Over the years, there have been many musicals that have been dubbed “the gayest thing ever on Broadway.” Shows like Xanadu, Legally Blonde, and Mamma Mia! have surely all been described thusly at one point or another, because they appeal directly to a gay sensibility and a gay audience, being bright, shiny, cotton-candy-colored, over-the-top musicals full of bubblegum pop, not to mention often barely clothed chorus boys. Although they each seem to have sprung fully formed out of the gay pop culture collective unconscious, however, they are each missing one crucial, shared element.
Thankfully, the newly opened Priscilla, Queen of the Desert has finally arrived to save the day. Priscilla has a great deal in common with the three aforementioned shows. Like the first and the second, it is based on a movie much beloved by gay men. Like the first and the third, it is a jukebox musical filled with hits beloved by gay men. Like all three, it is big and broad and beautiful and gloriously campy. Unlike any of the three, however, it is not only stylistically but literally gay, and unabashedly, uncompromisingly so, and that is what makes it such a liberating and invigorating breath of fresh air. Sitting in the Palace Theatre, amidst the truly epic glamor and glitz of this perfectly tuned (in every sense of the word) production, I was swept away.
Though many people consider Broadway as being for gay men, most might be surprised at how few Broadway shows are actually about gay men. Furthermore, the specific subject matter of this show centers on two related subsets of queer culture–drag queens and transsexuals– that rarely if ever get such a public and loving forum. What Priscilla’s writers and producers have done is to craft a Broadway blockbuster that, with its extremely familiar songs, broad comedy, and wacky hijinks, is able to appeal to a mainstream audience but manages to do so while also never selling out or homogenizing itself. People worried that the stage version of Priscilla might have toned down the explicit gay humor have nothing to fear. Why, in some ways, the musical is even bawdier than the film, having restored some jokes that were cut from the original, such as one gag about the size of one of the characters’ foreskin. And if you remember one certain ping pong scene from the film, yes, that appears here, too, as well.
Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is an incredibly savvy musical, and one made all the more savvy by the sophistication with which it has been translated from stage to film. Instead of trying to simply recreate his movie as live theatre, Stephan Elliott, who wrote and directed the acclaimed The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and who co-authored the book of this musical along with Allan Scott, has truly reconceived it for its new surroundings. His lovely and succinct Playbill bio reads thusly: “Stephan saw a drag queen’s feathered plume rolling down the street like a tumbleweed from a Sergio Leone western. In that single moment he created Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The image still haunts him.” The original Priscilla film very much revolves around this idea, of placing beautifully done-up drag queens–wearing resplendent, Academy-Award-winning costumes filled with more rainbow-colored dresses and wigs and props than you could possibly imagine–into the most incongruous, dangerous place imaginable: the Australian Outback. The film very artistically juxtaposes the theatricality of the men’s costumes and outlandish lifestyle with the stark reality of the desert, with its punishing heat, predatory animals, relentless bugs, and almost complete lack of civilization. When the bus breaks down in the film, and particularly when a redneck couple refuses to help them because of their attire, and later when threatened by other homophobes, there is a real sense of peril that these characters may not survive this ordeal in these surroundings, which are harsh on multiple levels. The fact that the film was shot on location in the Outback is crucial to conveying just how bad their situation is.
The musical’s creative team wisely realizes that it would be impossible to recreate this environment on stage, and so instead of trying to do so and inevitably failing, they decide to take the show in the opposite direction, by enhancing and reveling in the spectacular artifice of theatre, which is really what being a drag queen is all about. The sun that beats down on the desert set is a tiny mirrorball, the bus itself is covered in multicolored LED lights, and the characters are followed throughout by a Greek chorus of three female singers. Even with a number of surreal, visual touches, the film restrains itself for the most part, to make the moments where it does explode with color and music all the more dynamic and powerful. In a big Broadway show, however, subtlety does not work. You have to play to the rear mezzanine at all times, and so the musical brilliantly dials every moment up to the nth degree. For example, one of the first scenes in the film is a funeral mostly attended by drag queens, and though some are dressed as women, most are wearing respectful, quiet black dresses. In the stage show, each costume is more deliriously decked-out than the next. One drag queen is wearing a headdress with an almost-lifesize tombstone growing out of it; one is wearing a Menorah on her head; another looks like the Black Swan; and so on and so forth, and the entire funeral party is belting out “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” A later, jaw-dropping, has-to-be-seen-to-be-believed version of “MacArthur Park” features a chorus of drag queens in stunningly decorated, cupcake-shaped body suits.
