Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – The Musical
When Stephan Elliott was making The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in the early 1990s, the writer-director came under significant pressure to include shots of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. It was thought that a film opening in Sydney should have pictures of the city’s most recognisable icons, but Elliott had other ideas. Instead, he showed Erskineville’s traditional home for drag, the Imperial Hotel.
“I knew what the postcard shots were, but this was about a subculture – an underbelly, and something that nobody has seen,” he says.
If that part of Sydney’s underbelly was largely undiscovered when the film was released in 1994, it’s certainly on the global radar now. Priscilla went on to win the Academy Award for Best Costume Design and was turned into a flashy stage musical packed with disco classics in 2006. That show has now been seen all across the planet, including on Broadway and the West End. And yes, the curtain has risen on tens of thousands of performances around the world to reveal a giant sparkling Harbour Bridge.
While Priscilla is a fish-out-of-water story about two drag queens and a transgender woman encountering Australia’s outback, it has plenty to say about the home they’ve found in Sydney. After a particularly violent and homophobic encounter with country folk, Bernadette says: “It’s funny. We all sit around mindlessly slagging off that vile stink-hole of a city. But in its own strange way, it takes care of us. I don’t know if that ugly wall of suburbia’s been put there to stop them getting in, or us getting out.”
“Our forefathers, the first white people who arrived here, were in drag very early”
Although Elliott says the city will always remain a place where “the freaks will always find themselves,” it’s changed a lot since Priscilla. Its once vibrant drag scene has been significantly diluted as LGBTQIA people have become more comfortable in mainstream, straight spaces. “All of the gay bars in Sydney have shut; there’s only a handful left,” Elliott says. “But if you’re not a cool bar with a gay clientele, then you’re not a cool bar.” That mainstreaming of queer culture is something Elliott had to deal with when he was involved in bringing the film to the stage back in 2006. He remembers fiery confrontations with other creatives to keep the story’s queer and subversive edge: “I really fought them on the show, because I said: ‘I know exactly what’s going to happen – it’s going to turn into The Lion King.’” But what is it about Sydney that fostered this environment of acceptance, particularly where gay men are concerned? There’s the world-famous Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, but Elliott has a curious theory that goes back much further – all the way to Australia’s colonisation.
“A bunch of men were put on boats, full of testosterone… They were shipped off to the other side of the world where there were no women, and what do you think happened? And then for entertainment… What did they do when they didn’t have women for plays? Our forefathers, the first white people who arrived here, were in drag very early.”
Capitol Theatre, 13 Campbell St, Haymarket 2000. 02 9320 5000. priscillathemusical.com.au. $49.90-$175.90. May 15-Jul 15.