BY Ari Karpel
February 08 2011 5:00 AM ET
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.”