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The Actor from Down Under

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G’day, Your Highness: Tony Sheldon stars as King Pellinore in Theatre Under the Stars’s production of Camelot.

Tony Sheldon celebrates half a century in showbiz.
by Donalevan Maines
Photo by Kurt Sneddon/Blueprint Studios

“I Am Woman” singer Helen Reddy is actor Tony Sheldon’s aunt. Australian music star Toni Lamond is his mother. But in some circles, those Down Under ladies are now known as Tony Sheldon’s aunt and mum, following his Broadway success as Bernadette in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The 2011 Tony Award nominee for Best Leading Actor in a Musical arrives in Houston this month to play King Pellinore in Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot.

Sheldon, who was born in Sydney, Australia, is celebrating his fiftieth year in show business. For his seventh birthday, he explains, Sheldon’s father booked him on the late-night variety show he produced, In Melbourne Tonight. “It was like the local Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, or The Letterman Show,” says Sheldon. “There were no kids on late night, so I became an instant attraction. The letters flowed in.

“My father had to come up with something every night at 9:30, five nights a week,” says Sheldon. “Often, he would write stuff for me—I was singing, dancing, doing comedy stuff. It was fantastic training.”

Meanwhile, his mother is a popular performer, so as a child, Sheldon moved in celebrity circles in what sounds like an Aussie version of Liza Minnelli and her showbiz parents. “I thought everybody was in show biz,” he laughs. “In kindergarten, I would ask the others, ‘What show is your mommy in?’”

Lamond’s parents had been in vaudeville, too. “I became a showbiz historian,” says Sheldon, who has lectured at drama schools and continues to add to his knowledge of the theater.

“My first big commercial success, with my name above the title, was Torch Song Trilogy in 1984,” he says. “It was a joy to do—so challenging and groundbreaking. It ran for over a year. It was the longest-running straight play in Melbourne at the time.” Sheldon played Arnold Beckoff, winning a number of best-actor awards for the role that Harvey Fierstein penned and originated in New York.

Proving he could play more than gay roles, Sheldon won the Green Room Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical as the heterosexual psychiatrist Mendel in Falsettos. His wide-ranging repertoire also showcases triumphs in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, Stephen Sondheim’s Company and Into the Woods, Mel Brooks’s The Producers, Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, Paul Rudnick’s I Hate Hamlet, among many others.

Sheldon enjoyed working in Australian theaters and didn’t dream about hitting it big in America. “It’s weird,” he says. “My father died when I was eleven. My mother went to Los Angeles and stayed for twenty years. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to keep flying the flag for my family.”

Then came the opportunity to play Bernadette in what was planned as just
a ten-day workshop of a musical version
of the 1994 Oscar-winning film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. “It took me all around the world,” he says.

“Thank God for Skype,” adds Sheldon, explaining that “every morning and night” he has a video chat with his partner of thirty-three years, Australian actor and playwright Tony Taylor (“I’m surrounded by Tonys,” says Sheldon). Distance in their relationship poses a problem, but Sheldon is convinced that coming to America—by way of performances of Priscilla in London, New Zealand, and Toronto—is “the best decision” he’s ever made.

“I didn’t think this would happen,” he says, clutching his green card. “I’m the new boy in town,” meaning New York City. “I’m a great believer in moving forward and trying something new,” he adds.

When Sheldon returns from Houston to New York, he explains, “My mission will be to let people know I’m still here. I’ll sing a lot in cabarets around town and pick up the phone and say, ‘I would really like to work with you.’ In Australia, people knew me, so I didn’t have to audition. I took a lot for granted. I’m learning to be pro-active. It’s very energizing. It’s giving me a new lease on life.”

Camelot follows the love triangle of King Arthur, hisw queen Guinevere, and the young Lancelot in a land where honor and chivalry reign. Sheldon’s character in the show was originated on Broadway in 1960 by the late English actor Robert Coote, who also created the role of Colonel Pickering in the original Broadway production of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady in 1956. In addition to the popular title song, Camelot’s enchanting score includes the hauntingly romantic “If Ever I Would Leave You,” “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood,” and other tunes amid sweeping romance, historic grandeur, and heartbreaking drama.

What: Camelot
When: January 22–February 3
(Thursday, January 24: [email protected] post-show cast party—a cabaret-style event at Artista Restaurant for TUTS’s LGBT friends. Visit tuts.com/out for more info.)
Where: Sarofim Hall at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby
Info: Tickets, starting at $24, are available online at tuts.com, by phone at 713/558-TUTS (8887), outside the Houston area at 888/558-3882, or in person at the TUTS box office, 800 Bagby at Walker.

Donalevan Maines also writes about Tye Blue in this issue of OutSmart magazine.

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Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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