If you ever have to remove some glittery lipstick really fast, use packing tape.
That tip comes courtesy of the stars of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the stage adaptation of the hit 1994 Australian indie film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, set to open on Broadway March 20.
A disco musical about three gay performers who road-trip in outlandish drag through the unwelcoming Outback in a pink bus christened Priscilla, the show puts its three leads through a series of lightning-quick transformations, many of them complete with lipstick changes.
“Literally, we kiss the lid of the glitter container” to apply the stuff, says Will Swenson, who was nominated for a Tony award for playing Berger in the recent Broadway revival of Hair and now stars as Tick (drag name Mitzi), Priscilla’s protagonist. It’s Tick’s desire to meet his son that prompts the cross-country trek — unbeknownst to his friends. “We’ve got ChapStick or lipstick on, and we kiss it and then the glitter sticks to our lips.” Out of drag and under the gun to get back onstage, they take it off by kissing a long strip of packing tape. “It looks absurd,” Swenson says.
And it’s hell on the lips. “It’s a constant adhesive pulling at your face,” says Nick Adams, who plays Adam/Felicia, the flamboyant young drag queen dead set on lip-synching Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” on remote Ayers Rock (in Bernadette’s words: “A cock in a frock on a rock”). But the actor’s not complaining. This is Adams’s first leading role on Broadway, following memorable ensemble turns as a Cagelle in La Cage aux Folles and as Larry in A Chorus Line.
The used strips of tape hang on the walls, making for colorful backstage decorations. “Rows of kisses,” says Tony Sheldon, who plays transgender Bernadette, in need of a getaway since her lover has died in a freak hair-bleaching accident.
Priscilla’s quirky sensibility is pretty unusual for a Broadway show. Not to mention pretty gay. For a production to succeed these days, it must appeal to the broadest possible audience of families and tourists — much as Priscilla has in Sydney, Melbourne, and London. Despite pretty savage reviews in the British papers (“They all said, ‘This is the biggest piece of crap in the history of the world!’” recalls Sheldon, a native Australian who’s been with the show since its earliest workshops), it’s been a West End hit for two years running. Still, Priscilla has gone through quite a transformation along the way, not the least of which is two new American leads — Swenson and Adams — for the pre-Broadway run in Toronto, which is where we sat down in December, a few hours before an evening performance.
“Of course there are going to be people who just think it’s mindless frippery,” Sheldon says. “But I think for what the show sets out to do, it’s achieving it.”
Sheldon, 55, also gay and a theater veteran, is the production’s mother hen — not unlike Bernadette, his character, who is the traveling trio’s voice of reason and resident traditionalist. “Simon [Phillips], the director, calls me the taste police. If I think we’re heading off base, I will put my hand up and say my piece.”
Tick/Mitzi (Swenson) is the peacemaker of the three and a bridge between Bernadette’s fuddy-duddy ways and Adam’s wild ones. In person, Swenson seems about right for that, with one striking difference: He’s straight and the divorced father of two. Oh, and he grew up Mormon in Utah and is well-known in certain circles for his work in LDS cinema, particularly The Singles Ward and The Singles 2nd Ward. “I certainly can relate to those podunk towns in the Outback where people have a very limited view of the world and hold their prejudices,” he says. “So I guess my upbringing, to an extent, provided my backstory for the show.”
Of course, Swenson’s no stranger to the wild ways of the stage, having starred in Hair, a play that he says opened up his world, thanks in part to his friendship with costar Gavin Creel, who cofounded Broadway Impact, an organization working for marriage equality. “Yeah, I used to hate gay people,” he says. He’s kidding, of course. In fact, when he was in Hair, the cast canceled a performance to march on Washington in support of gay rights, which Swenson calls “the civil rights struggle of our generation.”
Though Priscilla went through plenty of changes between Australia and London and again for Toronto, the lead actors say only some opening bits are being tweaked for the transition from Toronto to Broadway. Bette Midler recently signed on as a producer, making her the latest star to try to boost a show’s Broadway prospects, à la Oprah Winfrey with The Color Purple and Elton John with Next Fall.
As the time for tonight’s performance approaches, the guys get up to go. Sheldon is headed for two hours in the makeup chair (he’s the only one who must become a woman), Swenson will relax and do some stretching, while Adams is off to the gym. “He’s part robot—a lot of people don’t know that,” Swenson jokes of his costar.
The show is brutal, nonstop work for all of them. They leave the stage for just moments at a time, only to reappear in elaborate new frocks, designed by Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel, who won an Academy Award for the movie’s costumes. Gardiner’s the one whose Oscar acceptance dress was made of gold American Express cards, echoing Tick’s pink and orange flip-flops dress, featured in both the movie and the stage version. Like most of the costumes, that getup comes complete with an outlandishly elaborate headdress, platform boots, and matching makeup, all tailored to that character’s personality (Bernadette’s garments lean toward traditional showgirl garb while Felicia’s swing more midriff-baring, space-age gladiator).
In every show the actors go through about 20 costume changes each, putting on and stripping off a collection of feathered, flowered, and sequined ensembles sure to make even Lady Gaga jealous. “It’s the least amount of actual choreography I’ve ever done,” Adams says, “but the costume changes backstage are exhausting.”