The idea of turning Stephan Elliot’s high-camp hit The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert into a stage musical was floated many years ago. As with those other quirky Australian movies of the time – Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom and P.J. Hogan’s Muriel’s Wedding – it was considered by producers, artists and investors to be ripe for the picking.
The extraordinary success of the tale of three bitchy drag queens braving the Australian outback in a rundown, tarted-up bus named Priscilla spawned countless drag shows trading on the name. Many in Sydney’s drag community loved the idea that Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel’s lavish-looking but dirt-cheap showgirl costumes (they cost about $5000) won them an Oscar in 1994.
The accolades took the costume designers by surprise and they still joke about it, as does Elliot, who wrote the script in 12 days and shot it largely on the run, having only a vague idea where the road movie, a cross-between mardi gras and Mad Max, was taking him.
The film’s success owed a lot to the stunning images of a rugged landscape and the outrageous trio: Bernadette (Terence Stamp), the somewhat melancholic mother hen of the group; Mitzi (Hugo Weaving), the conflicted father and showqueen; and Adam/Felicia (Guy Pearce), the recklessly energetic good-time "girl" who gets them in a spot of redneck bother.
The director says the film served up tolerance "with guts, outrage and political incorrectness" and hit a nerve with the public. Elliot still gets letters from people saying how the film helped them feel less isolated and be honest about their sexuality. And it made them laugh.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the film was revived for a time in some American cinemas to boost the public spirit. Ideas of putting it on stage petered out. As for the costumes, most have fallen to pieces. Some, Chappel says, barely survived the shoot. "It was so hot on the bus that the glue holding some of them together melted."
How do you translate a sprawling outback film to the intimacy of the stage? What is there to be gained? And what is at stake? These are some of the questions facing the creators and producers of the new musical opening in Sydney next month, an enterprise that is testing some of Australia’s most experienced theatre personnel. Director Simon Phillips, musical director and supervisor Stephen "Spud" Murphy, designer Brian Thomson, lighting whiz Nick Schlieper and choreographer Ross Coleman, along with the film’s costume designers, Gardiner and Chappel, are conscious of the need to honour the film while not slavishly imitating it or, worse, propelling it into parody or pantomime.
"It is a fine line and a tricky balancing act to get right," says a bleary-eyed Phillips during a rehearsal break. "It’s exciting building a work from scratch, but it is also scary. The process has been grindingly difficult. You are continually having to test assumptions about how it will go with an audience."
Phillips, the artistic director of the Melbourne Theatre Company, concedes nothing has prepared him for the hard slog of getting Priscilla, Queen of the Desert on stage.
The adventure began in earnest early this year. "When we did the first workshop in January, we wanted to see if it could work thematically, irrespective of who was doing what," says producer Liz Koops, who, with partner Garry McQuinn, is a managing director of Back Row Productions, which heads a group of production partners that includes Specific Films, formed by Michael Hamlyn and Polygram, Allan Scott, Michael Chugg and music-theatre veteran John Frost. "The realisation that we could translate the film [to the stage] and enhance its humanity gave us the confidence to proceed," Koops says.
Phillips, Elliot, Gardiner and Chappel were among the artists and industry folk who attended that make-or-break workshop. They were among the many in the room who weren’t convinced Priscilla had stage legs. Gardiner recalls that the cynics outnumbered the believers. Phillips says: "Having two of our leads – Tony Sheldon [as Bernadette] and Jeremy Stanford [as Mitzi] – there from the start has brought great energy, integrity and depth to the work. Everyone in the cast has been willing to give it a bash." Rising star Daniel Scott, plucked from the chorus of Dusty, plays the fun-loving Felicia.
Gardiner was quickly won over. "The gates opened and Priscilla came alive again," she says, while working at a costume warehouse in St Peters. "We could see that it had enormous possibility. Stephan [Elliot] agreed … It’s great for us to get an opportunity to go back and have another crack at it."
Behind the scenes, the musical that trades heavily on disco tunes, sequins, stilettos, bold colours and Aussie icons is steadily taking shape ahead of its premiere at Star City next month. Terence Stamp and music-theatre heavyweights from abroad are said to be coming. There is talk of getting the production to Las Vegas in the next 18 months, perhaps Broadway as well. Now, however, the pressure to tailor 380 elaborate and durable costumes – they definitely can’t fall apart, given the roster of eight shows a week – is taking its toll. Thomson, who designed the musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and The Rocky Horror Show, is worried about the bus he has designed and how it will work. It has more moving parts than a Swiss Army knife; it can even change colour.
Almost inevitably, given the hothouse environment, there have been hissy fits, walkouts, tears and cast members cheerfully and not-so-cheerfully pulled into line. After the first read-through, David Page quit the show after he realised how small his role was; very quickly one of his younger brothers took his place. There’s also a palpable buzz as the performers grow more secure in high heels and the producers reveal their ambitions.
"This is not another jukebox musical as such," insists Koops, despite Priscilla featuring 25 songs and an obligatory mega-mix tacked on the end. "It’s quirky and inventive, with witty one-liners and an engaging story that takes you to the songs."
Koops, who rarely gives interviews, can talk and sound like a director but she’s a no-nonsense businesswoman. Early on, when I express doubts about the Priscilla stageshow, she bristles. "I don’t see that it’s too big a risk," she says, although she concedes: "Sure, it’s expensive and it hasn’t been easy."
