For the record, they’re just as fabulous as their characters. And by “they’re” we mean Tony Sheldon, David Harris and Euan Doidge. And by characters, we mean the fierce Bernadette, the sensitive yet ambitious Tick and of course, the captivating Felicia.
Fans embraced the musical as a groundbreaking contribution to the history of queer pop culture. And just a few hours before the curtain goes up every night, the lead cast of this celebrated iconic Australian Broadway revival are downstairs at the Capitol Theatre, reinventing the words written almost two decades ago. “[Priscilla] was brand-new to me,” says Doidge, who plays the out-and-proud party-thrower, “which made it really exciting. I’m lucky enough to sing Kylie Minogue’s ‘Better the devil you know’ because it’s never been done before.”
“It was an iconic film that placed three misfits in a society of minority groups,” recalls Harris, who plays the flamboyant Tick. “A 1994 project made with low budget really showed it was just about the characters and the audience caring for those well-written characters.”
Sheldon, a pioneer in the Broadway industry, reveals how involved he was in the show’s writing process. “I asked a lot of questions, like, ‘Why don’t we change this scene?’ ‘What about changing this line?’ ‘Do you feel that this resonates?’ I think one of the reasons why I was brought into the workshop was because of my previous experiences as a director and writer. I’m thrilled to have been included as one of the creative voices behind Priscilla.”
Like so many great notions, this one began over a lifetime of love. David Harris, an Australian native living in New York City, was looking to sink his teeth into a new show, and he always had his sights set on the glitzy desert. “I choose projects that make a point to highlight a social issue,” he says of Priscilla. “I thought to myself, if the lead role ever came up, I’m going to audition for it. My character’s story arc is an important time in Australian culture—it really portrays how far we’ve come.”
The musical follows two drag queens and a transgender woman (the eldest of the three), who perform a drag show at a resort in Alice Springs. As they head west from Sydney aboard their soon-to-be pink bus, Priscilla, the three friends come to the forefront of a comedy of errors, encountering a number of hilarious characters, as well as the intense theme of homophobia, while widening our hearts and finding new horizons.
“I started as a dancer when I was quite young and I never saw a show!” Doidge admits. “The first time I watched a musical was in 2008 and it was ‘Guys and Dolls’ and ‘Wicked’—immediately I was blown away. I knew that’s what I wanted to do for life.”
Sheldon really dug into what makes Bernadette tick and why strangers both fear and worship her. “She’s very close to me as being brusque,” the actor notes. “Bernie was an easy fit for me—her warmth, compassion and fear. I don’t have her bravery though. She’s an extremely courageous woman. But it makes perfect sense for us to be together at this point in our lives.”
The trio were prepared for intense days of acting and honest talk. “We all had some very deep conversations,” Harris recalls. “Normally children are always looking for acceptance by their parents for their choices, their lifestyle, their individuality. In the show, it’s the other way around. It’s the parent yearning for acceptance from his son. That’s the story told here and the audience can relate to a parent-child relationship.”
Priscilla: Queen of the Desert truly displays the issue of relevance. “There is real heart captured in this play,” says Doidge, the youngest cast member. “For me, I want the audience to walk away feeling happy and wonderful, and I think the musical does that so well. Sure, it’s quite confronting in regards to acceptance but that’s a great lesson if someone’s thinking a different way.”
In the midst of world changes, theatregoers can still look forward to the iconic moments you’d hope to see when you sit down to see the Priscilla musical. “[Fans] will see their favourite moments re-created, but not verbatim,” explains Sheldon. “The show tells a story about finding your tribe in a harsh place. There are people who’ll appreciate you for who you really are and this is really conveyed in the song ‘True Colours.’ It’s flawless, but then created something that’s a bit more right for the stage — and if you have seen the movie, you’ll be surprised by the new twists and turns. And we think that’s pretty great.”
And even with the extravagant costume designs and jukebox hits, the story of these fabulous characters triumphantly overcoming old and new haunts after some time away “definitely” strikes a chord.
The music is terrific; Donna Summer isn’t the undisputed Queen of Disco for nothing. But this production lives or dies on the shoulders of its three Donnas — and they are incredible. “I’ve learnt to enjoy the role and not let anything else affect the show,” Doidge says. “Stress can be such a big part of a performers life. We’re all human and sometimes we screw up. Just allow it to be and enjoy the story.”
Harris chimes in, “There’s no right or wrong way. There’s no correct path to do any of this. I never got into performance schools and got tapped on the head when I was younger because I couldn’t sing. Twenty years later, I’m doing musicals. Just because someone else doesn’t believe in your abilities doesn’t mean you shouldn’t allow it. If one door doesn’t open, knock on another one.”
“Get off your phones and stop doing selfies if you want longevity in this business,” Sheldon declares. “Being a performer, it’s a lifetime commitment. Be the best you can be.”