than two hours in the dressing room before each performance to assume Bernadette, not just to don the outlandish makeup and costumes, but to prepare physically for the demands of dancing in high heels. “You don’t think in your mid-50s you’re going to get a glamour role,” he smiles. “It’s a lot of fun, and it’s not something that I’m embarrassed about or frightened of, I’ve done drag periodically over the years you know, every actor gets it at some point.” Much to his surprise, Sheldon has an entirely new wardrobe for the London run. “I think they want to go for a fresh new look for Bernadette, so that’s fine by me, make her a fashion icon I don’t care!” he laughs.
He is appearing at the Palace alongside adopted Brit Jason Donovan and bona fide Brit Oliver Thornton, who play drag queens Tick (aka Mitzi) and Adam (Felicia), Bernadette’s travelling companions on the bus they name Priscilla. As the only member of the cast who has been in it from the show’s conception, Sheldon has found it interesting to observe the reactions of the newcomers during rehearsals. “It’s strange watching a whole new group of people going through the problems we had when I’m now at the other end and know there is a light at the [end of the] tunnel,” he says. He has encouraged them to trust the material, confident that the Australian humour that saw the film become such a huge hit will also go down well with British theatregoers. “It’s interesting that some of the English cast members are panicking; ‘oh we don’t know what that means over here’. But I always say, look, you know, Billy Elliot is playing successfully in Australia, we haven’t got a clue what half of it’s going on in that story, because it just doesn’t mean anything to us, but you sit and you watch and you learn. It’s becoming more of a global village now and you’ve got Neighbours and Home And Away and all those programmes so there’s a great deal more awareness of Australian culture,” he says, before adding, with a smile. “Mind you, those shows aren’t loaded with jokes!”
In fact, Sheldon once wrote scripts for the soaps Home And Away and Sons And Daughters, another branch of his hugely varied career. As one of Australia’s most respected stage actors, he has appeared in everything from Shakespeare and Chekhov through Tennessee Williams and Noël Coward to musicals including The Witches Of Eastwick and The Producers. He has also turned his hand to directing and, as if that weren’t enough, has become a respected expert on the history of Australian musical theatre. The only thing he won’t do, he tells me, is produce. “The whole concept of raising money and sponsorship just gives me the willies and it needs a much tougher constitution than mine. I’m too sensitive. I burst into tears if somebody shouts at me,” he says.
His reputation down under does not extend to the UK, where he makes his debut as a relative unknown; instead, Donovan is the main casting draw at the Palace. “It doesn’t worry me at all,” Sheldon says. “If anything it’s more of a challenge that I’ve got to be taken on the merits of this performance.”
He has been to London only once before, as a four-year-old with his performer parents, Toni Lamond and Frank Sheldon, who came to “have a go” in the UK. It may have taken him half a century to come back, but it is not for want of trying; he has twice had the opportunity wafted under his nose, only for it to be snatched away again. Interestingly, both those near misses – which would have seen him appear first in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy and then as Roger De Bris in The Producers – involved him wearing drag. It seems Sheldon was destined to eventually parade his false bosoms in the West End. “I’d sort of given up that it was ever going to happen. But I always hoped and prayed in the back of my mind that I would be brought over with an Australian show. I didn’t want to come over and do the starving in the garrett thing, you know, at my age. But this is such a showcase for me, it’s such an opportunity to be sponsored into the country, it’s golden.”
“It’s not something that I’m embarrassed about or frightened of; I’ve done drag periodically over the years”
British theatregoers who see him for the first time on the Palace staged dressed in a frock singing along to I Will Survive may be surprised to know that Sheldon got into the business to be a classical actor. It was, he says, something of a rebellion against the family tradition of vaudeville. His grandparents were stand up comics, his mother a singer, actress and cabaret artiste and his dad – who committed suicide when Sheldon was 11 – a dancer and well-known television producer. Though it was perhaps inevitable that he would end up on the stage, Sheldon was determined to make his own mark. “I had to find something that I could do that… I wouldn’t be forever identified only as their child,” he says. “I got into doing Shakespeare and Chekhov and all those things as a teenager. And also created a lot of roles in new Australian works at a time when Australian writing was coming to the forefront, in the early 70s, so it was lucky because I actually carved a whole niche for myself that nobody else was doing in my family. And so I got away from the son tag quite early. It was good and needed to be done.”
Nevertheless, growing up in a showbusiness family and seeing his mother’s experiences first hand did give Sheldon a strong work ethic. “She said you can see how we have never had any money, and you never know where your next job is going to come from. And it’s constantly a slog. So I went in knowing that. This was long before those reality shows where you can go on and become a name just for the sake of being famous; you really had to put in the hard yards in those days, so I certainly did, and now it’s paying.”
His attitude reflects what he says is the “indefatigable” approach that Australian performers in general apply to their careers. “Our blessing has always been performers. There’s something about the climate, the fitness level, the beach culture, they are workhorses in Australia, they are absolutely at the top of their game.” But a problem, he says, putting his expert hat on, is that while Australia may be great at performing American and British musicals, historically the country has never been very good at creating its own. “They just didn’t really know how to do it,” he admits. Which is why he is particularly pleased to make his West End debut in that rarest of entities, an original Australian musical; even if it does have a soundtrack of American disco tunes.
He is both realistic and hopeful about where the show could take him next. “People said when I left Australia ‘oh you’ll never come back’,” he says, when I ask if he hopes the show could lead to more work in London. “But I’m in a dress for God’s sake. Who is going to come to me and say ‘we see you [in] Death Of A Salesman’?” Nevertheless, his love for Bernadette and the musical itself means that despite the frocks, despite the back ache and despite the fact that his “entire life revolves around the show”, Sheldon is content to let Priscilla map out his journey for a while yet. “I’m actually prepared to stick this out as long as I can do it and see what happens next. Who knows? That’s a really nice adventure.”