Following the success of the Priscilla Queen of the Desert movie, it took just two years to bring a musical adaptation to the stage. Producer Garry McQuinn admits the whole process was very quick, particularly when compared to today’s standards for staging a new musical. However, he can’t explain the secret to mounting a successful musical so quickly.
“It was the function of naivety more than anything! We really didn’t know what we were doing!” McQuinn laughed.
“I don’t know if you ever heard about the famous first preview in Sydney – four and a half hours! We opened the bar at interval and I said, ‘Give them all a drink – they deserve it!’ They had the best time ever! A 2,000 seat theatre in Sydney and there’s about 10,000 people who claim to have been there on the night!”
McQuinn explained the problem was that the biggest diva of all was Priscilla: the bus.
“I think back to that original bus and it was clunky and unreliable,” reflected McQuinn.
“This new production is, I suppose, far smoother in every single way than that original production, because we’ve had ten years of learning experience, ten years of audiences and ten years of improvements in technology. But we’ve debugged all that now. I think the ten year journey has taught us a lot about the show. This is pretty much different in every way; it’s refined beautifully. The story telling is wonderful, the company is wonderful.”
Being a big show, loaded with costumes, props and scene changes there is a risk the real heart of the story could be lost.
“The danger is, with these big technical shows, that you get caught up with the complexity of it and that was certainly a risk and it was a tight rope that we walked in Australia, when all you’re really doing is telling a story on stage. Priscilla’s story is a beautiful little picture. A beautifully hand-painted little picture. It’s the story of a man trying to reconnect with his son, but we surround it with a very big and expensive gold picture frame – with glitter on it – and sometimes you get dazzled by it. But in the end it’s about the story,” explained McQuinn.
McQuinn knows there is also a real risk that the show becomes all about Priscilla – the bus. Although an important part of the story, Priscilla is a mere prop, not the leading character.
Tony Sheldon has now taken to stage in the role of Bernadette more than 1,800 times. Garry McQuinn regards Berndaette as the “signature role”. It’s a role that introduced Sheldon to the rest of the theatrical world and opened up opportunities for him overseas.
“I’m proud of being part of his journey to the theatre capitals of the world. So, it’s easy to focus on Bernadette, but in fact the story is about a man and his son – and that’s Tick.”
Tick is played by David Harris, who has returned from New York for this leading role.
“I think that the accessibility of David as a performer, you know his personableness, his openness during the show and his humane quality, just shines out. I think we’ve been lucky throughout the journey of Priscilla, that now with 30 different productions, we’ve had 30 different Ticks, but David is outstanding. It’s on the shoulders and the back of other people, because we learn each time and we refine the book and we refine how you find the moments.”
While McQuinn acknowledged that every single performer is unique in their portrayal, he concluded, “David’s is just a beautiful and well-judged performance.”
Selling an Australian musical about three drag queens to the average theatre goer was always going to be a marketing challenge.
“You have to get over, in some markets, the inherent conservatism of those audiences. That was true in Broadway and that was certainly true when we toured the US. There were states that we were told we would never go into, and honestly, if you look at a map it’s the red states,” said McQuinn.
However, the team discovered that once they managed to get some of those conservative audiences into the theatre they were entranced by the story of a man and his son.
“The beating heart of this story is that little scene on the Lego bed in the show,” commented McQuinn.
“It’s like a punch in the heart, and then you see those same men, who said ‘I’m not going to see a show with men dressed as women’, with tears in their eyes. The quality of that little scene there – you don’t get there from nowhere. You build it up and David does a beautiful job. The fact that Tick’s a gay Dad? It just doesn’t matter. The fact that he dresses as a woman? It just doesn’t matter. It’s actually about a lot of people out there – regardless of their sexual orientation, regardless of what they do at home. It’s about a lot of people out there.”
This is what Garry McQuinn believes is the real secret to the success of Priscilla.
“We transcend the subject matter and become a show about humanity. Just simple people, with simple problems, just trying to connect and reconnect and nurture their families and all that stuff.”
McQuinn admits Priscilla is “party musical” but believes there are two significant moments in the show that turn this show into a “party musical with a message”. It’s a message about tolerance and diversity.
“The two significant moments are Tick and Benji on the bed and Adam (played by Euan Doidge) in Coober Pedy. You realise that’s the life of those people.”
This 10th anniversary production has been hailed as the biggest and best version ever of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and according to Garry McQuinn, “It’s not just marketing, it is!”
Priscilla Queen of the Desert is now playing at the Regent Theatre in Melbourne’s East End Theatre District before heading to Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane.