New York Times
A Broadway Makeover for ”˜Priscilla’ Queens
By PATRICK HEALY
March 10, 2011
IN the London production of the musical “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” the first character who commands the stage is a minor one, a drag queen named Miss Understanding who trades in risquÃ© repartee.
“I’m so excited, I’ve had to use gaffer tape to contain myself,” she says, then mimes ripping tape off her groin. “Ow! I love a good Brazilian. Any out there?”
Those jokes are gone from the new Broadway version of “Priscilla,” which is in previews at the Palace Theater. Miss Understanding’s plot function has also been pared. And now the first character who grabs your focus is the leading man, Tick (played by Will Swenson), as he wheels a suitcase across the stage.
These changes are among many that “Priscilla” has undergone in a long and rare sort of journey to Broadway, from the 1994 Australian movie to the musical’s first workshop in Sydney in 2005 – and then full productions there and in Melbourne; Auckland, New Zealand; the West End in London; Toronto; and New York, where the show opens March 20.
Simon Phillips, the musical’s director from the start, said that his North American producers – led by the entertainer Bette Midler – have offered extensive notes on polishing “Priscilla” for the highly competitive market of commercial Broadway. “Audiences here like to know, quickly and clearly, who their leading man is,” Mr. Phillips said he had learned, so opening with Miss Understanding might confuse some people.
Ms. Midler said she was among those advising that a musical about two drag queens and a transsexual on a road trip didn’t need extra raciness or profanity. One common obscenity, for instance, is used about a dozen times in the Broadway version, down from 18 elsewhere.
“You still get the flavor that has always been part of ”˜Priscilla,’ but it’s not quite as down and dirty, not as in your face so much so that you might pull back,” Ms. Midler said in an interview. “It manages to have all the fun of camp without too much of the dark side of camp and drag. Which for Broadway, I think, is a good thing.”
If “Priscilla” has been pruned to appeal to tourists from Middle America – a lucrative bloc that has helped make some producers here more conservative than those in the West End and Australia – the musical is still more tart, catty and flamboyantly gay than any other major show running in New York.
To be sure, the production isn’t shy with its base about its true colors. Cast members of the show gave one of their first long interviews to The Advocate, a magazine popular with gay readers, and a direct-mail promotion included a message from Ms. Midler – a favorite performer among gay men – (complete with a pink backdrop) that began, “Hello my darlings!” Several songs by Madonna, another gay idol, have been added, and she has also replaced the less-famous (and Australian) Kylie Minogue as the heroine of one of the drag queens, Felicia (Nick Adams).
But this is also an era when Broadway productions with gay themes are packaged as family shows, so much so that the casual observer might not have realized that the main characters in the recent play “Next Fall” or the current revival of “La Cage aux Folles” were gay lovers.
The creators and producers of “Priscilla” spoke at length about how their show is about families: a man reuniting with his son (the father happens to be gay); another man falling in love with a lonely woman (who happens to be transsexual); and the three central friends acting as the all-but-the-bloodlines family that gay men and lesbians have formed in private for ages.
The producers say that tourists at the TKTS discount ticket booth, across Seventh Avenue from the theater, will know that the show is about drag queens, and (American edits aside) that it has a sensibility that leans toward gender-reassignment-surgery humor. At the same time much of the main advertising has been as comely as possible, featuring the beautiful women – actual women – who play the divas, supporting characters who deliver some of the songs. Mr. Phillips said he opted against extensive marketing with images of the three male leads in drag because “drag is incredibly difficult to photograph.”
Tony Sheldon, a veteran Australian actor who has played the transsexual Bernadette from the start, said that even though elements of the show and its marketing had been “toned down,” “the one thing we’ve insisted on hanging onto is the roughness and abrasiveness to the musical.”
“This can’t be a streamlined Las Vegas drag show,” said Mr. Sheldon, who received a nomination for an Olivier Award (the London version of the Tony) for his performance. “It’s about three outsiders in a very hostile environment.” If you lose the coarseness of the worlds they travel in, you lose part of what’s special about the show.”
Not everyone is content with the changes. Tim Chappel won the 1994 Academy Award for best costume design for “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” along with Lizzy Gardiner, and they have repeated their efforts for the musical. But he said his vision for an “over-the-top campy entrance” for Felicia’s first drag number was scaled back to a wig-and-dress get-up that was less flashy.
“Too many changes have been made to make the show feel, I don’t know, safer for Broadway,” said Mr. Chappel. “The most ridiculous was the insistence that Tick look like an American-style leading man, a romantic lead, masculine, less gay, in order to get more bums in the seats.”
Garry McQuinn, a lead producer from the get-go, said the accommodations did not stem from prudishness.
“We’re responding to a certain sensibility in New York that if you do X, you’ll sell more tickets,” he said. “At the same time we haven’t done anything that changes the essential story of these three queens and their wild adventure.”
From the very start, Mr. McQuinn said, the creators of the musical experimented with changes with an eye toward improving upon the film, which had obscured key plot points like Tick’s undertaking the road trip to reunite with his son Benji. At the first workshop the musical was initially going to be a show within a show about characters trying to re-enact scenes from the “Priscilla” film. That idea was abandoned, and early productions in Australia were dominated by Mr. Sheldon’s Bernadette. With every new mounting the show has turned more into Tick’s story, given that his love for Benji was the fulcrum of the plot for the creators.
While in past productions Benji did not appear until late in Act II, the boy is now seen throughout Act I to underscore the family theme. He implores Tick to visit him, for instance, a request that in previous incarnations came from Benji’s mother and Tick’s beard of a wife, Marion.
“The thinking was that in America having a child say he needs his father would convey the stakes of the road trip immediately to an audience,” said Mr. Phillips, the director.
Allan Scott, who wrote the script with the movie’s director and screenwriter, Stephan Elliott, said that a major payoff of the current version is its impact on heterosexual men in the audience, who have been known to shed some tears as Tick and Benji sing “You Were Always on My Mind” to each other near the finale.
“All along we’ve wanted the audience to go away with a greater appreciation for tolerance and a greater appreciation for family,” Mr. Scott said. “But first you have to get the audience to come to your show, and I think we’ve found ways to do that.”