Tony Sheldon Takes on Seven Questions About Amelie, Priscilla, & Overcoming Stage Fright
April 27th, 2017
by Josh Ferri
Tony & Olivier Award nominee Tony Sheldon returns to Broadway as the frail-boned painter Dufayel (who never finishes painting Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party) and the saucy grocer Collignon in the charming new musical Amelie. The Australian theatre mainstay made his Broadway debut to great acclaim as Bernadette in 2011's Priscilla Queen of the Desert. BroadwayBox caught up with Tony to talk about relating to Amelie, revisiting Priscilla, and overcoming severe stage fright.
1. What’s your favorite piece of art, and what speaks to you about it?
I've always loved anything by Toulouse-Lautrec, especially the depictions of his evenings at the Moulin Rouge. He brings to life an entire era of dancers and actors in performance, as well as the audience observing them, which I find thrilling because I've been a lifelong show business historian myself. Every image is so vibrant and immediate.
2. What’s a long-standing project in your life that you just can’t finish?
I've long wanted to write a film script about the four weeks I spent on Australia's Gold Coast when I was 15. My father had recently died, my mother booked a cabaret engagement there and wanted me along for company. Surfers Paradise was modeled on Miami's South Beach and was a pretty sexy happening place back in the '70s. Every night all the entertainers in town got together and partied until dawn in jazz clubs, drag clubs, and discos. Everyone slept with everyone, marriages were destroyed; I was regularly escorting a stunning transsexual who looked like Raquel Welch, and I was hurled off a boat into the ocean in a dinner suit I'd bought only that morning. Unfortunately, the stories are so shocking that I'll have to wait until everyone is dead.
3. What is it about Amelie that connects you most to this piece? What touches you about her journey?
I'm a chronically shy person, and I tend to lead the life of a shut in, especially when my partner of 38 years is away in Australia where he is based. Thanks to social media, I spend a lot of time wistfully watching the party going on outside so I empathize with Amelie and her spyglass. My partner and I were also brought together by three determined female friends who decided we were a perfect match so consequently "A Better Haircut" is one of my favorite songs in the show.
4. Do you ever miss Bernadette?
She's never far away! There are always productions of Priscilla opening around the world, and occasionally a friend will be cast in the role and I try to pass on a few helpful hints. There are fans who still send me momentos and photos, and hardly a week goes by without someone telling me how much the show has meant to them. I hope to play her again before I'm too old and infirm.
5. What did your long, international experience with Priscilla Queen of the Desert teach you about yourself?
I'm a third generation performer who started my career at the age of seven, and the five years of developing Priscilla showed me how firmly entrenched were the lessons and values I'd been taught about discipline and commitment. I discovered I had a lot of anger and intolerance towards any sort of unprofessional behavior, and I know I alienated a few people with my disapproval. I think by the time I got to New York I'd mellowed considerably.
6. What’s your process when you begin a new project?
Research, research, research. I'll read and watch anything and everything pertaining to the play I'm rehearsing. If I'm playing a real person, I'll read biographies and research the era in which they lived. When I was playing Da Vinci in Ever After at Paper Mill, I discovered that Leonardo was left handed so whenever I was sketching onstage I always used my left hand. I'm sure absolutely nobody noticed but I love those details. If it's a fictional character, then of course you have to take everything from the text, but if you're playing The Glass Man in Amelie it's helpful to do your homework on osteogenesis imperfecta.
7. Which Australian role challenged you the most? How did you find your way in to it eventually?
Dames at Sea in 1986 was a challenge because I had to learn how to tap dance proficiently in six weeks. I got the key to the rehearsal room and stayed behind by myself every night until I nailed every routine. Private Lives in 1997 came at a difficult time because I was at the lowest point in a long struggle with depression, and I felt I didn't deserve to be playing that marvelous role. That led to a severe case of stage fright which actually took a couple of years to overcome. But fortunately the production was a hit and I think I gave a creditable performance even while I was a gibbering broken wreck offstage.
Don't miss Tony Sheldon in Amelie at Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre.