Tony Sheldon embraces Man of La Mancha
In Man of La Mancha, Miguel de Cervantes (Tony Sheldon) mounts a defence in the form of a play about Don Quixote. Photo: Michael FrancisIt takes a lot to lure Tony Sheldon away from New York, the city the Australian musical theatre actor has called home for four years. Not for quids would you imagine a star of this magnitude being drawn back to perform in an independent production in a theatre seating less than 150 people.
"And I even paid for my own flights!" Sheldon laughs.
But then, the chance to play the lead role in the Broadway classic Man of La Mancha doesn't come up very often. Sheldon thought it never would.
Tony Sheldon (left), best known for playing Bernadette in the musical Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, with Todd McKenney as Tick. Photo: Quentin Jones"It's one of the great roles for men of a certain age," Sheldon says, "but it's a role I never imagined I'd be asked to play. I always thought of it as one of those great roles that other people get to play."
First performed in 1965, Man of La Mancha is inspired by the extraordinary life of the 16th-century Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes and his greatest creation, the mad knight Don Quixote. Conceived as a play within a play, the story takes place in a Spanish prison, where Cervantes awaits trial and possibly a death sentence. Brought before a kangaroo court of his fellow prisoners, Cervantes mounts a defence in the form of a play about Don Quixote, whom he also plays.
"In real life Cervantes was beset by every kind of tragedy you can imagine," Sheldon says. "He was a failure for years. He fought in several wars and was seriously wounded, and once he was captured and sold into slavery for years. Yet in his late 50s – the same age I am – he wrote the story of a madman who was an eternal optimist, a man who lived in a world of illusion. It was about the triumph of dreams over harsh reality."
Tony Sheldon loves life in New York, but is happy to be back in Sydney. Photo: Cindy Ord, Getty ImagesThe coming Sydney production by the award-winning Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre (The Drowsy Chaperone) strips the Broadway show to basics. Everything takes place in a single prison cell. There is no orchestra either. Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion's Tony Award-winning score is played by the inmates on guitars and improvised percussion.
"I love that idea. It makes the show dangerous again," Sheldon says. "I think that's why I wanted to be involved. To have someone visualise me in that part is very flattering, but it gives me a chance to examine why I'm also quite scared of it. This will really push me. It's a very big singing role."
In the small Reginald Theatre at the Seymour Centre, the audience will feel as if it is locked in the cell with Cervantes. That intimacy is exciting for Sheldon. "There's a real edge of desperation there, because I'm playing a man who is literally fighting for his life. What actor can resist that?"
Tony Sheldon (right) with Matt Hetherington in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt SneddonPerforming in a small space will require a bit of "dialling down" for Sheldon, who is best known for playing Bernadette in the musical Priscilla: Queen of the Desert. Lately he has been working in some very large productions: at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, playing Colonel Pickering in My Fair Lady; in The Band Wagon in New York, with Tracey Ullman; and in Houston playing King Pellinore in Camelot.
Playing in a theatre as small as the Reginald will be like "coming home", Sheldon says. "My first roles were at the old Nimrod back in 1973, and I think that held only 80 people. But the job is always the same whatever size the theatre is: I'm always striving for truth and to be genuine."
Sheldon loves the New York life, but is happy to be back in the city, where his partner, actor Tony Taylor, and his mother, actress Toni Lamond, live. "I'm not what you'd call a star over there, but I don't regret going to New York for a minute," he says. "There's more work, more new material being workshopped. Had I stayed in Sydney, I don't honestly know what I would have done. A boy's got to make a living."
Coming back to summer has been delightful weather-wise ("It's absolutely freezing in New York") and a shock for someone accustomed to the American cost of living. "Everything's so expensive in Sydney. I can't believe it!" he says. "Even the basics, like food. It's outrageous, but I still love it."
Man of La Mancha is at the Seymour Centre from February 25 to March 21; $30-$49, 8065 7337, seymourcentre.com.
The `impossible' musicalEven if you know nothing about Man of La Mancha, chances are you know its signature song, The Impossible Dream. Composed by Mitch Leigh, it is one of the biggest hits to have crossed from Broadway to the pop charts. There are at least 70 recorded versions of it by artists ranging from Frank Sinatra and Andy Williams to Luther Vandross and Placido Domingo.
Singing it is a slightly terrifying prospect, Tony Sheldon says. "I don't consider myself a big belter. Singers like Jack Jones have done this role, so I'll be singing very much in character."
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