Shortly after the national tour of Priscilla Queen of the Desert launched in Minneapolis, someone in the show's wardrobe department wrote on Facebook, "I was just compared to Satan today by a local dresser, because our show is so difficult."
Priscilla, which won a Tony Award in 2011 for its costume designers, Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner (who also won an Oscar for the movie), is the kind of show that makes audiences gasp in delight at the wild creativity of its costumes — and has dressers and actors in something of a frenzy backstage due to the sheer magnitude and speed of the costume changes.
The musical (the tour route of which can be found at priscillaontour.com) follows the adventures of two drag queens and a transsexual as they ride their bus, Priscilla, through the Australian desert to a gig in a resort town. Not surprisingly the costumes are outrageous, wild, and plentiful — more than 500 in all — including cupcakes, lizards and paintbrushes. There are also 150 pairs of shoes, 60 wigs, and over 200 hats and headdresses that are spectacular in every sense of the word. It's one big riot of feathers, sequins, color and glitter.
"Backstage is crazy," says Bryan West, who, as Adam/Felicia, has 24 costume changes. "I've got one main dresser, but for the difficult changes that are about 30 seconds, there are usually four or five people surrounding me. Being on the road presents a whole new challenge because we're moving cities every week or two, so we have to introduce these changes to new people, and have to rehearse them before we open." West was a member of the ensemble on Broadway, where he also understudied Adam/Felicia. As a veteran of the show, he took it upon himself to act as an ambassador to the current cast, offering tips and encouragement. "It's really overwhelming when you're first learning the show," he says. "I remember what it was like being in the 'I Will Survive' number and wearing a headpiece that weighs about ten pounds, and trying to turn my head. It takes getting used to."
So does moving in high heels. "When I prepared for the show, I used to walk my dog in heels," West says. "At night, obviously; I was a little embarrassed to do it during the day. It's very difficult to make walking in heels look effortless, but I have to say it's been great for my leg muscles."
Many of the costumes are so huge that the first time the actors rehearse in them, they have to readjust the way they move. "The choreography gets swallowed up by what you're wearing," he says. "You have to make your moves ten times bigger than they were in the rehearsal studio. If you don't, it looks like you're just walking from place to place. So we had to amp everything up, make everything sharper. You can't turn your head super quickly, because the headpiece will keep moving and your head won't. So you want to make sure you're not hurting your neck or injuring yourself in your new shoes."
The costumes West wears now include a multicolored, flowered corset accessorized with a crazy headpiece, a tail of streamers, and boots capped by green feathers; and a skintight bodysuit made of silver sequins with built-in pecs and abs, topped by a headpiece that looks like icy flames. He says he enjoys every inch of them. "I feel really good in every costume I wear because I know the impact they make. And that gives me a lot of confidence when I put them on."
(This feature appears in the February 2013 subscription issue of Playbill.com. Want to subscribe?)