Interview: Jason Donovan – 'there are very few shows that come along where the glove fits and this is one of them'
Back on the road for Priscilla’s second UK tour, the Australian actor shares the ingredients for a great musical and his enduring love for the Queen of the Desert
If life was like a musical, there would be no more stilted conversations or feeling lost for words. Every time you struggled to communicate how you felt, you could simply burst into song. It’s a quality that Jason Donovan came to miss on his recent UK tour with The King’s Speech.
‘It’s a wonderful play,’ says Donovan, ‘but by the end of it, I was shouting out for a song. The power of music takes you on an emotional journey and so can words, but sometimes music says a lot more in a shorter amount of time than dialogue can.’
Since he first burst into the public domain in 1985 (playing Kylie’s lovable boyfriend, Scott in Neighbours), Donovan’s career has been more diverse than most. Running alongside pop singing, he’s worked in television soap, drama and reality shows, film, stage plays, musicals and even a regular slot DJing on Heart radio.
But hearing him talk about the ‘power of music’, I’m wondering if that’s Donovan’s first love?
‘No, acting is definitely my first love,’ he says. ‘Music can put you into a place that’s different from what we do every day, which is talk, and usually musicals are uplifting. But personally, I think a musical is worthless unless the acting is really good. Telling the story is the most important thing and not everybody can do that, otherwise every person who came out of the X Factor would be a musical star.’
Donovan’s own relationship with musicals dates back to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat in 1991, which not only made him a West End star, but provided him with a number one single, 'Any Dream Will Do'.
Since then, the Australian has been seen treading the boards in The Rocky Horror Show, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Sweeney Todd and The Sound of Music. So he’s well placed to comment on why Priscilla Queen of the Desert – a show he’s been associated with since joining the London cast in 2009 – has had such an enduring appeal over the past ten years.
‘I think there’s an audience out there that’s looking for something different from Cats or The Lion King or another version of Les Miserables,’ says Donovan. ‘They’re all incredible musicals that stand the test of time, but people are also looking for something modern. Priscilla has an edge, and I think the reason it works, is it’s a great story with very strong characters. The story began before the music was put on top of it, and I would almost argue that the musical is a more rounded piece of work than the film.’
The show started life in 1994, as the Oscar-winning film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. A heart-warming tale of three performers who trek across the Australian outback in a campervan (which they affectionately call ‘Priscilla’), to deliver a drag act in Alice Springs.
A musical adaptation was born in Sydney in 2006, before opening on the West End and Broadway to great acclaim. Filled with such hit songs as 'I Will Survive', 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun' and 'Boogie Wonderland', the show also features some of the most outlandish (and award-winning) costumes known to musical theatre.
Donovan plays drag queen Mitzi Mitosis – real name Anthony ‘Tick’ Belrose – whose ulterior motive for the journey is to reacquaint himself with his 8-year-old son. After taking on the role in London, Donovan reprised it for the 2013 UK tour and is now back to do it all over again, sharing the part on intermittent nights with Duncan James of Blue fame. So clearly something keeps drawing Donovan back to the Priscilla fold.
‘There are very few shows that come along where the glove fits and this is one of them,’ he says. ‘I’ve always said I’m not a vocal gymnast, I’m not a big musical singer, my strength is my acting. But I can hold a melody, and I think this show plays to all of those strengths.
‘Plus it’s an Australian story, and I have a history with this show going right back to the film. And when there’s a real energy in the auditorium from the audience during Priscilla, it really kicks off.’
Priscilla Queen of the Desert comes to The Edinburgh Playhouse Tue 15 Dec 2015 to Sat 2 Jan 2016.