Drag Taking Over Broadway

Priscilla Queen of the Desert ”“ the Musical
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Grab Your Boa, Drag Takes Off on New York Stages
By Mark Kennedy
DECEMBER 22, 2010

NEW YORK ”“ Will Swenson went from very hairy to virtually hairless in a matter of weeks.

He jumped from acting in “Hair” in London’s West End in May to vamping in “Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical” in Toronto. Now instead of cultivating his curls, Swenson finds himself shaving – a lot.

“Definitely different from ‘Hair’ in that regard,” says the Tony Award-nominated actor in an interview from Canada. “In ‘Hair’ they were like, ‘Don’t cut anything.’ At ‘Priscilla’ they’re saying, ‘Cut everything.'”

When “Priscilla” comes to Broadway in February, Swenson won’t be alone in fighting razor burn: Drag is spicing up New York stages this winter, with actors of all backgrounds and ages slipping on fishnets and bustiers, Victorian dresses, nun habits, feathers, plaid skirts or luscious evening gowns.

The gender-bending can be a key part of the plot, as in “La Cage aux Folles” and “Priscilla,” or as an unmentioned twist, such as Charles Busch playing Mother Superior in “The Divine Sister” and Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell in “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

“There’s a blip clearly going on right now,” says Joe Jeffreys, a theater historian at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “It’s more like a pendulum – it goes forward and then it goes back.”

The pendulum this season also includes smaller moments of drag, including male actors playing female parts in the frantic Alfred Hitchcock send-up “The 39 Steps” and even in the hit Broadway musical “Billy Elliot,” which has a duet between the main character and his school chum as they try on women’s clothing. The off-Broadway revival of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” also touches on the controversial role drag has played in the gay community, with one character criticizing the practice as sexist and another finding comfort in it as he battles AIDS.

Busch – the Tony Award-nominated playwright of “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” and an actor who has built a 30-year career playing female roles in such comedies as “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” and “Die, Mommie, Die!” – considers the blip a coincidence.

“Every couple of years there just happens to be a number of shows running at the same time that have drag involved in it or men playing a female character,” he says. “These cycles come more frequently because the concept of an actor playing a female role has become less and less shocking or innovative.”

Certainly the concept of Bedford – a Tony-winning classical actor who specializes in Shakespeare and Moliere – playing a woman seemed unlikely just years ago. But he’ll soon be directing himself as the formidable Lady Bracknell in the Oscar Wilde’s comedy.

“I thought we might produce something different if we approached it in an utterly serious way, which is what we’ve done,” Bedford says. “I really mean this: I approached Lady Bracknell just as seriously as I approached King Lear.”

Bedford’s choice is not unprecedented. Although Lady Bracknell has been played by such actresses as Margaret Rutherford, Edith Evans, Joan Plowright and Judi Dench, the late William Hutt also took up the character’s parasol and fur stole to great acclaim at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in the 1970s.

Bedford says he viewed portraying Lady Bracknell as a way to add a farcical element to the production and as a professional challenge, although he admits he has played a woman once before.

“When I was 14, I did play the Virgin Mary,” he says. But that early role turned out to be less about choice than necessity: Bedford was at an all-boys Roman Catholic boarding school at the time. “I was thrilled doing any kind of acting at that point,” he says, laughing.

Drag is a stage convention with a long history – in many ways as long as theater itself. With women banned from the stage for centuries, it was left to men to play female roles. The first Antigones and Juliets had deep voices.

“Don’t forget that the two greatest periods of Western dramatic literature basically came about without any female on the stage – the Greek period and the Elizabethan period,” says Jeffreys. “It is the most traditional of theatrical art forms.”

Busch suspects the last big drag blip occurred in the mid-1990s when “Victor/Victoria” was on Broadway and “To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” – the inspiration for the upcoming Broadway show – were all in movie theaters.

He points to the importance of the original Broadway production of “La Cage aux Folles” for legitimizing drag on stage when it arrived in 1983, winning Tonys for best musical, costumes, book of a musical and original score.

“It did sort of demonstrate that a sort of candified, pretty, romanticized view of gay life could appeal to a wide, commercial public,” he says. “I think everything since then owes a big debt to the musical ‘La Cage aux Folles.’ I don’t think there would be ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’ on Broadway if there hadn’t been ‘La Cage aux Folles.'”

The third Broadway revival of “La Cage” shows no signs of slowing down, with the musical’s author Harvey Fierstein and Jeffrey Tambor stepping in next month to replace Kelsey Grammer and Douglas Hodge in the Tony-winning show.

For those who seek less adorable drag this winter, off-Broadway offerings are plenty, including shows by the foul-mouthed Jackie Beat singing “Sleigh Ride in Leather” and Justin Bond of Kiki & Herb, who reimagines Huckleberry Finn as a transsexual working in a Dixie bordello. If high camp is more you’re style, Richard Skipper will be channeling – and naturally dressing like – Carol Channing for a cabaret act.

The current wave of drag is being reflected in the larger pop culture, including Logo’s hit series “RuPaul’s Drag U” and James Franco in a dress and makeup on the cover of Candy magazine’s winter edition. Look also for Tyler Perry, who is readying his latest wig-and-padded-suit foray in “Madea’s Big Happy Family.”

Swenson sees the current crop of drag reflecting a larger trend of gay rights and nontraditional lifestyles steadily finding more acceptance, whether in same-sex marriage, anti-discrimination protections or the movement against anti-gay bullying.

But for Jeffreys, the current pendulum swing in favor of drag may have less to do with societal changes than something more old fashioned: the producers’ desire for economic advantage. “It can distinguish your show from the pack in some way,” he says. “You’ve got to have a gimmick and, yeah, it’ll sell a ticket for you.”

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