Theater

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

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.

  • Mitzi (Will Swenson), Bernadette (Tony Sheldon) and Felicia (Nick Adams) cross the Australian outback in a tour bus named Priscilla in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Inspired by a 1994 movie of the same name, the Broadway musical reinvents some of the film's iconic costumes, like the flip-flop dress worn by Swenson (left). The show features 500 costumes made by 18 production houses aroun...
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    Mitzi (Will Swenson), Bernadette (Tony Sheldon) and Felicia (Nick Adams) cross the Australian outback in a tour bus named Priscilla in Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Inspired by a 1994 movie of the same name, the Broadway musical reinvents some of the film's iconic costumes, like the flip-flop dress worn by Swenson (left). The show features 500 costumes made by 18 production houses around the world. (Photo by Joan Marcus).
  • The costume design team of Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner also added their own original creations to the musical, such as Felicia's bodysuit for the "Bus Top Aria" song. The costume and headdress, encased in Swarovski crystals, use a combination of violet, deep blue, and hematite crystal for the body definition, while classic crystals fill the highlights.
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    The costume design team of Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner also added their own original creations to the musical, such as Felicia's bodysuit for the "Bus Top Aria" song. The costume and headdress, encased in Swarovski crystals, use a combination of violet, deep blue, and hematite crystal for the body definition, while classic crystals fill the highlights.
  • Nick Adams, as Felicia, sits atop a six foot tall high heel on the roof of the Priscilla in the finished bodysuit for the "Bus Top Aria" song. Like the bodysuit, the shoe is fully covered in Swarovski crystals. (Photo by Joan Marcus).
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    Nick Adams, as Felicia, sits atop a six foot tall high heel on the roof of the Priscilla in the finished bodysuit for the "Bus Top Aria" song. Like the bodysuit, the shoe is fully covered in Swarovski crystals. (Photo by Joan Marcus).
  • An emu costume appeared in the song "Finally" at the end of the film version of Priscilla. The costumes use 295 ostrich feather plumes, and the dramatic eyelashes seen on this sketch would count among the 24 pairs used for each performance (the longest of which measures 3.5 inches).
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    An emu costume appeared in the song "Finally" at the end of the film version of Priscilla. The costumes use 295 ostrich feather plumes, and the dramatic eyelashes seen on this sketch would count among the 24 pairs used for each performance (the longest of which measures 3.5 inches).
  • This costume sketch, titled "Uluru," refers to the famous Uluru rock in the Australian desert.
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    This costume sketch, titled "Uluru," refers to the famous Uluru rock in the Australian desert.
  • Tony Sheldon, left, wears a completed costume inspired by the sketch in the previous slide. The feathery plumes in this photo are among the two hundred different hats and headresses that come across the stage in the musical. (Photo by Joan Marcus).
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    Tony Sheldon, left, wears a completed costume inspired by the sketch in the previous slide. The feathery plumes in this photo are among the two hundred different hats and headresses that come across the stage in the musical. (Photo by Joan Marcus).
  • The Bottle Brush Flower costume design sketch was also designed for the "Finally" song. A softer-cut type of glitter comes imported from Australia for the Broadway production, and the show goes through two pounds of it per month.
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    The Bottle Brush Flower costume design sketch was also designed for the "Finally" song. A softer-cut type of glitter comes imported from Australia for the Broadway production, and the show goes through two pounds of it per month.
  • One of the most memorable scenes of the movie features the "gumby" costume, where the three outback-traversing adventurers perform "I Will Survive" in bell-bottom pants and scuplted headresses.
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    One of the most memorable scenes of the movie features the "gumby" costume, where the three outback-traversing adventurers perform "I Will Survive" in bell-bottom pants and scuplted headresses.
  • The completed "gumby" costumes can reach eight feet in height, with the inclusion of the flower-studded headresses. (Photo by Joan Marcus).
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    The completed "gumby" costumes can reach eight feet in height, with the inclusion of the flower-studded headresses. (Photo by Joan Marcus).
  • Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner also created the original design of the cupcake costume for Priscilla's Broadway debut...
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    Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner also created the original design of the cupcake costume for Priscilla's Broadway debut...
  • ...and Magnolia Bakery created a pistacio cupcake with a meringue topper (inspired by Lizzie and Tim's costume) as the "official cupcake" of Priscilla Queen Of the Desert. Actor Thom Allison attended the unveiling, in full cupcake getup, in the New York bakery's shop.
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    ...and Magnolia Bakery created a pistacio cupcake with a meringue topper (inspired by Lizzie and Tim's costume) as the "official cupcake" of Priscilla Queen Of the Desert. Actor Thom Allison attended the unveiling, in full cupcake getup, in the New York bakery's shop.
    Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images

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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."

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