After a West End run and two UK tours, Jason Donovan has passed on Drag Queen Tick's crown to TV Star Joe McFadden to take over Priscilla's wheel as producer. We caught up with the Australian actor and singer as the award-winning musical prepares for its journey to Blackpool.
Let’s talk about Priscilla, were you a fan of the original movie on its first release?
I was actually originally offered a lead role in the film having auditioned in London for Stephan Elliott, who wrote the piece, but a sequence of events at the time made it impossible to make it work. After that, I became quite good friends with the Executive Producer Michael Hamlin as well as Stephan, and funnily enough I was actually in Cannes when the film was launched so I saw what might have been. But it came full circle in the sense that I was cast in the stage production in 2010 and did two subsequent tours. I’ve got a real affection for the piece – the film was iconic but I think when they did the musical, they fine-tuned the story which is why it works so well. The opportunity to work on the show as a producer was a no-brainer for me. It’s a piece that I love, I think it’s of our time, it’s a modern musical and it’s something that I’m passionate about.
And how did the producing come about for this new production then?
I was in a production of The King’s Speech, working with a producer called Mark Goucher, and then I did Million Dollar Quartet with him and we struck up a good relationship. He came to me with the idea of me being involved in Priscilla as a producer, and that’s sort of where we’re at with the piece now.
And what’s it like being a producer? Are you enjoying that side of things?
I’m not going to lie to you, the general management of the piece is with Mark’s team, but I’m a producer that’s raised money for it, that’s been involved with marketing meetings each week, and that’s been involved in the casting and signing off with the set. In the same way that it’s not unusual to see Michael Ball produce a version of Hairspray or see Brad Pitt working to produce films, it’s not unusual to see actors who’ve got to a certain place in their career do what I’m doing now with Priscilla.
More generally, why do you think this story has become such a cult classic on stage as well as the original film?
I think it has universal themes of overcoming prejudice and adversity; it’s a modern musical, it’s not a 1950s piece. It tackles people wanting to be different and simultaneously the way in which we’re all really the same underneath. I think the music is great but it was born out of a great story too. So it’s not what I’d call your traditional jukebox musical.
You have to fit songs around the story.
Yeah exactly, and I believe they’ve done a great job with that, I really do. It works.
Photo: Darren Bell
And how fun was it to perform as a role?
Do you know what? Exhausting. It was like a pop concert each night. It’s modern, songs like ‘I Will Survive’ and ‘Finally’ are iconic pop anthems that are universally loved. I never got bored of performing it because it is such a great story. As an actor and a musician, and as a singer, you could twist in between the brilliance of the songs and the universality of the story and really get your teeth stuck into the piece.
Do you think our understanding of drag queen culture and trans identities has shifted in the years since it was first put on stage?
I think there’s a bit more acceptance of diversity. I think we’ve come a long way since the 80s and we’ve come a long way since the film. So on a level, yes, you’ve got things in America like Ru Paul’s Drag Race which is mainstream. I think the film and the musical have helped a bit in that shift.
Obviously you’ve had to hand over to a new cast, what’s it like seeing Joe McFadden taking on your part?
So far I’ve only seen Joe in rehearsal with the kids, Benji, for example, who plays the son in the piece. He’s a fantastic actor and his singing in rehearsal sounded great. I’ve got to be careful with interfering because I have an interpretation of how it should be done after performing it for so long, so I try and take a back seat! Having done it for so many years, I know all the rhythms of the piece, and as an actor you start to discover those as you rehearse and perform it. I think Joe is at the beginning of that process with this show.
Have you given him any advice or tips yet, or are you leaving him to try things out for himself?
No, I haven’t, it’s his job to interpret the character in the way that he sees fit. It’s not my job to tell him what to do – or anyone’s for that matter! But it’s a great cast. I really believe that if you cast something right, you can just let your actors get on with it.
Yeah the chemistry must be really important in this show…?
Yeah it is, particularly between the main three because that is what drives the piece, and I think we have that.
Wonderful, that’s great, thank you for chatting to me. And I hope the rest of it goes well!
Yeah, we’re keeping our fingers crossed, thank you!
Priscilla Queen of the Desert, is at Blackpool Opera House, 21st-26th October. Book tickets here.
Read how Strictly Star Joe McFadden has shimmied into Jason's shoes to play Tink.