Allan Shiach, creator of 'Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, The Musical', wrote the following diary immediately prior to the show's opening in London's West End nine years ago. It ran in London for three years and then travelled to Broadway where it ran for a further year. The musical has been in continuous performance somewhere in the world ever since. It has been (twice) to Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, played for three years on a cruise ship with a 700-seat theatre, and will return to Australia (where it originated) next January for its 10th anniversary. But when Allan Shiach wrote this diary, he was unaware of the global phenomenon, grossing a figure approaching $500m, that it was destined to become...
With rare exceptions, stage musicals tend to be temperament-free zones for the good reason that the vast machinery of a musical would grind to a halt if the slightest grain of temperament dropped into the giant engine of the show.
Three weeks ago we moved from the rehearsal rooms on the South Bank into the theatre itself. A motley group of 28 performers, 20 production crew, 10 musicians, 12 dressers, uncountable costume-makers, choreographers and dance captains, director plus retinue, a couple of writers, production assistants, stage managers and one small but palpable representative of Hope. The technical crew had already been at the theatre for two weeks and when I first peered into the afternoon gloom, all I could see from front to back were the flickering of computers. Sound, lighting, mechanics, music, operational, scenic design, choreography, technical, managerial and a dozen other desks were sprawled across chairs and aisles throughout the stalls, completely burying the seating as if some giant intelligence had come to conquer the 19th-century building.
The first meet and greet for the company consisted of my count of 109 people. All of whom have to be paid, none of whom are cheap because they're all the best of the best, so please no more moans about West End ticket prices. Ars gratia artis.
The idea of making a musical of 'Priscilla' struck while walking along the banks of the Findhorn, one of the most dramatic and beautiful rivers in Scotland, which runs through a rugged corner of Moray. Days later I approached MGM for the rights. It took over 30 months to write the final contract and a first draft of the show, so thank heavens by then I had producer colleagues without whom etc… The writer and director of the film, Stephan Elliott, came on board as my co-writer and guide, and then the distinguished theatre director, Simon Phillips, who seized the pieces we had put together and brilliantly assembled them.
We first opened in Sydney in late 2006. It is curious the way in which a show, no matter its history, doesn't seem to exist or be considered 'real' unless and until it plays in London or New York. The fact that 'Priscilla Queen of the Desert, The Musical' has now been seen by over a million Australians is, as it were, no more than a bagatelle of Commonwealth trivia. Apparently it is only when we open in London to be seen and judged by British audiences and British critics that we will really exist.
My word of the week is 'opsimath', which means someone who has acquired learning late in life. It is a word aimed at the over-50s who didn't know its meaning until now, since that very fact makes them opsimaths. It was, says Google, used mainly in a derogatory sense. I think we should reclaim it to celebrate those who go on learning as they march towards oblivion.
There was a moment during early workshop sessions of 'Priscilla' when it was thought that we couldn't use the f-word. It is deployed in a crucial scene in which the prejudice of local tough guys towards gay men is seen by the daubing of the words 'F*** the Faggots' on our heroes' bus. An Urgent Discussion was summoned to find a permissible but equally offensive graffiti and my favourite suggestion was 'Streisand Can’t Sing.'
In the spirit of political correctness perhaps I should have asterisked the above paragraph differently. Not 'F*** the Faggots' but 'Fuck the F****ts.'
I'm glad to report that true Australian use of language won the discussion and the un-asterisked word has been restored for West End sophisticates. One Australian state had child protection rules which stipulated that if bad language is used when a child actor is present onstage then the child must have iPod earphones in both ears at a specified volume. I think I shall ask for this when my friend Father Vlad comes to the show.
Amid the chaos of rehearsal and preparations for opening, a moment of tranquil sadness attending my third memorial service since Christmas. Memorials used to be rare and held mainly for heads of state but now seem to be for everyone who had a career and a few friends. Perhaps this democratisation of the memorial is to be welcomed though I intend to stipulate against one when my own turn comes. I don't want my friends counting to see who's shown up and who hasn't. A friend recently skewered forever the polite, excessive and glowing biographies often given to the departed at memorials. As we left the church he turned to me and said 'Very nice service, I thought. But who were they talking about?'
Technical problems, costume malfunctions (there are over 500 costumes in the show and our three leads each have 30 costume changes) and a raft of other hurdles to be jumped by opening night. Not the least of these being men learning to wear high heels without falling over. The wonderfully enthusiastic audiences seem to appreciate our director making a pre-curtain speech to explain ongoing technical hitches by inviting them to be collaborators as much as audience. I hope he drops in to address them from time to time for the next, oh, several years.
In the spirit of iconoclasm which the show celebrates, my prize goes to the handwritten sign put up last week in the corridor of the male dressing rooms at the theatre. It reads 'Sexual harassment in this area will not be reported. It will, however, be rated.'
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