Sat March 19, 2011
Monkey See

Furs, Feathers and Finding The Fabulous With 'Priscilla's' Bernadette

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:05 am

Yesterday, we brought you a few words from Priscilla Queen of the Desert co-star Will Swenson, a square-jawed, dark-haired actor whose Tick is kind of the Don Draper of drag queendom.

But with a show about three big personalities trekking across the Australian Outback in a pink bus called Priscilla, there's plenty of glitter still to go around. On Weekend Edition Sunday, just in time for the show's official opening, Jeff Lunden takes listeners on a tour of the fabulous; he talks to director Simon Phillips, co-star Tony Sheldon (who plays the trio's aging-star den mother, Bernadette) and co-costumer Lizzy Gardiner, whose designs for the 1994 film won her an Oscar. (You remember: She was the lady in the Amex dress.)

That WeSun audio will show up in the player above after it's broadcast. Meantime, here's a couple of Tony Sheldon quotes that didn't make Jeff's on-air cut — and above, a gallery of costumes and costume sketches from a show that might just go down in Broadway legend as a high-water mark in the history of glamtacular.

On the real-life inspiration for Bernadette: "Bernadette ... was a big star in the '60s at a club, a real club called Les Girls. She [had] the first public sex-change in Australia; she was front-page news. She was extremely beautiful, in a sort of Raquel Welch glamor-girl way. And the shows at Les Girls were where all the American tourists — and during the Vietnam War, all the American soldiers — used to come and hang out. And they would buy those girls champagne; they would fall in love with those girls. They were drop-dead gorgeous."

On finding the character: "A lot of drag queens in Australia work as costumiers — they sew clothes for theater productions during the day, so I knew them all through work, or socially. ... All I had to do was make a bit of a composite of some of the best parts — or the worst parts — of those ladies. The best part was opening night: About five of them all came to me, individually, and said, 'I know you're playing Bernadette, but I know you based it on me.' And I said, 'Of course I did.' To all of them, I said that."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.



For the past couple of decades, some of Broadways biggest hits and biggest flops have been based on movies. For every "Lion King," theres a "Footloose" or an "Urban Cowboy." A new adaptation of the quirky independent Australian film, "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" is opening tonight. And it has some built-in challenges: How can you portray the story of three drag performers who cross the vast outback in a beat-up bus onstage?

Jeff Lunden is our tour guide to the fabulous.

(Soundbite of overture, "I Love the Nightlife")

JEFF LUNDEN: Five years ago, Simon Philips, the artistic director of the Melbourne Theatre Company, got a call, asking him if he wanted to turn "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" into a musical. And he thought it was a pretty terrific idea.

Mr. SIMON PHILLIPS (Artistic Director, Melbourne Theatre Company): I always thought it was kind of born to be a musical. That film, theres not actually a lot of music in it but, you know, its the nature of it. And also, born to be a jukebox musical, 'cause drag is, you know, its the original jukebox musical, really.

LUNDEN: The drag performers in the movie lip-sync to popular disco hits. In the stage version, three female singers identified only as the Divas fly in from above, to sing them live.

(Soundbite of song, "Its Raining Men")

Ms. ANASTACIA McCLESKEY, ASHLEY SPENCER, JACQUELINE B. ARNOLD (Actors/Singers): (as Divas) (Singing) It's raining men, hallelujah. It's raining men, amen. I'm going to go out. I'm going to let myself get absolutely soaking wet...

LUNDEN: Simon Philips says he and his collaborators combed through the screenplay, to identify where music would underline the emotional beats in the story.

Mr. PHILLIPS: The big production numbers kind of replace those big desert pans of the film, you know? And the ballads are the close-ups.

LUNDEN: For instance, when Tick, one of the drag artists, sings about wanting to see his son, who lives in far-away Alice Springs, the song is a Burt Bacharach/Hal David ballad.

(Soundbite of song, I Say A Little Prayer")

Mr. Will Swenson (Actor): (as Tick/Mitzi) (Singing) The moment I wake up, before I put on my makeup, I say a little prayer for you.

LUNDEN: But director Simon Philips says, not every song in the show is used purely to advance the plot.

Mr. PHILLIPS: We always did go with a kind of a drag-like ethos for the show; that if we felt like doing a production number, we were damn well going to do one, you know? (

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PHILLIPS: And don't ask why.

LUNDEN: One of the loopiest moments in "Priscilla" is "MacArthur Park," after two characters sleep outside of the bus and leave a cake out in the rain.

(Soundbite of song, "MacArthur Park")

Mr. TONY SHELDON (Actor): (as Bernadette) I've waited my entire life for this.

(Singing) Someone left the cake out in the rain. I don't think that I can take it, 'cause it took so long to bake it and I'll never have that recipe again. Oh, no.

LUNDEN: Before long, the entire chorus appears in cupcake costumes, says Tony Sheldon, an award-winning Australian actor who plays Bernadette, the transgender performer.

Mr. SHELDON: Its the first time I have laughed out loud at seeing costume designs on paper.

LUNDEN: The outrageous and witty costumes are designed by Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, who won an Academy Award for their work on the original movie. Gardiner, who famously wore a dress made entirely of American Express Gold Cards to the Oscars, says the pair had only $15,000 to design and make all the outfits in the film.

Ms. LIZZY GARDINER (Costume Designer): Some of those costumes, it was just hilarious. They would last for two takes of the film and then, they would just like, fall to pieces.

Ms. McCLESKEY, SPENCER, ARNOLD: (as The Divas) (Singing) 'Cause it took so long to bake it and I'll never have that recipe again. Oh, no.

LUNDEN: For the musical, Chappel and Gardiner have a $1.5 million budget. There are 380 costumes, made by 150 people all over the world, and an army of dressers backstage. Gardiner says its allowed them to dream big, like their designs for the act one finale "I Will Survive." It features multi-colored jumpsuits, big headdresses and impossibly high platform shoes. Gardiner calls them Gumbies, after the old claymation series.

Ms. GARDINER: Theyre a riotously fantastic costume. And its a great moment when the three of them come out onstage. And then, when the chorus comes out, its just like I can hear the audience just audibly going: Oh, my God.

(Soundbite of song, "I Will Survive")

Ms. McCLESKEY, SPENCER, ARNOLD: (as The Divas) (Singing) So now you're back from outer space. I just walked in to find you here with that damn look upon your face. I should've changed that stupid lock. I should've made you leave the key, if I'd known for just one second you'd be back to bother me. Go on now, go. Walk out the door. Just turn around now, cause you're not welcome anymore. Weren't you the one who tried to hurt me with goodbye? You think I'd crumble? You think I'd lay down and die? Oh no, not I. I will survive. Oh, as long as...

LUNDEN: Tony Sheldon has played the transsexual Bernadette in Sydney, Auckland, London, Toronto and now New York. He says the show wins over all kinds of audiences not just because of its high energy and exotic over-the-top designs. They end up identifying with the characters.

Mr. SHELDON: Theres sort of not a lot that the audience has in common with them when the show begins. But as the show goes on, you realize theyre perfectly ordinary people, who just want to get through the outback without any mishap.

LUNDEN: "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" opens tonight at the Palace Theatre on Broadway.

For NPR News, Im Jeff Lunden in New York.

Ms. McCLESKEY, SPENCER, ARNOLD: (as The Divas) (Singing) I know I'll stay alive...

HANSEN: To see a slide show of Gumbies, cupcakes and many more of the musicals costumes, go to NPR.org Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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