In the heart of Manchester, at the Hope Mill Theatre, the stage is currently being set ablaze with vibrant drag culture, as the iconic film “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar” takes a theatrical twist in the form of brand-new musical, To Wong Foo. Peter Caulfield, who takes on the iconic role of Vida, shares insights into the challenges and triumphs of bringing this flamboyant production to life.
“Imagine three drag queens embarking on a journey across America, headed for a drag contest, and end up stuck in the middle of a redneck town. It’s a story about love and acceptance, finding common ground regardless of your background or beliefs,” explains Peter, setting the scene for the lively narrative that unfolds in this 90s extravaganza.
As Vida in To Wong Foo, Peter takes on a role that was originally portrayed by Patrick Swayze in the film version. “It was daunting, but also amazing,” shares Peter. “Firstly, because Patrick was so incredible in the role, and also because I’d never done drag before, and mastering the heels, dance routines, and singing in a completely different way was a challenge.”
Peter was already a fan of the film when he landed the role, “I’d seen it when I was a lot younger, it was kind of an iconic movie in the 90s, and it’s amazing that a film about drag queens was released in Hollywood at the time. It was kind of the first mainstream movie to depict drag queens in that way.”
Bringing the stage musical to life has been different to the making of the film, Peter shares, “They had a whole team of advisors to help with their transformation, we didn’t get that, but the cast, especially those with drag experience, became my mentors. It’s a learning curve—, dancing, singing—all while mastering the art of drag, from heels to corsets. It’s truly a testament to the dedication of drag artists.”
The musical’s director, Douglas Carter Beane, brings a wealth of experience and authenticity, having written the film and lived in the drag culture of the ’90s. Peter describes the impact: “It’s more than drag; it’s a movement celebrating individuality. The show’s roots are in shining a light on the struggles faced by those on the fringes of society. It’s about coming together despite differences, which is particularly poignant in today’s world.”
Douglas has been an incredible source of knowledge about the show, “it’s been amazing to hear all these stories of what it was like in New York at that time, it was different to how Drag Race is now, it just wasn’t mainstream at all,” explains Peter.
Douglas’s partner is responsible for the music in this new stage version, “they’ve kept the essential parts of the story that people will recognise from the movie, but this really is a completely different entity because it is a sung through musical.” Peter goes on to say, “I think it has a lot more music in it than people think. It’s not just the odd number here and there and there’s so many different styles, but it all really works because I think each song has been specifically written for a scene or for a character. It’s not a jukebox musical like Priscilla.”
Performing at the Hope Mill, known for its LGBTQ+ inclusivity, adds a special dimension to the show. “The audience reflects the diversity of the community, from drag queens to families. Every night, they stand up, moved by the celebration of femininity and the message of unity,” says Peter.
As the run approaches its midpoint, the physical toll of eight shows a week is starting to become real for Peter. “My body is a bit broken, especially my feet. Drag is painful, and I have a newfound respect for those who do it regularly,” admits Peter. With a chuckle, he mentions plans for a post-show blowout and a well-deserved holiday with family.
Peter reflects on his favourite moments, emphasising the unexpected emotional impact on the audience. “Seeing people cry during the bows, realising the show’s profound effect on them, has been my favourite memory. It’s a celebration, an escape, and a message of love.”
Thinking about why people should book to see of To Wong Foo, Peter sums it up by saying, “come for a colourful, beautiful celebration. It’s a party that will cheer you up, move you, and provide an escape from the pre-Christmas blues. Experience the magic of drag—a celebration of laughter, love, glitz, and glam.”
To Wong Foo is at Hope Mill Theatre until 17th December 2023.