So Michael Riedel of the New York Post has gone Down Under. Taking in the enormously popular stage version of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert - The Musical, everyone's favorite theatre gossip tells us that its producers have begun prepping the show for runs in the West End and on Broadway.
But Riedel also hints at the show's inner turmoil with its book, which he personally recommends remedying for the Great White Way by bringing in Harvey Fierstein or Douglas Carter Beane.
Now playing in both Sydney and Melbourne (on September 2, the show will close in Sydney, where it premiered last year), I've heard plenty about the behind-the-scenes difficulties along the way. As you may recall, I even took in a rather early version last December and found it to be a campy hoot -- even better than reigning Broadway camp darling Xanadu.
After creating the film version in 1992, Stephan Elliott experienced a bomb with his next and fourth flick in 1997 ("Welcome To The Woop-Woop"). He sold the stage rights of his true hit to Englishman Alan Scott. Still, Elliott was asked to write a stage version and created an entirely new script that was a complete departure from the plot of the film.
But that version was trashed, and instead, the team headed into the first workshop with the film script in hand and Tony Sheldon and director Simon Phillips handling most of the dramaturgical work.
For the second workshop the script, Scott added most of the detail surrounding the storyline involving Tick's son, including a Lego scene. By that time, Philip Scott was brought in to "joke up" the script. Entering the workshop, he reworked much of the script to maintain character consistency while adding more humor.
It was at that stage that Elliott absolved himself of the show and turned on the production by saying publicly that it was ill-conceived.
Unfettered, the production team headed into rehearsals, with Philip Scott handling one-off rewrites, and surprise! The show opened to mostly positive reviews and built a head of steam through excellent word of mouth. The buzz I was hearing from Australia was tremendous -- even despite difficulties during the first week of previews when the pivotal bus literally broke down the show.
With the original film being one of Australia's all-time favorite movies, the stage adaptation already had a built-in audience. So it wasn't a surprise when opening night was described to me as being "extraordinary with such goodwill."
Suddenly realizing that they had a hit on their hands, Stephan Elliott reasserted himself back into the picture (with the assent of the producers) and slowly began altering the script and reincorporating dialog he had written. Those changes have been described to me as "changes for changes sake rather than making it better," and began to appear on the stage shortly after I saw the production in December.
Among the alterations was a speech by Bernadette after the bus was defaced in which she said, "So much space and yet no room for us out here." That was changed to what's described to me as a "rant against how vile suburbia was and the only place gays were safe was the city."
Last I heard, the film speech was back.
And if all that background isn't enough, Philip Scott himself authored his own behind-the-scenes story, "Scripting Priscilla" that appeared in SX, a gay Australian publication. While the story is no longer available online, my sources have provided me with the copy for publication here:
When Stephan Elliott’s movie "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" was released I knew very little about drag. I remember being turned on by Guy Pearce’s pumped pecs peeking out from under a feather boa; steroids had done their work well, I was later told. (If you don’t believe me, take another look at "Memento.") I recall being slightly turned off by Terence Stamp’s grumpy Bernadette, thinking her unsympathetic as a person and uncomfortable as a drag performer. I preferred Stamp when he was blonde and boyish in Ustinov’s 1962 movie of "Billy Budd." In fact, as a young man Terence Stamp looked rather like Stephan Elliott.
In late ‘94 I appeared in the Tilbury Hotel’s Christmas Panto, Pavlova, Queen of the Dessert, which sent the movie up. One night, Stephan Elliott’s parents came to see the show and his dad made an impromptu speech from the stage. “He didn’t get all this from my side of the family,” his dad insisted.
Twelve years later, I had dinner with Stephan at the home of his friend and sometime investor Rebel Penfold. Her house at Bondi is built on a cliff and looks directly across to Icebergs. She owns a lampshade from the original Broadway production of The Pajama Game. Serious money; serious wine cellar.
Stephan was sussing me out to be a co-writer on the stage version of Priscilla. He grilled a gigantic steak and we chatted about the project (but not too much, as there was no deal in place). I’d watched the DVD again that afternoon, and realised the camera did all the work. A close-up of Terence Stamp or Hugo Weaving shows us a life story without anyone having to say a lot about it, but on stage these characters would need to talk (or sing) to make us care about them.
More wine appeared. Stephan talked about his serious skiing accident. He had busted his pelvis and had learned to walk again from scratch. His life is like that; kind of on the edge.
I would be arriving late in the show’s creative process. There had already been an early workshop in Melbourne, home of the director Simon Phillips. It had utilised the talents of Tony Sheldon as Bernadette, Jeremy Sandford as Mitzi, Spencer McLaren as Felicia, and John Wood as Bob the mechanic. Two script drafts had been used, radically different from each other and both miles away from the movie -- especially Stephan’s quirky, tangential rethink, which the producers rejected.
Stephan had sold the stage rights of Priscilla to an English scriptwriter named Allan Scott, whose credits include "Dante’s Peak." Since then the two had had a falling out. Allan is one of the producers of the stage musical, and later told me he had invited Stephan to participate, even though he need not have done so since Stephan no longer had any legal claim on the work. No way was I buying into that argument!
Eventually I was on board, and headed off to Melbourne for the second Priscilla workshop. By this time, I had acquired a working knowledge of drag, having written dialogue for the DIVAs and spent many nights at the Imperial hotel (some of which I could even vaguely remember).
As we sat around on day one to read the existing script, Tony Sheldon tapped me on the arm.
“Well?” he asked, “Where are all these jokes you’re supposed to be putting in?” I freaked. “Stop it!” I said. “I’m here under false pretences! Don’t you ever feel like that?” He smiled. “Always,” he whispered.
I was nervous because part of my job was to work with Allan Scott, and basically to be liked by him. I would be the trusted middleman between Allan and Stephan (who was not coming). Me, a diplomat? I couldn’t see it. Luckily I found Allan genial, receptive and -- like any professional writer -- anxious to fix things that weren’t working. I discovered he had been a stand-up comic in Australia, appearing on Graham Kennedy’s show in the 1960s.
My first contribution was a gag about Azaria Chamberlain. It got a roar from the cast but also a few “ooohs.”
“Is that going to be offensive?” Simon asked. “No,” I assured him, “it’s hysterical”. (He shouldn’t have asked me: I’m always amused by things that upset other people.) The joke stayed in for opening night, although it remains in brackets in the official script.
We retained iconic lines from the movie, because punters would expect to hear them and because they were punchy, then added new gags and specific character-driven moments. I think Stephan was worried the producers might tone down the gay content -- though it’s hard to imagine how, without completely altering the whole premise. A more pressing problem was language: there are a fair few “f***s” in Priscilla. It’s hard to believe people get worked up over swearing when there’s so much else in the world to worry about.
Still, we wanted their money so we walked that tightrope. By week’s end the script was almost as advanced as plans for the opening night party.
When rehearsals began for real, casting was complete. Daniel Scott had been extracted from Dusty to play Felicia (a tricky manoeuvre because he’d signed a run of show contract). My Wharf Revue mate Genevieve Lemon was playing the Broken Hill “mullet.” Sydney drag identity Trevor Ashley had lobbied everyone in sight for a role: he impressed the producers so much at his audition, a new part was created for him (Miss Understanding). Bob was to have been played by Bille Brown, a brilliant actor best known here for his Oscar Wilde in The Judas Kiss. Bille dropped out for reasons unknown and the role went to an actor who epitomises the Aussie everyman: Michael Caton. Michael and Jeremy Sandford immediately demanded more comic lines.
In early September I met up with Stephan in London. Having blown hot and cold about Priscilla, the musical for months, he now seemed happy or at least accepting of it. “As long as they don’t ask me to do any interviews,” he warned. (Later he told an ABC TV interviewer the stage version wouldn’t work!)
With the first performances approaching, the show was beset by technical problems. The bus, a computer-driven nightmare, was taking forever to get right. One of its problems was an over-sensitive safety mechanism: too easily activated, it repeatedly shut everything down, requiring a complete reboot. First and second previews were scrapped, but the Friday preview was to be a sold out charity night with proceeds going to ACON. The producers had to decide which was the best-case PR scenario: cancel altogether or go ahead, explain what was missing, and hope for the best.
In the foyer of the Lyric Theatre that evening I bumped into the show’s publicist, Judith Johnson. She looked stressed. “The show has never been run straight through,” she complained. “Act 2 hasn’t had a technical rehearsal and the lighting’s not finished!” I urged her to relax --though if Darlinghurst turned against Priscilla her job would be hell.
An excited and very queer audience took their seats as Simon Phillips came on stage to flag that the show might stop in its tracks. Did it what! We heard his amplified voice echo throughout the theatre: “Actors! Get out of the way or the bus will take you out.” The audience giggled but the situation was genuinely dangerous.
Fortunately, there was enough goodwill from the crowd to get us through. During each breakdown they applauded encouragingly (little realising the wait might be half an hour or longer). The cast were tremendous under these testing circumstances. For the first time, we saw Tony Sheldon’s witty, human, utterly believable Bernadette.
The bus went back to the depot for the next few performances. Meanwhile, I got a text message on the Monday night: Judith Johnson had collapsed and died that morning of a ruptured aorta. She had been a pillar of the Sydney theatre scene for decades. Everybody was stunned. Judith’s face kept popping into my mind for weeks afterwards.
As technical difficulties were ironed out, further changes were made. Act 2 was too long. I’d always felt there was a traffic jam of slow tempo numbers just when the pace needed to pick up. Clearly Simon felt the same, because he cut one: Eric Carmen’s “All by Myself.” Daniel sang a short reprise of that song at an important dramatic point in Felicia’s story, but now, without the earlier rendition, the reprise got an unexpected laugh and Daniel was furious! On opening night, a reprise of “Go West” appeared in its place; the moment worked properly and Daniel nailed it.
Opening night: Terence Stamp was there, Barry Humphries, Carlotta and, well, the gAy-list. At the after party, Stephan turned to me with a gleam in his eye and announced: “Now we can start to tinker with it!” My heart sank. Didn’t we owe the actors a few weeks to settle in? In any case, Simon and I were moving on to other shows. (Much smaller ones).
I returned a week later as part of a regular audience, all average mums and
dads. Some of them found aspects of Priscilla confronting: mostly the language, sometimes the sexuality. Women responded more readily than men, who seem to regard transvestism as a mysterious and possibly exciting threat.
By the end, the spectacular cossies and set, the music and the performances had won everyone over. Whether that crowd took their newfound tolerance home with them is debatable, but I’d like to think so. Priscilla is a family show -- for a 21st century family.
As Paul Harvey used to say, now you know the rest of the story. But of course, the final chapter hasn't even been written. At least when the day comes when (not if) Priscilla Queen Of The Desert - The Musical is about to open on Broadway, you'll have a greater appreciation for how it got so far.
This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).
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