Like the bus ride across the Australian outback for the trio of divas at the heart of Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical, the road to Broadway has been long but fabulous.
Based on Stephan Elliott's Golden Globe-nominated 1994 cult film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the stage show — written by Elliott with Allan Scott, and directed by Simon Phillips — had its 2006 world premiere in Sydney and became the most successful Australian musical ever. After moving to Melbourne and Auckland, the production transferred to London's West End, where it was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best New Musical and won for its outrageous costume design. Now, following a pre-Broadway engagement in Toronto, it's playing the Palace Theatre with Bette Midler as a producer.
Nick Adams, 27, takes on his biggest Broadway role to date as Adam/Felicia, a feisty drag-queen newbie. Will Swenson, 37, a Tony nominee for Hair, plays Tick/Mitzi, a man who must reconcile his drag persona with his relationship to his young son. Olivier nominee Tony Sheldon, 55, has played bereaved transsexual Bernadette since the musical's inception, performing the role 1,200 times before setting his stilettos on Broadway. Though only a trio since Toronto, it's clear over lunch at Sardi's that these three stars have formed a sisterhood of the traveling skirts.
"We became comfortable with each other very quickly," says Swenson of hitching a ride with Sheldon late along Priscilla's path. "Nick and I have been told we're quite different from the performers who have come before us in our roles. In Tony's position, I would've been less patient with two new whippersnappers, but he generously let us find our own way."
"It's not just that he played his part from the beginning, he also helped create the entire show from its earliest workshops," Adams explains. "It was a luxury to have Tony to go to with questions, but he was surprisingly game for us to re-create our roles and start on a clean slate."
"I also had a clean slate," says Sheldon of the pre-Broadway Toronto run. "These three characters have a shared history, so I didn't want to base that on my relationship with other actors who'd done their roles. We created our history from scratch, and it was a voyage of discovery for all of us."
Swenson's most startling discovery was that doing drag is difficult, which Adams says he learned as an original Cagelle in the current Broadway revival of La Cage aux Folles. "Trying to be as pretty as Nick or as wonderfully feminine as Tony is still a challenge for me," admits Swenson, the sole straight man of the trio. "I didn't realize drag was such an art form until I dove into what makes drag performers successful."
Sheldon believes it's his own feminine wits and wiles that have made him irreplaceable in the role of Bernadette. "I like to think I've created a believable woman up there," he says. "It would also be distracting to cast a name in the role, because if the audience is saying, 'Oh, that's Nathan Lane, that's Frasier,' they couldn't fully buy into this transsexual's beautiful story."
"I just don't think anyone else could play that role," Swenson interjects. "It's hard to imagine another actor turning this part into what Tony has, and you'll understand when you see his performance."
Yet despite his age and tenure with the show, Sheldon doesn't see himself as Priscilla's father figure — or mother hen. "Will and Nick are Broadway veterans, so I'm in no position to give anyone advice," says the celebrated stage actor. A nephew of singer-actress Helen Reddy, Sheldon had not performed outside his native Australia prior to Priscilla. "I'm the new kid in America, so there's a learning curve for me as well," he says.
"Basically, we show Tony good New York restaurants, and he teaches us how to act," adds Swenson with a sly grin.
Having stuck by Priscilla from the start, Sheldon easily sums up the creative metamorphosis of the pop jukebox musical as it sashayed from Sydney to New York. "It's been made more accessible to American audiences," he says, citing the replacement of Kylie Minogue songs with Madonna hits, "but mainly it's just gotten better. Every step of the way, we've been rewriting and developing the characters."
After more than four years and hundreds of performances, Sheldon's passion for Priscilla hasn't flagged. "Somebody said to me, 'This is your Dolly, this is your Mame,' and it's true. It's been a marathon, but to get this role at my age in an Australian musical that's brought me to London, Toronto and [now] Broadway? I'm not worried about being tired. I'm going to enjoy every minute until they pension me off."
Playbill, March 2011 issue.