Interview: Tony Sheldon on playing Priscilla Queen of the Desert‘s Bernadette with a dose of panache and class

The Priscilla Queen Of The Desert film is on the verge of celebrating its silver anniversary and the stage show has also been entertaining audience for ten years. The iconic silver bus recently returned to old Sydney town with star Tony Sheldon, who has been entertaining audiences as Bernadette in various productions of the live show since its debut. Natalie Salvo sat down with Sheldon to talk about what it takes to play this old dame with such panache and class.

How long have you been working in the arts?

I made my debut at the age of seven on Graham Kennedy’s In Melbourne Tonight which means I’ve been an actor/writer/director/theatre archivist for 55 years.

Priscilla is such an iconic film and stage show. How do you feel about the story all these years on?

I’ve always loved the classic structure of a “road movie” where the principal characters go on a journey and find themselves in “fish out of water” situations with a variety of oddball encounters. But I’ve actually learned to appreciate the story of Priscilla more with the passage of time. It took me a while to realise how profoundly affected and moved audiences are by both the film and the musical and what a huge achievement that is for all the creatives involved.

Priscilla looks like an absolute joy to be a part of. What’s your favourite part of the show? The frocks? The songs? The dancing? Something else and why is this so?

Like any well-constructed musical, the songs, the design and the choreography are all equally integral to the success of the show so I couldn’t choose any individual element as a favourite. The most satisfying feeling is when an audience really gives itself over to the Priscilla experience and literally ROARS with delight at a line of dialogue or at the end of a number like “MacArthur Park”. And there’s nothing to beat the cheering that greets us at the end of every single performance. It’s worth all the sweat and strain and exhaustion!

Why do you think readers should come and see Priscilla?

I’ve always said that our secret weapon is that people don’t realise what a good show Priscilla is. Audiences invariably leave the theatre genuinely surprised by how much they loved it and usually book to come back and see it again. And again!

Australia has changed a lot in the intervening years since the film was first made and the first theatre production was staged. Is there anything you would change about the story or show? Why? Did you have much input in the creative decisions involved in this production?

We actually toned down a LOT of the rough language and politically incorrect material from the film when we first put together the musical but here we are twelve years later still being chastised for being culturally insensitive. The fact is that this is the story that Stephan Elliott wanted to tell, with these characters and these stereotypes in that particular time and place. He delights in shaking people up so, sure, we could remove all the material that shocks and offends certain sectors of the audience but then it wouldn’t be Priscilla.

My involvement with the musical began with the first workshop in Australia and continued through the West End and Broadway productions so I’ve seen how incredibly hard the creatives have worked to continually hone and improve the quality of the piece. And I’m eternally grateful that my background as a writer and director has always been respected and freely called upon. Our director Simon Phillips once christened me the “Taste Police” which thrilled me no end.

If money was no object and you could star opposite any actor living or dead in this show who would you choose and why?

After almost 1900 performances of this show around the world I have been blessed to work with the most glorious people, many of whom have become lifelong friends so I’m quite content. Although if Chips Rafferty were still around I’m sure he’d be perfect as Bob the mechanic.

What is the most challenging part of your role? What is the most enjoyable part of your role?

The most challenging part of playing Bernadette is making the audience forget that I’m a fella. And then just having the concentration and stamina to play this splendid dame eight times a week. She’s a true musical theatre leading lady, like Dolly or Mame, which makes her an utter delight to perform but you have to live the life of an athlete to do her justice.

Priscilla Queen of The Desert plays at Sydney’s Capitol theatre until 21 July. For more information and tickets please visit: priscillathemusical.com.au