Show of Strength
Priscilla Queen Of The Desert’s Nick Adams High-Kicks from Chorus Boy to Lead and Creates A New AIDS Fundraising Technique
by Dann Dulin
His first time to this theater, he’s spellbound at its splendor and its history. He watches a performance of All Shook Up, whose star, Cheyenne Jackson, captivates him. A musical theater student at Boston Conservatory, he dreams that one day he, too, will work on the Broadway stage. That was Nick Adams in 2005.
His dream came true.
Nick’s currently starring on Broadway in the high-energy, disco-infused musical, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, located—where else?—at the Palace Theatre. On opening night, Cheyenne Jackson, who had impressed Nick years earlier, sent him orchids along with a note that read: “I’m so proud of you. You earned this. Don’t let anybody take this away from you.” Nick keeps that note taped to his dressing room mirror so he can easily see it before each performance. “Thinking back to that memory of watching Cheyenne at this theater on this stage,” Nick recalls, pausing, “…then for him to send me a ‘Good Luck’ opening night gift…is…just…amazing. Cheyenne has been such an inspiration to me.”
Nick gets a little choked up retelling the story, which is not surprising. He puts his heart into everything he does. This past May, Nick collected over $20,000 for AIDS Walk New York. How did he do it?! His brother came up with the idea: give backstage tours of Priscilla for donations of $500 or more. So Nick offered the tours on Twitter and on his Web page. The requests poured in. “Every day it would jump over a thousand dollars and before I knew it, it was over twenty grand.” He smiles in wonderment then clarifies, “The tours were more like the backstage ins and outs of Priscilla, going onstage, and into my dressing room.” Within a few weeks he raised over $20,000 and GMHC was e-mailing him, asking, “How in the hell did you do this in two weeks? We want to know your fundraising tips!”
“I was really overwhelmed with people’s generosity and their dedication to the cause,” he says in a heartfelt way.
Nick became interested in the AIDS Walk when his friends from Broadway Impact, a grass-roots organization, asked him to participate. Broadway Impact lobbies for marriage equality and is the brainchild of Gavin Creel, the former star of Broadway’s Hair, along with Rory O’Malley, currently in Book of Mormon, and Jenny Kanelos, the organization’s executive director. “Fortunately I didn’t have a matinee that day so I was able to do it and I become part of the Broadway Impact Team,” Nick says proudly, adding that other Priscilla cast members joined the AIDS Walk, too. At the opening ceremonies, Nick performed the song “We Belong” along with castmates Will Swenson and Thom Allison. His parents flew in and walked alongside their son. “It was an incredible, awesome day,” says Nick.
The waiter comes over to take our order. Nick and I are at Angus McIndoe, a restaurant in the heart of the Broadway theater district. “I’ll just have an iced coffee,” Nick tells the waiter. I ask, “Are you sure that’s all you want for lunch, Nick?” He replies, “Yes, I’m a cheap date!” He flashes a rakish smile and then adds, “I had breakfast this morning and I won’t eat again until closer to show time—but thank you.” Nick, who lives nearby, is familiar with this eatery, as he’s done other interviews here as well. “The restaurant is a part of the fabric of the theater community,” he tells me. “It’s a place where people come after the theater, including actors from the shows.”
Nick is fashionable in light summery attire. He sports a slate-gray tank top and an unbuttoned silky bluish-gray dress shirt. His bulging biceps streeeetch the sleeves. Are those for real?, I ponder. Yes they are. (At one point the New York Post hailed Nick as “The Best Biceps on Broadway.”) Around his neck Nick wears a Tiffany dog tag, a gift from his boyfriend. Khaki shorts and Docksiders, which he calls “my little boat shoes,” complete the ensemble. He’s reserved, yet bubbly, with an attractive underlying shyness.
Nick’s chiseled features and body are by Michelangelo. Well, not really. And you may wonder if this is natural. It is. No steroids or other enhancing drugs have been used—Nick worked for it. You can see this work of art, as it’s on display in the scant outfits he wears in Priscilla. Just because of his pin-up boy good looks, one might label him “ditzy.” Hardly. He’s smart, affable, genuine, and well-mannered.
Nick first heard the word “AIDS” in his middle school health class. “I remember at the time I associated it with the gay community. I don’t know how that happened in my small town, whether it was from that class or the stigma surrounding it, but I grew up not really knowing the ins and outs of it,” he says. “As a gay man, I just knew that I should be afraid of it.” When Nick graduated high school, he came out to his brother, who’s two years his senior. It wasn’t until he was in college that he told his parents. “My parents were incredible. My mom was like, ‘I’ve known since you were three. I’m glad this is off your shoulders.’ My dad said, ‘I feel honored that you want to share this part of your life with us.’” He takes a beat, exposes those sparkling pearly white teeth once again, and says gratefully, “How wonderful is that?”
The real concern for Nick’s parents was his health. “Every time I have a new boyfriend my mom will say,” he changes his voice to a higher pitch, “‘Now you guys make sure that you know each other very well and get tested before you take it to the next level.’ I’ll answer…‘I know, Mom, I promise,’” he shrugs, saying it in a loving, faux fretting manner. “Mom still worries, but she worries about my brother, too, who’s single.”
Attending a Catholic high school where the word “condoms” was never mentioned, Nick says the general attitude was that everyone was immune to HIV, as it was a gay disease. “Today it might be different because times have changed, even in the short time since I was in high school,” he offers. “Maybe because AIDS is more public now kids can understand it better. I hope so.” When Nick moved to New York he met new friends who were HIV-positive. “Then it was that close to me and that real so I could put a face to it,” he states emphatically. “I’ve been fortunate that the people who are close to me are living with it, fighting it, and are still here.” He thinks. His mouth turns downwards. “Eh, it’s a scary thought to think of people I know…you know….it’s a possibility.” He stutters. “…Hmmm…I haven’t so far, knock on wood, lost anyone.” He stirs his iced coffee with a straw, clanging the ice cubes against the glass.
One friend who was living with the disease became Nick’s boyfriend. He was older than Nick and they dated briefly. The impact of their relationship left paths of inspiration. “He educated me in a lot of ways on the disease, what it’s like to live with it, and how to be safe—safer than I thought I could. He changed everything about how he wanted to continue out his life and not take a day for granted. He also taught me how to really enjoy each moment.” When Nick speaks of him, there’s a quality of respect and admiration.
Nick’s love interest now is a dancer in the show. “He’s been a great source of support. He’s kept me grounded and levelheaded and he looks like Vanilla Ice!” he chuckles, acknowledging that he’s more of a one man-man. Does he have safe sex? “Well to be honest, I haven’t always used a condom,” Nick confesses. “I was in the closet in Erie and when I’d do summer stock I’d, like, be a crazy teenager and do things that were very high-risk, but I was lucky and avoided [getting HIV]. I know better now, but at the time I was sort of careless and thinking that I was invincible.”
Nick’s usual practice is that before every relationship he and his beau get tested. “I like to know before I start something new. I like a clean slate with somebody,” he strongly insists. “It’s important to me that people take responsibility to ensure that they’re both healthy. I want to be able to share that with a partner.” Even following his last relationship, Nick got tested. “I just do it for my peace of mind. I’ll go to my Broadway doctor,” he laughs at how pretentious it sounds, “and get a clean bill of health…so I know! I think it’s smart to be knowledgeable about your health in general.”
Nick takes a breath then becomes intense. “If you’re sexually active it’s irresponsible not to be tested. Be safe about it for yourself and for your partners,” he advises passionately. “It’s about taking responsibility for your health.”
Nick gets a firsthand preview of irresponsibility when it comes to some of his female friends. It shocks him how some of them have played Russian roulette with their health. They’d share their dating experiences, relating to him their stories of unprotected sex. “…[F]or them to not use protection?!” Nick is nearly breathless with fury. It sets him off. “I don’t care if you’re on birth control, these guys can have HIV, like…are you kidding?! Why would you put yourself in that situation?” He briskly combs his fingers through his fluffy, bouncy Elvis Presley hair. “And these are girls in my circle of friends who have hung around us gay guys and they know this is a reality to us. It blows my mind when I think of this,” Nick bemoans, clasping his hands together at his heart. “Nobody is off-limits to this disease. It’s not specific to the gay community—at all. I really do think that a lot of the straight youth think that they don’t have to worry about it. HIV can affect anybody. They hear about HIV but they really don’t think it’s going to be part of their reality. There needs to be more outreach in schools. Start at a young age so they are very aware of it.”
Nick’s road to Broadway started at the age of nine when he began taking acting classes and studying voice. At seventeen, he started ballet training. After receiving a BFA in musical theater, he moved to Manhattan. In two weeks, he landed his first job! This would give any aspiring performer inspiration—and a touch of envy. Nick toured nationally and internationally with Chicago and, afterward, joined its Broadway company. Since then he’s performed in Guys and Dolls, The Pirate Queen, and La Cage aux Folles, and has danced at the Tony Awards and at The Kennedy Center Honors. He’s also worked on several soaps and has made appearances in the films Sex and The City 2 and An Englishman in New York, which starred John Hurt as Quentin Crisp. Nick has already won several awards and was honored by the American Theater Hall of Fame with a Fellowship for “Breakthrough Performance.”
