Ever wondered how Priscilla Queen of the Desert – the Musical came into being?
The show is based on the 1994 film, starring Terence Stamp, which was written and directed by Stephan Elliot. The film attacked the mythology of the heterosexual outback male, the ‘good ‘ocher’, like Crocodile Dundee. It showed these straight, white, Australian men to be heavy drinkers suspicious of anything they don’t understand, violent, rude and vulgar. Their definitions of masculinity constrained and rigid. In the film the desert landscape provides an amazing, extremely natural backdrop to the artificiality of the drag queens. One of the most powerful moments of the film shows the main characters, in full drag, climbing up King’s Canyon.
Priscilla Queen of the Desert – The Musical brings the same basic story to the West End stage. But what happens to it without backdrop of the Australian desert and does it matter in the end?
The Priscilla of the title isn’t a cast member as such but she is definitely becomes a character in the show. She is in fact a purpose-built VW bus. But this is a VW like no other you’ve ever seen before!
5 little known facts about the amazing bus at the heart of the story.
Not just any old VW bus Priscilla forms an integral part of the stage set for the show.
- She is 8 meters long and weighs almost 6 tons and she sits on a ring revolve
- She has a fully retractable side wall panel
- She has 3 internal hydraulic lifts
- She can shake
- Like any great disco setting she changes colour, thanks to 100s of LED lights in her panelling.
Like many VW busses Priscilla can be temperamental and her computer gave the show’s producers a few headaches during pre-views. By the way, did you spot the divas up above the bus? Read on to discover more about their role in the story…
Although we all know that the bus is supposed to be the queen of the show she’s got some serious competition from the other stars of the show. Jason Donovan plays Tick who’s alter ego is drag queen Mitzi Del Bra. Tick agrees to travel to Alice Springs, in the heart of the Australian outback to do a show and invites outrageous fellow drag queen Adam, Felicia (Oliver Thornton) and recently bereaved, transsexual Bernadette (Tony Sheldon) to join him. They travel in a beat up, old VW bus which Adam christens Priscilla. Along the way they collect Bob, the mechanic, meet a variety of Australian characters (mostly in bars, see above!) and eventually reach Alice Springs where Tick is reconciled with his 8-year-old son Benjamin. Some find love, others understanding and all emerge stronger and better able to cope. It’s hard to say who is ‘queen’ of the London production but Tony Sheldon’s performance as Bernadette takes some beating.
Then there are those queens of disco, the Divas.The Divas are 3 first class singers who have been added to the stage show to get over the problem of miming. At several points in the show the three drag artistes mime as part of their stage shows, just like real drag acts would. To avoid the danger of the audience feeling the show was anything other than 100% live the idea of the 3 divas, described by Stephan Elliott the film’s writer/director, as ‘desert drag goddesses’, was born. The 3 divas sing and their songs are lip-synched simultaneously by the leads. The divas have to have amazingly strong disco voices that will stand up to the power of songs like I Will Survive and Downtown.
Not only that they have to deliver these show-stopping songs whilst while suspended high above the stage, supported by harnesses that run right across their abdominal muscles. It is quite incredible that they are able to belt out these powerful anthems in such a precarious position! Being suspended causes another problem for the divas. Any wild movements and the whole set will start to swing. All their actions while they are up there have to be concentrated on their arms from the elbow to the fingertips. The divas in London are currently played by Zoe Birkett, Kate Gillespie and Emma Lindars.
The staging of the show is supposed to evoke the Australian desert. This is mostly done with atmospheric lighting but it can’t really compete with the reality of the film. And why should it? This is a stage musical after all and we are there more for the music and the spectacle than any deep meaningful insights. The desert and the feeling of heat was such a big part of the original film because the outback has special cultural significance to Australians. This is perhaps less true for a UK audience and anyway we’re far to busy bopping along to some disco classics to worry too much about anything deep and meaningful! Bring on the dancing cup cakes I say .
So there you have it, Priscilla, queen, desert, at the end of the day what matters most seems to be the celebration of the human spirit, love, energy and excitement of disco rather than anything too deep.