Priscilla - Diary of a Broadway Opening
Submitted by Simon Parris on Sunday, 3rd Apr 2011
Huge thanks to Dean Bryant who has allowed Theatre People to run these edited highlights of the lead up to Priscilla's Broadway opening night.
Not acquainted with the terms 'full bead', 'Gypsy Robe', 'God mic'? Read on...
Broadway – Day 1
The Palace Theatre. Where Judy played. And Liza. And Aida, but I’m not going to count that. And now, Priscilla, really the first Australian musical to make it to Broadway, leading man (lady?) intact, and creative team still at the helm. A show that ran without stopping for the first time on opening night in Sydney, 2006, has landed right next to the tkts booth in Times Square, mythological heart of the American masterpiece, the musical.
Of course, under worklights, all theatre magic fades pretty quickly. The flitter was up, the bus centre stage, and the auditorium full of the tables for all of the various creative and technical staff. The Palace is really beautiful. It has a wonderful proscenium that Priscilla fits inside perfectly. The stalls (orchestra in the US) are big, without the sightline issues of some theatres we play. And it does that magical thing that all good Broadway theatres do, it wraps the audience around the action onstage. Said hello to our wonderful stage management team and wondered at the many unknown people now staffing Priscilla here. Then Si (Simon Phillips) and I went to our beloved casting agents, Telseys, and began the last round of auditions.
Eric, our frighteningly skilled Dance Captain, had winnowed the best of available Broadway talent down for us to choose our last two cast members. He’d drilled them into “Raining Men” for the boys and “I Will Survive” for the girls. Auditions are surreal, especially when you’ve just landed in a new city and realise they’ve been going on for weeks. Rapport has been built up as people progress through the rounds, hoping for that coveted position in the original Broadway cast. After they’d sung, danced, read for understudies and been Diva blended we chose our final two, and a Benji alternate.
Benji casting is my specialty. The Broadway kids are freakishly assured, and better prepared than new grads back home. They’ve got their sheet music, march straight up to the pianist, guide them through tempo and nail it first time. Acting can be tricky here, because there’s a style of kid acting that is almost in quotation marks. Basically “cute”. Which doesn’t work for our show. The kids need to be quirky and natural. You can tell the ones with a chance the second they walk in.
The team gathered at the rather sophisticated Alvin Ailey Studios this morning to set up and rehearse for the Media Launch. The cast turned up at 8am, with lots of hugging and admiring of new haircuts. Then we started to create the media versions of the numbers. In a show that is so set and costume dependent it’s surreal to strip all that away and perform for the mass of NY press in just sweats, under fluoros with piano accompaniment. So we do a version of “Go West” that doesn’t need a bus entry (the major part of that song) or meeting the Lars’, or any dialogue really. A version of “It’s Raining Men” where Tick doesn’t transform before our eyes. The Funeral was pretty much as is, except without costumes. Tony is particularly elegant in a windcheater, jeans and nude illusion heels.
Andy worked the cast hard for a couple of hours and then we broke to allow the media to enter, and the male ensemble to reapply their makeup. The turnout was a little alarming. I haven’t seen a crowd that big since Bindi Irwin walked the carpet at G’Day LA 2007.
The press are a tough audience, seeing three or four of these a week, and a feeling of “show me” pervades the air. Plus a fair degree of perspiration in the typically overheated room. The cast performed with zest and after half an hour we’d completed the show part of the day.
The afternoon was given over to redoing the opening number. Essentially we’re expanding on what we did for Toronto, bringing Miss Understanding into this number to really set up the Imperial Hotel and having Tick arrive into the club late as usual. It feels punchy and the storytelling is great. Spud’s new arrangement is phenomenal with so much vocal texture. We’re teching it tomorrow and then see the new costumes on Friday.
Today started so well. And continued that way. Which means I’ve now jinxed tech. The good luck sign was finding a coffee shop on Manhattan that does world-class coffee. By world-class I mean a level of coffee than an Aussie would drink without spitting it into the gutter.