In some ways, it feels like Priscilla has transformed into what it was always destined to be: the biggest, most expensive, and most heartfelt drag show of all time. Instead of a real-life desert invaded by three drag queens, it is a stage on which the desert setting could at any moment be invaded by a big budget production number, gorgeously choreographed by the late Ross Coleman, and filled with countless dancers and costume changes–500 costumes in all, and all created by the same design team of Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, who won the Oscar in 2004 for creating the film’s costumes. It is a Broadway show that doesn’t simply co-opt the external trappings of drag queen culture, but one which truly lives, breathes, and understands it. If the movie is about drag queens meeting the real, gritty world (or an enhanced version of such), the musical shows what life is like, as filtered through drag-colored lenses. Nothing seems more fitting than the idea that a drag queen would express him or herself by bursting into a 70s or 80s pop hit that perfectly describes his or her situation, as well as that he would visualize scads of dancers backing him up, and of course, a Motown-style female trio. These three ladies, dubbed the Divas, are one of the show’s cleverest conceits, for in many cases, they sing the songs live and our three boys lip-synch to them, which pays tribute to the film, as well as to the origins of drag queen performance. The Divas can be seen as the imaginary gals that our boys long to be: the magical, disembodied voices of the radio given idealized form.
And because the show’s creators understand these characters, their lifestyles, dreams, and desires so well, they are able to achieve the ultimate goal of drag, namely the perfect blending and convergence of illusion and genuine emotion. The reason the drag queen is such a remarkable performer is because, in her, all traditional lines are blurred. We can tell that he is a man, but at the same time, we willfully accept the illusion that she is an empowered, larger-than-life woman. We laugh because she is funny and deliberately so, but at the same time, we feel a bit of his suppressed pain at not being embraced or accepted by society at large, and realize that he is laughing and mugging through tears. We know that the songs she sings are silly, but at the same time, there is a beauty to his performance that allows us to momentarily tap into the feelings behind the song, making it feel more emotionally genuine than when we hear it come out of the mouth of the actual singer, due to the drag queen’s overwhelming love for the material. Similarly in Priscilla, we may initially laugh out of recognition for the song one of our characters has chosen to sing to complement what is happening on stage–whether it be Burt Bachrach’s “I Say a Little Prayer,” as Tick sings about the young son he’s never met or Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” in which Tick, Felicia, and Bernadette try to find strength after Priscilla, the bus, is defaced by homophobes–but as each song proceeds, the performers sing it with such honesty and grace that we soon put aside our previous connotations, associate the lyrics with these characters’ plights, and hear them fresh.
In that way, Priscilla all but completely blurs the lines between camp and heartfelt emotion, because in drag, there is no distinction. By grokking this, director Simon Phillips is able to seamlessly, effortlessly transition the show from bawdy, cartoonish comedy to authentic pathos and back again, without ever losing its sense of fun or control of character and tone. There are moments where I was awed by the spectacle of it all: the Divas being flown in from the rafters to sing “It’s Raining Men”; the sublime recreation of the moment in the film in which Felicia/Adam lip-synchs to Verdi while riding on the high heel atop Priscilla, a huge cloth train billowing behind her in the wind; the first unveiling of Priscilla on stage, which gave me goosebumps. There were also just as many moments, however, where I was awed by a scene’s more quiet beauty: Bernadette consoling a distraught Adam; Tick’s first real conversation with Benji; the final scene atop Ayers Rock. I was moved to tears at numerous times–during the latter scenes, yes, but even during some of the former ones, as well. What so many of the New York theatre critics don’t seem to understand is that something can be deliberately, unapologetically silly and profoundly moving at the same time. To me, Priscilla is a work of pop cultural genius without an ounce of pretension, a bold production that is as proud of itself and what it represents as it is eager to please and to entertain an audience willing to embrace its sometimes peculiar but always unique charms.
As wonderful as the production values and the writing are, the show could not succeed without an equally brilliant cast, and it is lucky to have an absolutely superb one. Will Swenson brings warmth and humanity to Tick/Mitzi, making him as engaging as he is complicated. In many ways, his character arc is the heart of the show. Nick Adams is a divinely bitchy Adam/Felicia, managing to beautifully nail his unlikable qualities, as well as the conscience and the sweetness he keeps submerged most of the time. And the show is all but completely stolen by Tony Sheldon’s masterpiece of a performance as Bernadette. He has played the role in every production of the musical to date, from its initial premiere in Australia to its opening in London, then Toronto, and finally now New York, and it’s easy to see why the producers would want him each time. Though Terence Stamp’s Bernadette in the film is an unmitigated classic, Sheldon is even better. He infuses her with a preponderance of heart, an excess of soul, and an overabundance of wit, charm, and class, and in a manner that seems utterly effortless. One can see why C. David Johnson’s extremely likable Bob would fall for her. Who wouldn’t? Meanwhile, the Benji I saw, Luke Mannikus (being a child, he shares the role with Ashton Woerz), is beyond adorable and beyond heartwarming. I would also like to compliment the entire rest of the cast on their Australian accents. I can’t vouch as to how perfect or imperfect they might be, but to my ears, they blended in most convincingly with Sheldon’s, and while they were certainly stage accents, none of them stood out as sounding jarringly inauthentic, which alone is a sizable accomplishment.
All in all, Priscilla is an unmissable evening of theatre. It is the rare jukebox musical with true substance, a flawless melange of the ridiculous and the divine, and one of the most dazzling and purely fun times I have ever had in a Broadway theatre. It’s worth a return visit, if only because it’s impossible to take in all of the intricate costume details in a single viewing. Brava to Priscilla, Queen of the Desert! Long may she reign.
For ticket information, go to http://www.priscillaonbroadway.com.