At a press event for the Toronto launch of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – The Musical, star Tony Sheldon gets visibly choked up as he describes the titular coach bus – reimagined for the stage as a glittery, dazzling, LED-strewn extravaganza – as “a cocoon from the prejudice and bigotry of rural Australia.”
“In these troubling times for young people, with all these teen suicides, we need these messages that say we’re all part of a rainbow,” Sheldon said.
The gay 55-year-old star of the Australian stage is on his first North American tour with Priscilla, a stage adaptation of the 1994 cult film from down under, which tells the story of two drag queens and a transsexual woman who cross the Australian outback in a coach bus named Priscilla, encountering and overcoming prejudice along the way.
“I woke up at 5am the previous morning, sat upright in my bed knowing that this press call was coming up, and it just suddenly seemed the right time to say this,” Sheldon explains to me later. “I’d seen all the publicity of [columnist Dan Savage’s] It Gets Better Project, and talking to kids about bullying because they’re gay, and this show is exactly addressing that, the fear and homophobia.
“This is a show that is about acceptance and tolerance and probably should be seen by everybody, children and parents.”
To Sheldon, his character, Bernadette, is an ideal role model for young people struggling to fit in.
“She was living openly as a woman in the 1960s when it was illegal to wear women’s underwear under a man’s suit in Australia. For her to actually publicly go out and have the sex change operation and talk about it, that’s a level of bravery that I sort of can’t really conceive of and can only admire,” he says.
“She gets hurt but she’s learned to fight back when she has to, particularly to protect those near and dear to her. She has a lot of qualities I wish I had in myself.”
Growing up in show business – his mother and aunt are famous stage performers – afforded Sheldon some protection from the homophobia he acknowledges many young queer people face.
“Nobody was oppressing me in the way that I was crushed about my sexuality. I’ve never had to put myself out there, like Bernadette did,” he says.
While the musical Priscilla is taking Sheldon on an around-the-world adventure, he isn’t keen to compare his travels to the journey his character takes across the outback.
“The travel I’m doing with the show is some sort of Hollywood fantasy to me,” Sheldon says of his four-year stint with the show on London’s famed West End. “The bus trip is long and boring with nothing to see. I had never been to Europe before I did this show. This show has enabled me to go on vacations from the West End to Paris, to Barcelona, to Lisbon, to Rome. I suddenly feel like I’m in some extraordinary travelogue.”
The Toronto engagement is Sheldon’s first time in North America, and he’s hoping to enjoy it once the show is on its feet.
“I have seen nothing but my rehearsal room and the theatre. I have to wait until the show opens until I can think of what’s outside King St W. I know the food shops and Tim Hortons,” he says. “I have till the end of the year to explore it all. Hopefully I’ll get a day free to explore Niagara Falls.”
The show has been retooled slightly for the North American audience after successful runs in Australia and the UK. While a key plot point of the original production was that one of the characters was obsessed with Aussie diva Kylie Minogue, the producers were concerned that North American audiences needed a more recognizable icon and subbed in Madonna.
“It was a pity, because she is so iconically Australian, but we had to be realistic about who is our audience for the next several years. The audience is not going to be gay people. It’s tourists from the Midwest. Kylie hasn’t broken into the mainstream in North America the way she has in England or Australia. We wanted an icon who was instantly identifiable by the music and the name by 95 percent of the audience,” Sheldon says. “It meant a hell of a lot of work for our musical director, who had to apply for the musical rights and redesign our choreography and costumes. It wasn’t a decision we took lightly.”
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert — The Musical
Opens Tues, Oct 12
Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St W
$20–130 at mirvish.com or 416-872-1212
Watch a preview of Priscilla: