Dancing Queens

Glitter and be gay — Nick Adams, Tony Sheldon, and Will Swenson board the bus for Broadway in the stage musical.



 Priscilla will inevitably be criticized for jamming whatever story it can in between unrelated songs. But the original movie, which starred Guy Pearce, Hugo Weaving, and Terence Stamp, was essentially a jukebox musical too; after all, most drag queens lip-synch to hits instead of belting out original numbers. So, like the cult classic on which it’s based, Priscilla is a string of over-the-top drag numbers framed by an emotional, if slight, father-son story line.

“There used to be more script,” Sheldon explains of the patches of dialogue that help lead the story along. “You have such minimal material to work with before the next huge production number begins. But we did have longer scenes, more introspection, and we found that the audience wouldn’t sit still for it. [They] coughed and got up and went out and bought more beer. We really did give it a go and they didn’t want it.”

The melancholy of the movie — a tone set by the now-jettisoned opening number “I’ve Never Been to Me” — is largely gone. An example of what it’s been replaced with: A full-on literal interpretive dance to “MacArthur Park,” with green-frosted cupcakes dancing with umbrellas. (“MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark / All the sweet green icing flowing down / Someone left the cake out in the rain…”)

And Felicia’s on-screen ABBA worship was replaced with Kylie Minogue zeal for the Australian and British runs and the more geographically suitable Madonna mania in North America. (The Swedish pop group has its own international musical hit going right now, so incorporating “Mamma Mia” wasn’t an option.) “Cher was toyed with at one point,” Sheldon offers, “but then they decided to go with Madonna.”

Plenty of the film’s crude humor remains, though it wasn’t an easy fit for a musical with Broadway aspirations. Says Swenson: “We had a joke about a big fat tip that we took out.” It may go for easy gay gags (a sign on the back of the bus reads, “Rear Entry Upon Request”), but the production doesn’t shy away from the gay-hating vandalism of the bus, which always elicits gasps from the crowd. “We did try defacing the bus where it didn’t say ‘fuck,’ but we weren’t being true to the show, so we put it back,” Sheldon says.

While The Phantom of the Opera has its chandelier and Miss Saigon its helicopter, Priscilla has a rather impressive silver platform shoe ridden by Felicia atop a pink bus. As in the movie, she’s lip-synching to “Sempre Libera” from La Traviata. “The way the lighting is, it’s really blinding, so I can’t really tell how high I am,” Adams says of his above–center stage moment. “It’s like a dream. I feel like I’m Beyoncé.”

Like his character, 27-year-old Adams is the youngest of the trio, more inclined toward the crass humor that Sheldon/Bernadette disdains, and more likely to flex his superhuman muscles than to try to pass as a woman. The gay Erie, Pa., native’s gym body probably hasn’t hurt his rise, but it has stoked bitchiness online and in New York gossip columns, which chronicled his alleged rivalry (of the “my guns are bigger than yours” type) with Chorus Line costar Mario Lopez. “It got so personal, I would get upset,” Adams says. “After that show I was just regarded as if I was on Broadway because I’m muscular and that’s it. It negated all the work I’ve put in since I was 5 years old. [He earned a BFA at Boston Conservatory.] As if it was that easy to be handed a job because I go to the gym.”
Tags: Theater