Tony Sheldon takes to the stage of the Lyric Theatre eight times a week in The Producers as an insane, cross-dressing homosexual director who ends up starring as Adolf Hitler in a musical about the Third Reich.
As Roger DeBris, Sheldon stops the show with his crazed antics, pitch-perfect timing and deranged song and dance routines like Keep It Gay. His performance has won over both audiences and critics, some of whom have called it Sheldon’s best work.
But The Producers, written by comedy legend Mel Brooks, trades heavily on stereotypes. With the high camp hysterics of Roger and the limp-wrist swishing of his partner Carmen, many gay audiences found The Producers a little hard to cope with when it opened in New York in 2001 and in Melbourne last year. And Sheldon admits he was one of them.
Nathan Lane (who starred in the show on Broadway) once said that Mel Brooks seems to think of gay people as some strange exotic Martians -“ he does not perceive them as normal people, and that is what he has put on stage. That is what was also in the movie, but it was funnier in 1968 before we all became socially aware.
Now, it is an anachronism and people do find it offensive. My problem was it was so stereotypical and one-dimensional and it made it uninteresting to play. He is a one-trick pony and finding what was funny took work.
Sheldon is chatting in his dressing room in the cavernous maze behind the stage of the Lyric Theatre before an evening performance. Almost one wall of the room is covered by photos of other actors who have also played his role around the world.
This is my Roger DeBris wall, Sheldon says proudly. I have been in contact with some of the other actors as I needed to know these people were going through the same experiences with him as I was. I call this my Roger Support Group, he laughs. It is a case of, -˜Hello, my name is a Roger DeBris, and I am an anachronism!’
I had to find all those aspects that I could colour him in and that would get me away from playing a screaming queen -“ and that is all I was initially given to play.
But once Sheldon was finally allowed to have his way with the role, and created a dynamic with Grant Piro as Roger’s partner, the show finally began to exhibit a style which suited Sheldon’s own sensibilities.
What Grant and I have tried to do is find an inner life to these people. If you can infuse it with the love these characters have for each other and with a bit of self respect, it works. It takes a lot of charm and you have to win the audience over.
As DeBris, it is the second time in his career 49-year-old Sheldon has stepped into a frock for a long-running show. Back in 1984, he played the lovelorn drag queen Arnold in the play Torch Song Trilogy.
Torch Song Trilogy portrayed a defiantly proud gay man who refused to adhere to convention. It broke new ground in Australian theatre for its unrelentingly honest portrayal of gay characters. I think if I knew then I would be playing a character like Roger today, I would have been appalled, he laughs.
While the show was a hit and ran for years, Sheldon recalls it was slammed at the time by gay critics who accused it of being unrealistic in its portrayal of the ambitions of gay people.
The gay press hated it and were horrified a gay character wanted to get married, adopt a child and have a domestic life. We were condemned by so many in gay circles, but the irony is that now everyone wants to get married, have children and have a domestic life. I have had a huge laugh watching the whole thing come full circle.
Sheldon has lived in the limelight since he was born to theatre diva Toni Lamond and TV producer Frank Sheldon. At age seven, he was one of the stable of stars on In Melbourne Tonight, alongside Graham Kennedy.
While he has starred on stage and TV in a variety of musical, dramatic and comedy roles, he made headlines in 1989 when he spoke out about a pink list kept among Australian agents, banning gay actors or anyone who had played gay roles.
Sheldon’s comments caused a furore, with claims of discrimination by gay groups and denials made by agents and producers. Whatever the truth of the situation, Sheldon says his career changed dramatically for the better in the aftermath.
I suppose it was brave, but it got me into a hell of a lot of trouble for talking about it, he recalls. But it was interesting that those same people who kept the list and would not see me were suddenly sending me for every job that came along after that.
I am not a political animal and did not want to be a spokesperson for gay actors in Australia, but no one else was saying anything about it at the time. The fact is I have never been in the closet and have never had to lie about my personal life. I have been happily in a relationship for 26 years with a man and everyone knows it, so it is not going to hurt my career.
But times have changed. Gay people now have a high visibility in the arts and on TV. There is less stigma than there was. That’s not to say I would be happy to play gay roles for the rest of my life, because I would not. I don’t want to play gay roles just because they are gay. I want to play interesting characters, whatever their sexuality is. I became an actor for a reason.
The Producers is now playing the Lyric Theatre, Star City. Bookings: 9266 4886.