BWW Interviews: Getting to know MY FAIR LADY'S Tony Sheldon
Tony and Olivier nominated actor Tony Sheldon is best known for playing more than 1,200 performances as Bernadette in PRISCILLA - QUEEN OF THE DESERT in Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, West End and Toronto prior to the Broadway premiere in March 2011.
Sheldon also received nominations for Theatre World, Drama Desk, Drama League and Outer Critic's Circle awards for that role. Impressive resume--and that's just one show! Sheldon, however, has had a storied career in theatre and BroadwayWorld.com Minneapolis wanted to know more about this esteemed actor as he takes the stage as Colonel Pickering in the Guthrie Theater's summer musical, MY FAIR LADY, directed by Joe Dowling. Sheldon took the time to share more about himself,his Guthrie debut and what he thinks of Minneapolis.
Tell us a little bit about your background and what lead you to the Guthrie Theater to play Colonel Pickering in MY FAIR LADY.
I'm an actor/writer/director from a well-known Australian showbusiness family and I've been performing since I was seven years old. I came to the United States three years ago playing a lead role in the Australian musical PRISCILLA - QUEEN OF THE DESERT. I now live in New York so I get the chance to audition for regional theatres all over the country. Most recently I played Horace Vandergelder in HELLO, DOLLY! at the Goodspeed Opera House for which I won the Connecticut Critics' Circle Award, King Pellinore in CAMELOT at Kennedy Center and now here I am at the Guthrie!
This is your first Guthrie production -- what did you know of the company before you started on this show and what have you learned about it since you came to Minneapolis to rehearse?
I had certainly known of the Guthrie back home in Australia as one of the most respected theatres in America because Sir Tyrone Guthrie had directed plays in Sydney when I was a young actor. But everyone I've spoken to who has ever worked here has nothing but praise for the theatre and the people who work here. And they were all quick to point out that I'm very lucky to be here during the summer rather than winter. What I wasn't expecting was the sheer magnitude of the company and its daily operations. The scenery and costume shops alone are a marvel to behold and it has been so impressive watching MY FAIR LADY being built from scratch. And, of course, the theatre complex itself is spectacular and welcoming.
Talk about your character, Col. Pickering, and your motivation during this production - what do you like or love about this character? Is there anything you chose to do differently than past performers you've seen in the role? Do you see him more than just side-kick to the professor?
Colonel Pickering is a retired British Army gentleman who has studied Indian dialects and written a book called "Spoken Sanskrit," He has returned to London in the hope of meeting the famed dialectitian Henry Higgins and their paths cross inadvertently at Covent Garden, where they also encounter the flower girl Eliza Doolittle. Pickering is the catalyst who makes a bet with Higgins that he can't pass off Eliza as a duchess at the Embassy Ball but he also has multiple functions within the musical. He tries (unsuccessfully) to act as Higgins' moral compass, he is a father figure to Eliza and an intermediary with Mrs. Higgins, Henry's mother. There's not much room to maneuver in terms of characterization; we're told he's older than Higgins, a military man and a bit of a blustery bore. But at the audition I made the production team laugh a lot so I decided to focus on finding the comedy in the role, which has been a lot of fun. My responsibility as a performer is to react truthfully to the other characters onstage and when they're played by the likes of the brilliant Helen Anker, Jeff McCarthy, Donald Corren, Melissa Hart and Angie Timberman, it makes my job very easy indeed.
You're well known for your many performances in PRISCILLA - QUEEN OF THE DESERT. What was it like playing Bernadette for 1,200 performances?
It was actually 1,750 all told! In Australia, New Zealand, London, Toronto and, ultimately, Broadway where, I'm proud to say, I never missed a performance. It was a fascinating experience being with a musical from the very first 10-day workshop when we didn't even have a script or songs to work with and watching it grow into a global phenomenon. I took the job solely because I wanted to work with the director, Simon Phillips, and it turned out to be a life-changing experience in so many ways. It was as if everything in my life and career had prepared me to be ready for this opportunity, mentally and physically. I'd never worked outside of Australia before and even though there was a lot of pressure on Simon and the producers to cast an international star as Bernadette they stayed loyal to me. As a result I was the first Australian to star on Broadway in an Australian musical in a role he'd created. Even Hugh Jackman didn't originate the role of Peter Allen in THE BOY FROM OZ so in a tiny way I made history. I won a Theatre World Award and was nominated for the Tony and Olivier Awards, I have my picture on the wall of Sardi's restaurant so I decided I'd better move to NYC permanently because this opportunity would most likely never present itself again.
You've also had many other roles in your career; what has been your favorite theatre experience and why?
In a career spanning 50 years I couldn't possibly choose one favorite experience, or even a handful. Countless productions have introduced me to people who became lifelong friends so I cherish those. I met my beloved partner of 35 years in a musical. I appeared in original Australian plays in the '70s that went on to become classics, frequently revived and studied in schools. I had shows written for me, tailored on me by gifted playwrights and directors. I had the joy of performing several Sondheim musicals, COMPANY being my favorite, but I also directed a one-night only concert version of FOLLIES for the Melbourne International Arts Festival with the cast of my dreams. Whenever I've been cast in a play by Shakespeare, Chekhov, Tennessee Williams, Noel Coward, Eugene O'Neill, Tom Stoppard, Neil Simon or Wendy Wasserstein, I've had to pinch myself. Every show has been a blessing in some way.
Have you been to Minneapolis or played here before this? What do you think of the city thus far?
I've never been to Minneapolis and I'm totally charmed. It reminds me of Melbourne or Toronto, both cities I love. I don't drive so whenever I arrive in a strange city I learn the public transport system very quickly, often jumping on buses at random to see where they'll take me. I arrived here a week before the Green Line opened so I've loved travelling on the light rail doing touristy things like Minnehaha Falls and the Mall of America. I'm looking forward to sampling some of the restaurants I've heard about and I can't wait for the State Fair in August because I've never been to one!
Please give our readers a little "insider" information about something they should watch for on stage at the Guthrie when they attend MY FAIR LADY - a moment that they should watch for or a secret of the production that only the actors would know but would enhance the experience?
Because we're using a smaller cast than usual for MY FAIR LADY it's fun to watch our company doubling or tripling roles in the production numbers. You never know who is under some of those wigs and beards. And there seems to be an enormous amount of food on our set: fruit, vegetables, chocolates and delicious cakes all lovingly crafted by our brilliant props department. Keep an eye out for those, they are truly works of art.
MY FAIR LADY runs through Aug. 31 on the Wurtele Thrust Stage. For more information, visit www.guthrietheater.org.
Photo: Helen Anker (Eliza Doolittle) and Tony Sheldon (Colonel Pickering) in MY FAIR LADY at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Photo by Joan Marcus