Priscilla, based on the 1994 film, is the story of two drag queens and a transgender woman traveling through the Australian outback in a funky revamped bus christened “Priscilla.” It’s a rigorous, physically demanding role for Nick. “It’s like a race!” he announces describing the production. “It’s non-stop, because once the three of us [him, Will Swenson, and Tony Sheldon] enter the stage we don’t really leave it until the show’s over. And when we’re not on stage we’re doing crazy costume changes and it’s as physical off-stage as it is on.” Many of the ultra-colorful costumes are elaborate, ornate, and cumbersome. (It won the 2011 Tony Award for Best Costume Design of a Musical.) Their schedule keeps changing and sometimes they’ll do fourteen performances in a row before they have a day off. It’s challenging to keep a steady routine, so to stay healthy and balanced he gets as much sleep as he can. The former 2xist underwear model also exercises (how could he not with that body?!) and tries to maintain good nutrition. Nick takes a sip of his iced coffee then looks at me with those striking blue-green eyes and in a low, serious murmur states, “I really have to make the show be the event of my day.”
Being a young Broadway star one might think he’s all about partying and walking the red carpet. Nick is more of a homebody, his best friend is Lady, his dog, and one day he wants to marry and have kids. On the verge of fame, Nick is calm, confident, and focused. One way he stays grounded is by returning to his home state of Pennsylvania. Not long ago he flew in for twenty-four hours. “It’s just nice to smell cut grass and not hear noise,” he softly says, licking his lips, looking away for a moment. “It’s like night and day from Manhattan. I mean, I love the city and could never imagine living anywhere else permanently. “Being there allows me to take…a breath. This is where my dream was born,” he reflects thoughtfully. “After I smell the lake and chill out, I come back and appreciate even more intensely what I get to do every day.”
Acquiring the role in Priscilla was an arduous process. Though, after the first audition, Nick was cast as the first understudy for the role, which ironically coincided with his landing in the chorus of La Cage aux Folles. Several months later the Priscilla producers called him back to audition again. He got the call in his dressing room while he was making-up for La Cage. He soon learned that they were seeing everybody again from the first audition. Nick was fired up since he knew he was the right choice for this part. “I had this feeling my life was about to change,” he coolly raves, his eyes sparking as he revisits the story. Nick yenned for this role. He hired an acting coach, fine-tuned his voice with a vocal coach, and he worked with a director to stage the scenes he had to do. He auditioned two more times then waited two months. “I kind of put it out of mind,” he says, “thinking, ‘Okay, I guess it’s not going to happen.’”
Then his agent played a trick on him. Nick had recently done a commercial and his agent asked him to come down to his office to sign some W2 forms. It was last July and it was super hot,” Nick remembers. “I was in gym clothes and all sweaty. I hadn’t showered. I looked as though I just rolled out of bed.” There was a stack of papers on his agent’s desk and he asked Nick to look through the top copy and on the next page underneath, to sign and date it. Nick sat down and moved the top page and underneath there was a printout that read: “I have an offer for you to play Adam/Felicia in Toronto and on Broadway.” Nick was stunned. “I was like, you’re kidding me! I burst into tears and all the other agents from their offices came in, hugged me, and said ‘You did it!’” Recounting this, Nick is like a Who Wants To Be A Millionaire contestant that has just answered the million dollar question correctly.
Nick makes his role as Adam/Felicia very much his own creation. He wasn’t familiar with the film, which starred Guy Pearce in the role, so he bought the DVD. After this journalist attended a performance of Priscilla and having viewed the film a half a dozen times, Nick brings a new freshness and depth to the part. “I wanted to make Adam different from what Guy Pearce did in the movie. I wanted to bring a youthful jovial ability to Adam so you would understand more of the dynamic between him and [his friend] Tick,” explains Nick, waving a pesky gnat away from the basket of bread on the table. “With the script, it’s not as fleshed out for Adam as it is with the other two characters and I think you can get caught in Adam’s constant bitchy, sarcastic lines.” Nick is correct about the lines for Adam. The character does have some flavorful, laugh-out-loud lines such as: “Oh I get it… You’re Bi… You like being rejected by both sexes!” Nick continues. “Now by itself, it’s funny but that’s not interesting. It eventually gets boring. No one’s going to be rooting for me. I wouldn’t be able to create an arc for a character just on that so I wanted to bring a sense of vulnerability and insecurity to the character, things I can relate to.”
Nick also lends his sensitive talents to the annual fundraiser for Broadway Cares called Broadway Bares. Last year Nick strutted the stage in a splashy multicolored jockstrap in a musical number, exposing that Greek god physique that even gave Mario Lopez a run for his money when they both were in A Chorus Line together in 2008. (There’s great speculation that when Mario stepped into the role as Zach, Nick was asked to cover up his ripped torso. There are no hard feelings and Nick says he and Mario are friends today.)
Broadway Bares is like an old friend to Nick. For the past five years, ever since Nick moved to New York, he’s worked on the event. “This was the first year that I haven’t participated in it,” Nick remarks, “because we had a [Priscilla] show. But I did get to attend the second performance. A bunch of us guys from the show went and I got to watch it for the first time. It’s just amazing to see not only the Broadway community come together, but also New Yorkers as well.” Broadway Bares is usually sold out weeks in advance. It’s held at Roseland Ballroom, where approximately six thousand people attend. It takes around 650 volunteers to support the 225 dancers that show off their wares and their flair. It’s a wild, rip-roarin’ night and, since the first performance in 1992, over $8.6 million has been raised.
What motivates Nick to take time out of his rigorous schedule and reach out to others?
“I am fortunate enough to be in the position to help people, so I feel compelled and obligated to donate my time, talent, and efforts,” he says.
At twenty-eight, Nick is thankful that he has the career he dreamed of. “I wanted to start in the ensemble and lay that groundwork by doing big dance numbers where I got to bust my ass dancing every night,” he says spiritedly, running his hand slowly over his chin that sprouts a slight stubble. “Ultimately this was my dream as a kid—to star in a Broadway show!”
Nick has come a long way in a short time and, with his track record for giving back, it seems the AIDS community can only benefit from his evolution.
Bits and pieces of Nick Adams
What was the first Broadway show you ever saw?
It was Chicago and I was fifteen. Eight years later, I made my Broadway debut in it.
Boxers, briefs, or thong?
Oh, I’m into briefs. I used to be an underwear model and used to get lots of free briefs.
If you had to move and you could only take one thing, what would it be?
My dog. Her name is Lady and she’s a German Shepherd Greyhound Collie. She’s a rescue and I got her little over a year ago. She came with the name and it was right when I got La Cage and Priscilla. It was a sign that I was going to be in drag and that her name was Lady.
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
My boyfriend made me an egg white scramble with turkey breast, peppers and onions, pepper jack cheese, and spinach.
What scares you?
Oh, even after doing the show every night for months, I have moments sometimes when I go, ‘What is the next lyric??’ I’m like, ‘<OH,> I’m going to forget the whole verse.’ But then it just comes out and I’m singing it.
What’s on your computer screen saver right now?
A picture of the three of us (him, Will Swenson, and Tony Sheldon, the stars of Priscilla), which is a new ad for the show.
Name one of your bad habits.
I have a temper. I’m very passionate about everything in my life so that includes my relationships too. It gets me in trouble sometimes. It can be very extreme and I can be over reactive. Later I realize it wasn’t that big a deal.
Name something you do quirky in private.
I’m not superstitious but when I’m getting ready for the show in my dressing room it’s like everything is super structured. I sort of created this ritual. It’s really bizarre. To warm up, I do a specific amount of push-ups and I have to put on my costume in a certain way. I won’t put my left shoe on before my right shoe ever. And in the beginning scene, I have gloves that I put on and sometimes my dresser sets them so the left one is over the right and that freaks me out. I’m like, ‘Oh, no, I have to do the right first.’ I go, ‘Why am I freaking out about this?! It’s not going to make a difference.’ But, to me, for some reason it does.
When did you lose your virginity and to whom?
I was sixteen when I lost my virginity and it was to a female. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Then afterwards I tested the waters.
Tell one of your limelight moments after you started getting recognized.
I was at this restaurant on Astor Place having dinner with some of the guys from the show. A guy comes up and taps me on the shoulder. I turn around and it’s Nathan Lane. He said, ‘I just want to tell I thought you were brilliant in your show. I loved it.” I was like…and everyone at the table was like…Wow! I said [to Nathan Lane], ‘Thank you so much.’ It was awesome moment.
What do you believe happens after we die?
I’ve never been a really religious person. I hope there’s an afterlife.
Name one word to describe Nick Adams.
NICK’S NUMBER ONE
Nick names his favorite things
Clothing to wear: Tank top
TV show: Dexter
Sitcom growing up: Golden Girls
Singer: I grew up listening to Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston.
Idol: Britney Spears. I was in love with her. I thought either I wanted to date her or be her!
Movie: Death Becomes Her
City: New York
Actor: Tony Sheldon
Actress: Patty LuPone
Physical asset above the waist: My lips
Physical asset below the waist: My legs
iPod album: Jessie J. I’m obsessed with her.
NICK’S ONE WORD
Nick gives a one word answer to describe these people he knows.
DILF (Dad I’d Like to F#*&)
Sarah Jessica Parker
(He laughs.) DIFL. I’ll leave it at that.
Name one word to describe Nick Adams.
Catch Nick Adams in a promo on-line at: www.DANNandKELLY.com.
Dann Dulin interviewed director John Waters for the July cover story.