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."
Fortunately, for the recording session, the women were unimpeded by harnesses. McCleskey and her fellow Divas, Ashley Spencer and Jacqueline B. Arnold, were free of their glam costumes (McCleskey told us "pink and purple and white eyeshadow and big lashes, big hair, beautiful dresses, tight corsets, long trains" are the norm). Their voices, however, were in fine form, however, as we got a chance to step into the recording booth and hear the ladies lay down a few tracks.
First, Spencer shone during the recording of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. Then the girls took on the show's finale, CeCe Peniston's Finally, a song that has a special place in McCleskey's heart. "I grew up on that song," she told us. "I grew up on pretty much all the music in the show. I remember hearing that song when I was about eight years old. I was playing a basketball game, and they played it at halftime, and I was like, 'What is this?' That's when I knew I was going to be a singer."
Of course, the challenge of a recording session as intricate as this one - with a cast of about 25 - is to coordinate the vocals accordingly, particularly when the songs in question are such recognizable disco classics. For the recording of Finally, the ladies, each in fine voice, were having issues staying on pitch as a group. Each was singing at the top of her game, but the monitoring system, which allows the ladies to hear each other as they lay down the tracks (each sings in a separate booth), were somehow off. After some tweaking, the previous pitch problems were a thing of the past.
Next up were Shake Your Groove Thing, another showcase for the Divas, and It's Raining Men, which allows velvety-voiced Jacqueline B. Arnold to take center stage. Up in the booth, co-producer Frank Filipetti was manning the board, showing off his signature disco moves, passing around spicy toothpicks to anyone interested. The show's orchestrator, musical supervisor, and arranger (not to mention the album's co-producer) Stephen "Spud" Murphy" manned the computer, keeping track of the musical score and checking pitch and tempo.
Arnold spoke highly of Murphy, the musical mastermind behind the show's pop music fabulosity. "Spud Murphy is an amazing human being, and he as a musician likes purity," she told us. "There was nothing wrong with the originals, so why mess it up too much, I think, is the theory. His arrangement of all of the songs are fantastic." She also emphasized the importance of her vocal regimen. "As a vocalist, it is much better for me to start to train my vocal cords and let them know what I'm doing every day, so even if I'm hoarse speaking I can click into those notes at any given time. It's a good thing to be able to know you have something sitting in your pocket, and you know how to get to it."
Now, if the vocally stunning Divas, with their high-glam shenanigans, are essentially drag queens themselves, hyperreal embodiments of drag perfection, it's curious that some of the show's male stars have yet to take to drag outside of work. Though Swenson had slipped into a dress momentarily for several other previous roles, he found himself researching for this role by going out in drag whilst performing in Hair in London, calling the experience "enlightening."
"We went to a couple of gay clubs and a couple of straight clubs, and then we walked down the street and just wanted to experience the whole gamut," said Swenson. "It's a very specific skill set," Nick Adams told us, "but it's not what I do." Adams, who's performed in a number of Broadway shows previously, including A Chorus Line, Guys and Dolls, and La Cage aux Folles, steps into his first leading role in Priscilla. "It's the most responsibility I've ever had, but it's what I want to do."
Adams is quick to dispel easy comparisons between La Cage and Priscilla. "They're night and day. This show couldn't be more different than La Cage aside from the fact that there are men dressed as women." Costar Tony Sheldon supported this notion. Sheldon, who's performed in the Australian, New Zealand, London, and Toronto incarnations of the show - the only performer to have remained with the cast since the original workshop - plays transsexual Bernadette in the show and seems to be having a blast.
"We're very different from the film," he told us. "The film had the desert, which we don't have. What we've done is turned it into a fantasy version of the desert, so the songs are now in the forefront. But I felt a great responsibility to the integrity of the characters and the script. There's not been a show that's dealt with two gay guys and a transsexual in hostile territory. We're not La Cage, where the lead characters are an accepted part of society. We're dealing with people getting bashed and threatened, so it's a very dangerous area we're getting into, and I just wanted to make sure we stayed true to the original story in that regard."
The stars of the show are also happy the show is making a difference to the LGBT community. "I never anticipated the show to touch people the way it does," Nick Adams told us. "Christmas Eve this year, I got an email from a girl who said she was about to take her life, came to see the show, and it totally turned her life around, and to know that I'm not just entertaining someone for two and a half hours, having a great time doing it, it actually is affecting people in that community and outside of the LGBT community as well."
McCleskey seconded this notion. She told us, "I really hope that the community accepts what we're doing on stage and agrees that we're doing the community justice. It's very important, especially with things that are going on in America right now - Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Prop 8. It's very important that we get this message across. It's nice to do it through the songs of the show and the storyline, because I feel like, if people hear the music and they really have a good time and then they see the story and the journey, that they're able to understand that these are important issues that need to be handled properly, and that everybody has the right to have their rights and to have their voices heard."
Sheldon reminded us, however, that "the show is not being marketed as a gay show. If the gay community does embrace us, that is a bonus, because the show is certainly not a niche show. Our audience around the world has been straight women, who come and see the show over and over and over again. They bring their friends and then ultimately drag their husbands along, and then their kids. So it's never felt like we were simply being aimed at a niche audience at all, but if they're prepared to welcome us, I couldn't be more thrilled."
Fortunately, the voices of the cast of Priscilla Queen of the Desert will soon be available to all of us to purchase, and the cast seemed more than thrilled at the prospect of sharing their efforts. McCleskey told us, "It's nice to have people come to the previews and buy our voices, what they see on stage every night and hear, instead of another cast."
Priscilla Queen of the Desert's original Broadway cast recording will be available on March 15, 2011 at all retail outlets, including www.rhino.com, for a suggested list price of $18.98 (CD) and $11.99 (digital).
Priscilla Queen of the Desert begins previews at the Palace Theatre on February 28. Its official opening will be March 20, 2011. Tickets are available by calling Ticketmaster at 1-800-745-3000 or online at www.ticketmaster.com.