Off-Broadway and out-of town have long been the two places where producers test theatrical material before it’s ready for its close up.
This week, I’m in Australia—about as out of town and off-off-off-off-Broadway as you can go on this planet—and have seen two shows that seem destined to make their way to American stages.
The first is a play titled Riflemind. It’s receiving its world premiere at the Sydney Theater Company. Written by Andrew Upton, it’s about a big-time rock-n-roll band (named Riflemind) that broke up years ago and is now trying to get back together again.
All the action takes place at the lead singer’s estate outside of London. Everyone’s set to make a comeback, the contracts are drawn up, a young guitarist’s been flown in from LA to keep things fresh—and yet, there’s a feeling of anxiety that pervades every scene.
Much of this is due to the seemingly casual, but very precise direction of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman is of course best known for his film work, but the actor keeps busy in the theater. His involvement in Riflemind, suggests a transfer to the states, where this play—with its behind-the-music setting—seems like a sure-fire hit.
Also interesting is the casting of Australian actor Hugo Weaving in the role of the lead singer, John. Weaving is well known thanks to movie roles like The Matrix, Lord of the Rings and, of course, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Riflemind is a great showcase for him because it shows that Weaving doesn’t need exaggerated accents or costumes to make an impression. Active at the Sydney Theatre Company, Weaving hasn’t been seen much on American stages. He’s a world-class dramatic actor. Let’s hope this new play brings his talents to theaters outside of Australia.
Speaking of Hugo Weaving in Priscilla, the other big theatrical work playing in Australia these days is a Broadway-style musical version of that 1994 camp classic. The show, like the movie, follows three drag queens as they drive a bus through the Outback. Adapted for the stage by the film’s writer/director, Stephen Elliot (along with Allan Scott), the major coup of creativity was figuring out how to put on the show without the use of any ABBA music.
Sadly, Priscilla: The Musical is little more than a formulaic jukebox musical. Rather than hire a composer to write new songs to fit the story, the creators have just plugged in the same disco standards. The character leave Sydney: cue the Village People’s Go West, the bus breaks down on the highway, cue I will Survive.
That was fine for the movie, where the music underscored the action; but on stage, the music has to drive the action. The only thing driving anything in Priscilla is the giant bus, which rivals the chandelier in Phantom of the Opera or the helicopter in Miss Saigon for sheer distraction value.
Like those two mega-hits (and Mama Mia! the ABBA musical which Priscilla clearly is modeled on) this show has been a huge success. The fact that it’s little more than a big budget, Vegas-style drag show seems not to matter to anyone. Half a million Aussies have already seen Priscilla and it’s heading to London soon. The next stop will likely be Broadway. LA’s Ahmanson Theatre has been home to healthy runs of Phantom, & Miss Saigon, so it seems just a matter of time before Priscilla parks her six-wheeled spectacle here too.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW