Dancing Queens

By Ari Karpel

Originally published on Advocate.com February 08 2011 5:00 AM ET

 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.”
 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.”PRISCILLA ALT X390 (MARCUS) | ADVOCATE.COM 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.”