Features NYC Features Published 3 February 2011

Recording Priscilla

Attending the Broadway cast recording.

Richard Patterson

Midtown Manhattan’s MSR Studios was awash with pink feather boas. The occasion? The recording of the original Broadway cast recording of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the international hit music making its debut on the main stem next month at the Palace Theatre, and exeunt was invited along for the ride.

Aiming to stay ahead of the curve, the Broadway production recorded its cast album before performances have even begun – a rare feat in an age when many shows are recorded late in their runs, after the show has already closed, or, sometimes, not at all.

The show, based on the 1994 film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, follows transsexual drag performer Bernadette (Tony Sheldon) and her drag queen cohorts, Tick (Will Swenson) and Felicia (Nick Adams), as they trek across the Australian outback toward a job in a distant town. The musical version features over 20 dance-floor hits from the past three decades, a number of which were featured in the original film. As our three central queens draw nearer and nearer their destination, they face violence from a rough-and-tumble gang and learn, by the end of their journey, to accept themselves so that others can accept them as well.

(From L to R) Priscilla’s divas Anastacia McCleskey, Jacqueline B. Arnold, and Ashley Spencer. Photo: Bruce Glikas/Broadway.com.

Because the show is set in the world of drag performance, lip-syncing features prominently in the proceedings. In a wise stroke of creative genius, the team behind the musical version have shied away from using canned music in favor of hiring a trio of female singers to play the Divas, the show’s vocal powerhouse girl group. Anastacia McCleskey, one of the show’s Divas, put it thusly: “We are mythical creatures that fly from the heavens like angels and lend our voices to the three leads.”

Despite the presence of the Divas, each of the three male leads has a chance to sing live in the show and appears on the album. The men don’t seem to begrudge the Divas’ dominance, however. As Will Swenson put it, “As a guy, it seems like whenever you’re wanting to do a show or taking voice lessons, you’re trying to sing higher and higher and sound more like a fierce black girl, with that great high pingy sound. To lip-sync to these girls is so fantastic, because you’re embodying this fantastic sound that’s coming out of them, but I don’t have to work at it, so it’s ingenious.”

This attitude isn’t laziness, however. In the drag world, lip-syncing is perhaps the pinnacle of all performance techniques. The Divas spend the majority of the show suspended in the air. McCleskey explained some of the difficulties involved in this high-wire act. “It’s taking some getting used to sitting in the harness, because you don’t do that every day. Singing in the harness, the harness slides up over your diaphragm.” When asked if the Divas ever envy their male counterparts, Ashley Spencer was quick to defend her girls. “I think we get pretty glammed up,” she told us. “There’s nothing to be jealous of.”


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Richard Patterson

A graduate of New York University with a degree in Dramatic Literature, Richard was deputy theatre editor at musicOMH.com from 2008-2011 and New York Editor of Exeunt from 2011-2016. He is excited to continue on as a contributor. With a penchant for Sondheim, the Bard, and Beckett, as well as for new writing, theatergoing highlights include Fiona Shaw's Winnie in "Happy Days," Derek Jacobi's Lear, Jonathan Pryce in "The Caretaker," and Chiwetel Ejiofor's Othello at the Donmar. Richard's criticism has been published in The Sondheim Review.