We jauntily strolled out caffeinated way to the Palace where Simon welcomed the cast to their new home. They miced up and we began the sometimes tortuous process of teching Priscilla. It was pretty fluid this time as all of the main folks are still with us from Toronto, with the same pre-programmed bus, show deck, fly deck etc. We took a bit of time putting in the new cues for the extended “Raining Men” then pushed on through the show. We made great time and were through all of Act 1 and half of Act 2 before we called it a night.
Highlights of the day were seeing the new set of costumes for “Raining Men” – colourful, 80s, gay-cliches and apparently fitted within an inch of the boys’ life. Lots of other costume tweaks for Broadway, all of which looked great. A big discussion ensued as to whether the road signs (Top Ryde, Bumbaldry, Cockburn) needed distance put next to them to make clear it was a long way to Broken Hill. But basically it was a speedy and joy-filled day, getting back to work on this show again.
Day 4 and 5
We slowed down a little in tech this afternoon – so much is exactly the same as Toronto that you tend to whip ahead, but things like the balcony overhang are different, so we stopped to figure out how to best hang and light the Divas in “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”. After half an hour in the air, the title of the number gets rather ironic. Jackie questioned whether we were actively trying to ruin her sex life.
The Coober Pedy barrel roll was about as disastrous as the day got. Some of the cast had forgotten to come onstage so barrels were rolled out one wing and then disappeared into the other wing, unstopped. It was like that train movie that’s out at the moment. Unstoppable. But not as dramatic. Though shorter. I digress.
We completed the show about two hours earlier than the schedule, so had a look at the new “Raining Men” costumes under the light, then all got an early mark.
The next day was the beginning of the dress. We anticipated slowing down here, as the costume changes are torturous the first few times. But somehow, even with an entirely new team of dressers, we absolutely sped through the areas that usually hold us up (into Funeral, into “Material Girl/Venus”, especially into “Nightlife” for the leads…) It was so impressive that Simon congratulated the team over the God mic. (The god mic is the microphone that God gets to use. God is the director. Or maybe it’s because it sounds like the voice of God in the auditorium).
There’s been some wonderful work on the costumes – the Funeral ones have been extra-sparkled (with a rather amusing Elvis costume for Jessica) – and the ever-changing day clothes have been sorted. Day clothes are interesting on Priscilla – it’s not what anyone remembers about the show, what with the paintbrushes, cupcakes and cockatoos, but they’re really the costumes we see most of, seeing as they’re what our three leads wear in “normal” scenarios.
The rehearsal continued and we made our way through the show, into paintbrushes, into Gumbies.
Then our first run of Act 1 in costumes. Pretty flawless, already looking a million bucks, which is good, as we cost 15.
Today was the dressing of Act Two. It went really smoothly.
I got to the theatre early, thinking I’d do a little work before we started. There is a strange rule here, however, that the power can’t be turned on before a certain person arrives. Not the general power, though, there is still lights, heating etc, just the power that we’re using for our laptops and the internet. I think this is bizarre. No idea if it’s a house rule or a union rule. Working around the world on Priscilla you learn so much about the strange and varied practises of theatre crews. For example in Canada the actors have ten minute breaks, but the crew have fifteen minute breaks. Ok, but the actors aren’t allowed on the stage unless the crew is back from break. Even to walk across the stage. So essentially everyone is forced to take fifteen minute breaks.
Simon gave the male ensemble the haircut talk. Ie, that you have to keep in mind how your hair looks for Nightlife above all, one of the only unwigged numbers in the show (for the boys), and the one scene that has to look, well, daggy. It’s a little high fashion amongst the boys at the moment. It’s more likely that the queens would walk into the bar and get squeals of joy and shots bought for them.
The magic cloth is still proving unmagical. It’s a fairly low tech part of the show – basically a curtain that just goes back and forth across the stage during the floor show, but it continues to prove difficult (and has since Toronto). It just does not want to behave – getting caught, not going fully off, showing the performers getting into place. Meanwhile the bus behaves like a pro, hitting her marks every time.
Dinner was spent reviewing the minor script tweaks for previews. There’s a couple of things being balanced for comprehension, for better character work, for comedy, all the usual stuff. Previews are a week away, and we’ll be trying all these during those three weeks, but it’s good to get some order into what we’re trying to achieve.
The day started for me with rehearsing the Benjis. Ashton joined us today, he’s 7 and a half. Luke is 9, so I asked him to mentor Ashton – you know, show him the blocking, teach him the accent – do my job, basically. The two of them together have so much energy they could power the bus. I’ve never been off on so many tangents while trying to discuss a very basic scene. But they’re both incredibly quick – Luke still had the accent and blocking down pat from Toronto, and Ashton had learned the whole script over the weekend. And can mimic an Aussie accent to perfection. We had an amusing moment, where I felt every one of my 34 years.
Dean: Ashton, can you add a word here? “Elvis? Will you do Elvis PRESLEY for me?”
Ashton: Ok. “Elvis? Will you do Elvis PRECISELY for me?”
Dean: No, it’s Presley. It’s his surname.
Ashton: Whose surname?
Ashton: Who’s Elvis?
We then worked the show meticulously, since we’d broken the back of it last week. ”Raining Men” is being refined beat-by-beat for storytelling, as well as lighting. Simon redid some of the Black Stump blocking, to suit the new rewrites that we’re road-testing. It was much slower than we’d been so far, but now is the time for it. We should pretty much work through at this pace till Wed eve. Then the band gets added to the mix.
Oh, and Ashton got teched into his first scene. On his first day of rehearsal. That’s fast!
Favourite moment of the day has to be a story related by Tony Sheldon. Meeting the new Benjis (the 7 year old) can be tricky – usually we introduce them at tech/dress time, and the way the costumes look onstage isn’t always how they look in the wing. You might have some makeup on, a wig cap, a corset, heels and a dressing gown. It can be confusing for the boys as to what species an actor is, let alone gender.
Tony, who plays Bernadette, a very glamourous woman of a certain age, hadn’t met Ashton yet. The costume he was prepared for, when the moment came around, was “Shake Your Groove Thing”. Let me describe; a cheerleader outfit, heightened, with a pom-pom headdress and oversized runner boots. But this isn’t how Tony starts the day, he has to underdress the skirt because of a quick change, so is wearing a full face of makeup, a turban with blonde hair spilling out, and a pair of his own rundown brown loafers to walk up to stage comfortably. Tony spies Ashton and thinks – hmm…not the best look, but best to get the greeting done. He strides forward manfully, shakes Ashton’s hand firmly and says “G’day mate, I’m Tony.” Ashton’s eyes widen, he looks Tony up and down and says:
“You’re not wearing those shoes with that outfit, are you?”
Out of the mouths of fashionista babes.
Many people think life in the theatre is exciting and glamorous. That’s what our publicists are paid to make it look like. For anyone who wishes to be cured of this, sitting through tech rehearsals as you spend an hour refining one lighting cue would be the perfect treatment. Utterly crucial for a show that may not be looked at this intensely again, nevertheless the painstaking work is…well…pain-causing.
Our rehearsal drummer, Warren, was added back to the pit today and the difference it made was tremendous. Suddenly it sounded like a big musical again – which is odd, really, because it’s just keys and kit – but the show pounded to life and performances picked up everywhere, influenced by the percussion.
Spent the morning collating notes with Simon, all the minor areas that need attention – everything from figuring out how to chop a few seconds out of the Finally animation to match the cuts, to whether we should flesh-colour the straps underneath the Groove headdresses, how to cue “Go Poofter” with the ensemble tightly, how much smoke should be on Benji during the “Prayer” reprise. Simon’s eye is meticulous, virtually nothing gets by him, amazing after five years of looking at the show.
We picked up at the Dressing Room scene going into the Floor Show. This features one of our simplest but wittiest costume sets – and you only get to look at it for about 5 seconds! 50s style swimsuits for the leads with stiletto flippers and sunglasses with false eyelashes.