The attraction of Priscilla, she maintains, is that it is "a familiar brand and road trips resonate with Australians. Growing up in Australia, there’s always that memory or sense of being piled into a car as kids and going on a long trip and wondering how much further to go … Priscilla isn’t about the departure or the arrival but the journey; the conflicts and resolutions you encounter along the way."
She believes the public is ready for another version of the story. "Australia is less parochial than when the film came out and we’re an open and tolerant country on the whole. It’s not a story about sexuality but about acceptance and feeling good about who you are."
Phillips says: "The film never pushed homosexuality in the audience’s face. It very artfully dealt with that aspect in the way it developed the protagonists. They flaunt their individuality yet the audience comes to cheer them on."
The musical with universal appeal is also wholly Australian made. "Our dream was to produce something contemporary without importing anybody, to show that we have come of age in producing spectaculars that rival anything on Broadway," Koops says. "Ideally it will run at the Lyric [theatre] for a year, hopefully longer."
Even Broadway hits can struggle at the box office, notably Mel Brooks’s musical comedy The Producers, which failed to meet expectations at Star City last year. And although plans are well advanced to bring back Andrew Lloyd Webber’s money-spinner The Phantom of the Opera next year, the majority of musicals these days rarely bed down for seasons longer than three or four months in one city. There are no plans at present to tour Priscilla elsewhere in Australia. The aim is to make it a tourist attraction. Qantas is a sponsor and the show will feature on boarding passes as well as billboards, banners and television commercials. A double-CD soundtrack is set for release.
Rehearsals are under way at a nondescript dance studio in Waterloo. Phillips, an amiable and endlessly patient ringmaster, occasionally closes his eyes in an effort to think up a solution to yet another problem. A television documentary crew is milling about while the tight-knit cast cheerfully goes through its paces, sometimes perilous, sometimes hilarious.
Ross Coleman, who won a Helpmann Award for his choreography in Dusty - The Original Pop Diva, says Priscilla is his toughest assignment to date. Every musical number, from Go West to Boogie Wonderland, has to look and sound distinctive. He confides that some days he has felt overwhelmed by the difficulty of the job, but mostly he’s a ball of energy as he cajoles the cast and pulls them snappily into line.
The script, written by Elliot, Allan Scott, Phil Scott and others, has undergone much revision since January. Scene after scene is run and re-run. "They’ve been doing that song [Thank God I’m a Country Boy] all morning; it’s giving me a headache," jokes an assistant. Genevieve Lemon, who plays the Broken Hill pub owner Shirley, is having a hoot and cracks up when her dancing partner lifts her from the floor. Michael Caton, who plays the jack-of-all-trades Bob, grimaces as if wondering what he’s got himself into. "I’m about the only character who doesn’t wear a frock," he drawls, deadpan.
The ensemble is herded into another room to hone the routine while the three leads take their positions on a long, raised platform that stands in for the bus. Even without costumes, make-up, props or lights, they convey the combative bluster of the travelling trannies.
Phillips cups his head in his hands and closes his eyes yet again. How, he wonders, can the scene work when there’s no available stage time for the visual gag to succeed? He turns to the maestro, "Spud" Murphy, and they resolve to sort it later rather than delay the rehearsal.
And so it goes, day after day, bit by bit.
In contrast with the show’s flamboyant spontaneity is a production process that’s relentless and driven like clockwork. Dress-makers, cobblers, prop-builders and sundry others toil in studios and warehouses throughout suburban Sydney, acutely aware the first preview is approaching.
When the star of the show, the eponymous bus, arrives a few days late from a Melbourne workshop, the creative team and the producers breathe a collective sigh of relief. "It was a case of no bus, no show," Thomson says, sitting at his kitchen table in Paddington. "We came up with the colouring and shape of the pink desert in Hamburg, where Simon was working on an opera. The idea was to keep it simple and [to] create an environment to showcase the costumes."
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is the latest popular movie to be turned into a play or musical. It used to be that stage shows spawned films, and sometimes they still do (think of Chicago), but these days the trend is going the other way. Mary Poppins, Billy Elliot and the Australian-made Dirty Dancing have helped to lift London’s West End from the commercial doldrums; Broadway has staged versions of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Color Purple, The Wedding Singer and Tarzan. Producers and investors have been quick to seize on popular brands to lift box-office prospects. They’ve also learnt to hedge their bets, but there’s never any certainty when millions of dollars are at stake.
"Priscilla will need to run at 65 per cent capacity for 37 weeks before it can break even," Koops says. "It costs about $500,000 a week to run and, let’s put it this way, we’re keeping our fingers crossed."
Elliot, a co-producer, is generally taking a back seat as the theatre people create a new Priscilla. It will be a nice weekly earner for him if the musical succeeds. Did he envisage that it would end up on stage? "Not in a million years," he says. "It’s set in a friggin’ desert. Whose idea was it to set it in Star City? This I gotta see."
Jokes aside, Elliot says the tale of tolerance has every chance of striking a chord with the public again, especially as "the world has changed, frighteningly so".
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert opens at the Lyric Theatre, Star City, on October 7. Previews begin next week.