Before he became famous, Hugh Sheridan considered applying for the Musical Theatre course at the WA Academy of Performing Arts.
The course is the best in the country for “triple threat” performers in singing, dancing and acting. But Sheridan was already skilled in singing, thanks to the talents of his father, big band jazz singer Dennis Sheridan, and set his sights on NIDA instead.
“My dad was a singer so I grew up with that and that’s why I thought I probably needed to concentrate on the acting more than anything which was probably a good choice in retrospect,” he explains.
The rest, as they say, is history.
He found fame as Ben Rafter on Seven’s hit drama series which he has now departed, in order to sign with TEN, hosting talent series I Will Survive. Here is surrounded by seasoned music theatre troupers, including graduates from the WA Academy, all of whom are now seeking commercial fame.
“There are 12 guys we take on the road who are auditioning for Priscilla Queen of the Desert. So I think that in itself is a great gimmick and a great starting point for any TV show, let alone the fact that we’re also mentoring them, having celebrity judges and going to these extraordinary outback towns where they’ve never had anything like it before,” he says.
“They arrive and do a flash mob, which is entertaining because the people in the town are always quite surprised to see guys in full costume and make-up dancing down the street.”
Reliving scenes from Priscilla the 12 performers are coached in drag performance with a view to a showcase opportunity in New York and a $250,000 cash prize.
The boys perform solo numbers for guest mentors, and judges Stephan Elliott (Priscilla creator) and Jason Donovan.
“It would be scary singing for Kelly Rowland, Toni Colette, Rachel Griffiths or Asher Keddie because you’re performing for someone who’s such an acclaimed star. So they’re judged on that and the bottom 3 take the lead on the final performance and whoever impresses them the least gets left behind with their suitcase and the bus drives off.”
Unlike many other reality talent shows, the 12 come to the project with performing experience and none of the naivete of raw talent forums.
“They’re not looking for a recording contract with SONY. They’re not the sort of people who would audition for Australian Idol. They’re people who have come to this show specifically for the opportunity it will bring to work in musical theatre,” says Sheridan.
“They’re people who are good at 2 of the 3 and need work on the third.
“Part of it is about the mentoring through the show, so that whoever wins will essentially be a great triple threat.”
TEN is hoping if the series works it can apply the the same talent discovery process to other theatrical vehicles, just as the UK has done with The Sound of Music, The Wizard of Oz and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
But will basing the first season on a hit movie about drag queens resonate to a broad TV audience?
Sheridan reminds us ‘drag’ can be widely interpreted, beyond its male-as-female roots.
“Sometimes they have unusual costumes like Australian flora and fauna. Regardless they always look very out of place,” he explains.
“They’re not by any means drag queens but they are actors but if they want to be actors in a show like Priscilla then that’s part of it. Drag queens are great characters. As people know they’re ruthless, loud and out there and that’s why they have these challenges.
“Some of the contestants repeatedly and jokingly tried to get me to do it, and I said “Guys if I had that prize at the end of course I would.” But unfortunately I don’t so, you’re not paying me enough!”
Sheridan says watching the way some of the outback towns embraced the drag element was uplifting. There wasn’t any homophobia from the communities in rural NSW and South Australia.
“One of the things that drew me to it was that I was intrigued to see how people would react to this,” he says.
“Whether they’d be interested at all, or whether there would be any prejudice against it. It astounded me how much people love it. These guys aren’t drag queens, they’re actors, singers and dancers but the people in the communites just take to it. By the time we leave they were always begging us to stay and saying what a great time they’ve had.
“In a way it really made me proud of them. When you see the movie there’s a prejudice there but it just wasn’t there on the trip. Maybe a bit of confusion about what’s going on at the start, but the response was overwhelmingly positive.
“When we left Cobar one woman was in tears saying ‘You’ve just brought so much to our town. When I tell people I’m from Cobar they say Hobart? You’re going to put us on the map.’ For me that was a bonus to this whole experience. I never expected to feel like that. I was expecting the opposite, thinking they would be throwing bottles. But instead it became a really beautiful experience that was giving something to these communities.
“Most of them work in mines and they’re not living in the city where they’re exposed to this and it becomes a way of life.
“It’s a weird thing to say but I felt proud of them. What an amazing country we live in where these people embrace craziness in any form and they’re just happy that it’s happening.”
I Will Survive premieres 7pm Wednesday August 22nd.