Finally the magic cloth lived up to it’s name and was swooping like an ice skater at the Olympics. A lot of this part of the show was spent teching Ashton in – sort of a backwards process as he hasn’t really had that much rehearsal yet, but it’s the perfect time to make sure he’s aware of how the travelator etc works. We spent quite a lot of time figuring out exactly at what point the lights should come up on the Cockies flying in, to get maximum bang for our buck.
Then we teched through “Finally” again. I love this number. I remember making it up with Spud and Simon in the former Brent Street rehearsal room after we’d finished one day. A glass of wine in hand, I paraded in and out as the various animals as Spud decided where to chop and change the songs, finally blending it into the harmonic orgasm it is today. I was always best at the Emu, though still can’t do the actual choreography. I feel this number is the epitome of wonder and imagination – both visually, I mean who thinks of the idea of dressing adults up as burlesque flora and fauna (Oscar winners Tim and Lizzie) – but also that kind of joy of being grown up but being allowed to be a kid again, playing dress ups in front of your parents, just this time with a shit-hot band and lighting design. And flying, and a bus and lifts. I never tire of it.
And then we had our first dress run. The Broadway engines fired up and the show sprang from the footlights. It was pretty intense how energised it was. The hibernation of the month off was completely over and each performer seized their moments. Everyone was in full makeup for the first time, the lighting was gorgeous and all the work of the last week and a half fully present onstage. We could’ve had an audience at this and they would’ve been thrilled. From the moment that giant disco ball dropped down over the stalls the vibe was palpable.
A great run, refinding the heart of the show, and exactly where we should be five days before our first Broadway audience.
Sitzprobe. What a strange term. I’ve been part of them for over a decade without really exploring where the word came from. It sounds painful…well, certainly without having a few drinks first. Surprisingly, it’s usually one of the least painful and most enjoyable days of the tech period. It’s when the full band is introduced back in and the actors get to hear how the show is really going to sound. They get to drop costumes, makeup and all the paraphernalia and reconnect with the score, just like in those first days of music calls (five months ago, now). But there’s the added infusion that comes from hearing the pound of the show – the blare of the horns, the whine of the guitar, the thump of the electric bass, the delicacy of the flute. Yes, we actually do have a flute in the Priscilla orchestration.
Our process for sitzprobe doesn’t involve any sitting. Spud has the actors go through the physical motions of the show (marking the choreography) to give Jonathan, our sound designer, the best possible chance at micing the performers exactly how they’re going to be at any given time during the show. We usually run each number 3-4 times, depending on the difficulty of cueing and balance. “Raining Men” sounded phenomenally exciting – it’s such a perfect opener for this show – bringing the audience into the heightened world of gay clubs, introducing the powerhouse Divas and also letting them know “hey, you’re gonna know all these songs, but be surprised at how we use them”. I don’t miss “Downtown/Never Been to Me”, our old openers, though Ross’ choreography was brilliant at creating a downtown cityscape – it was often compared to a modern “Runyonland”.
We ran through the afternoon, number by number. It was great to be reminded how good Spud’s orchestration of “Material Girl” is – taking the song as you know it, but amping it up into a 70s power-rock anthem. We’d finally solved the “I Will Survive” problem – over the years the necessity of keeping that number strict has made it a minefield for the queens and Jimmy to time their jokes. Somehow Spud has found a way to get air into the large middle sequence, freeing the actors to time it to the audience each night.
The final stage of any theatre production is dress rehearsals. Everything is added (except the audience) at this point. Usually overwhelming on Priscilla, it was kind of a breeze this time, well out front anyway. I hear backstage is frenzied hysteria. They’re doing a very good job of hiding it as everyone comes out looking great, full bead on (that’s a US term for “face of makeup”, singing along with our rocking band.
We’re taking tons of notes, but they’re of the minor kind now (that curtain looks a bit messy, what should the inside of the suitcase look like, could we do Young Bernadette’s eyebrows better) rather than the sort of notes we took during dress rehearsal in Sydney (When will the bus move? Is the bus working today? Shall we do the show without the bus?)
When not running, the last two days was spent tweaking – giving Ashton some time with Will and Jess. He’s a really quick learner and him and Luke are completely winning as Benji. There’s always work to do on the interior of the bus – our designer Brian has made sure that even if the bus were being filmed for a movie it would look brilliant. His eye for detail is why he’s such a great designer for both mediums (he is famous, of course, for The Rocky Horror Show movie design). Jerry, our tireless props master, is bringing in new things all the time – we had fun figuring out what three things would fall out of Tick’s suitcase in the first song – the winners? A wig, a hairdryer and a boa (I pleaded for it not to be pink and Jerry found a rather elegant white boa with gold trimming).
And now we put the show before a Broadway audience for the very first time. I cannot put into a sentence how excited I am. Though I guess I just did.
2000 people roaring with delight at the enjoyment they’ve just had is pretty loud. We couldn’t have asked for a better response, or a better show than the first Broadway preview of Priscilla. Technically flawless, the show flowed from disco ball drop to party-on-down at the curtain, met with laughter, applause and genuine focus pretty much exactly as we hoped. All audiences are different, and yet, on this show, all first preview audiences have proven very similar – hyped for the good time they very much end up having. From the curtain speech, which got screams and applause the audience made vocally clear their enjoyment at the key early moments – the Diva fly in, the men bursting through the curtain, Tick’s transformation into Mitzi, the reveal of the puppets.
I was very excited for the show, but as curtain drew nearer started feeling nervous – what if this was the first time that our show didn’t jump across the footlights into the lap of the audience? The actors rose admirably to the challenge, thrilled to be performing to their people for the first time. Except Tony, of course, who was thrilled to be performing on the street of his lifelong dreams for the first time. It was interesting which moments were received differently – the audience got “Prayer” on both levels exactly as we’d hoped, and they really went with the “Fuck Off Faggots” moment, seeming pretty upset for our leads. The shoe coming off the bus didn’t get the applause it normally does on it’s reveal, but then got three rounds as it progressed out over the audience. They seemed to love the “national dancing” of the Tourists, laughing as the Japanese, Scots and Germans joined in.
Interval was a chance for Simon to confer with our producing team and assess the feel. Which was positive. Back for a rousing “Country Boy” the show shot through to the end, with the audience on their feet by the middle of “Finally”. Where they resolutely stayed until the curtain finally came down on the genuinely overwhelmed cast members. They said the screaming was so loud they couldn’t hear the band during the number.
Previews are exhilarating and exhausting in equal measure. You’re finally playing the show you’ve been working on for years to a real, paying audience, and getting the laughter, applause and riotous standing ovations (if you’re lucky, and we’re charmed thus far) but you’re also hyper-aware of how little time there is left to make this THE perfect version of the show, and hopefully one that will be embraced for years to come.
So you rehearse. And play 8 shows a week. And conduct meetings to discuss the script in incredibly close detail.
The actors, crew and creatives are of course exhausted. We’re in the fortunate position of tweaking a musical that’s working, that is getting brilliant word of mouth, and of course has been worked on in front of audiences for five years now. But still it’s a grueling schedule. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to go through this same process on a show that isn’t working.
Previews couldn’t have gone smoother and the buzz is building throughout Manhattan. Everywhere I go people have either seen it already and love it, or their friends have. We’re not counting our chickens (although there are several behind the bar in Broken Hill), continuing to refine and improve the show right up until Friday, when we “freeze” it to allow the actors to play five or so performances in a row in an unchanging production before the critics come.
Rehearsals get bitsier and bitsier as the show tightens. Where we used to rehearse whole numbers, we’re now down to tiny sections of songs. We put all the script changes in yesterday in one fell swoop (there wasn’t many), under the assumption that it was better to have the principals focus on that for one show, rather than constantly taking on a little bit of new every night. Morale is high and Magnolia Bakery just created a Priscilla cupcake.
Broadway Opening Night
I’m not sure I ever imagined I’d get to type “Broadway” and “Opening Night” in the same line. The magic of opening nights was pretty much dreamed up on that strip of 11 or so blocks in the middle of Manhattan. Ever since I used to read the Yearbook that World Book Encyclopedia put out annually, flicking to the section on “Theater” as it was quaintly spelled, I’d read what amazing musicals had opened and when in New York that year. If the internet hadn’t been invented, some goofy ten year-old boy would be flicking through the 2011 Yearbook and read about some show from Australia that opened, about three drag queens travelling through the outback on a bus, dancing, singing and zinging one-liners back and forth as a cavalcade of costumes spilled out onstage. And he would have been desperate to see that show.
I doubt I really thought that Broadway was within my reach when I avidly flicked through those volumes, wondering if the stage Chorus Line could be as good as the movie, whether Cats would ever come to Australia or what the hell Sarafina! was. Even now, a few days later, back in Melbourne and already deep in rehearsals for my next show, the shimmer of Broadway is still as mythical as the backstage of the Palace is mundane. Broadway is as much an ideal as it is a real place. It stands for pursuing the thing you love so intently that one day you walk through the doors of a theatre playing your own show on the street where every show you ever loved began.
So on March 20, 2011 I got to join 2000 hyped-up and overdressed theatregoers push their way into the Palace to watch Priscilla take her place on Broadway.
It was a crazed day. The festivities began onstage at 430pm with the passing of the Gypsy Robe. The cast gathered onstage where our dance captain, Eric Schiotto received this accolade (for the second time, actually). The robe goes to the ensemble member in the cast who has done the most number of shows and is passed, musical by musical, every opening night (By now, someone in The Book of Mormon is entrusted with it). Before it was passed on, recipients-past listed the shows they’d gotten it for – the highlight being Harvey Evans, a living legend and the original Young Buddy in Follies. Eric was required to run three circles of the stage as we touched the robe, bringing luck to the production.
For all the hysteria there was no rushing the start of the show. The pink carpet was covered with various celebs (Bette Midler [lead producer] and Audra McDonald, of course, Renee Zellweger, Christie Brinkley, Kathleen Turner, Joan Rivers…) and drag queens from here and abroad. I sat down next to Andy, surrounded by our various friends and 20 minutes late, the disco ball dropped and the craziness began.
How was the show? Flawless. The cast gave the sort of performance you want them to give – never pushing, spontaneous, clean and full of the detail you’d been working on for months.
How was the audience? Hysterical at the event to begin, then listening to the show they were actually at and finally rapturous in embracing what looks to be a new hit on Broadway.
There were tears, after, as the magnitude of what we’d accomplished sank in. But really, it was quite a calm feeling. In some ways, it was just another opening night among the many Priscilla has had. Her maturity as a production had taken away that edge of fear that the original opening in Sydney had – the “will-it-actually-go-all-way-without-stopping?” that led to a sense of euphoria possibly never to be topped in my life. The night felt right, well-earned and well-played.
The party was at Chelsea Piers and was a huge glass room looking out onto the Hudson with tables overflowing with roasts, skewers, pasta, onion rings (?), potatoes and more, scrumptious desserts (no cupcakes, yay!) and bars that never stopped. The cutest touch was a faux-casino with tables for craps, blackjack and roulette – we were issued with paper money but professional croupiers – it was very Vegas (though presumably mean to be Alice).
Opening night parties signal the beginning of something – the Broadway run of Priscilla. But for us Australians, of course, it marked the end – the end of our known time on this production, with our colleagues and with our friends in New York. So as the festivities wound down, the goodbyes began. I was very diligent for once and tried to make sure I saw everyone in the cast and crew. And thus the party ended.
I always wanted to go to New York. In 2011, along with my fellow creators and cast, my name is on the title page of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – the Original Broadway Cast Recording. Finally, it has happened to me.
Read the complete account of the process, and stay up to date with rehearsals for Next to Normal, at http://bryantandfrank.wordpress.com/
Photos: Dean Bryant