Cultural Tourist, NYC: 'Priscilla Queen of the Desert' and interpolation

July 15, 2011
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Back in the days of George Gershwin and his golden age ilk, they called it “interpolating.” That is, taking existing songs and jury rigging them into musicals. “Swanee,” for instance, wasn’t written to be included in the Al Jolson 1919 show “Sinbad.” It was added to that already hit show after Jolson heard and liked the song. Most of those songs you know and love from the movie “Singing in the Rain” (primarily by Brown and Freed) were featured previously in shows such as “Broadway Melody of 1936,” “Babes in Arms” and the now-unknown “Sadie McKee.”

My point? The recent trend in making new musicals out of old songs is nothing new. “Rock of Ages,” “Mamma Mia!” and, now, “Priscilla Queen of the Desert”  may be slapped with the newer label “jukebox musicals,” but they are part of a tradition going back a century.

It was easy for Jolson to drop “Swanee” into “Sinbad,” because shows of the time were little more than disconnected songs and comedy bits. Plot? That was saved for dramas and comedies. Musicals were all about entertainment and spectacle.

Has anything changed?

For some, yes. We’ve been shown through Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Stephen Sondheim et al that a musical can be more than just a staged songbook, and that’s what we expect when we see a “new” musical.

But for the general public, I’m beginning to wonder how much that matters. Those experiencing “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” on Broadway with me didn’t seem to mind that they’d heard “It’s Raining Men,” “Shake Your Groove Thing” and “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” before. In fact, that history was a key selling point.
And while I’m concerned about the seemingly increasing percentage of shows reliant on old material, I’ll grant that the choice makes perfect sense for “Priscilla”—which concerns a trio of drag performers on a cross-Australia trek to a casino gig.

Cheesy disco songs are touchstones for these characters. And a show without such tunes would be even sillier than it already, unashamedly, is. (That is, if a show with costumes comprised of flip-flops and cupcakes—“Queen of the Dessert,” perhaps?—actually could be sillier.)

Would it have been too much to ask for a story that actually had some legitimate obstacles for the characters to overcome? That it didn’t feel randomly episodic (one town gets one over, another turns violent)?  That it didn’t open with an annoyingly unfunny emcee (Nathan Lee Graham) or that the locals, except for one, weren’t all cartoon hicks?

Perhaps. But the Broadway production is helped considerably by its trio—actually, quartet—of stars. Will Swenson is Tick (Mitzi), the sweet, sensitive one, organizing the trip in order to meet his young son. Nick Adams is all youthful cockiness—and in almost disturbingly great shape—as Adam (Felicia). And Tony Sheldon gives just enough gravitas to Bernadette, the elder statesperson of the three. 

The fourth star? Priscilla, the RV that spins, lights, opens, and rolls in ways that put to shame the lame chandelier in “Phantom of the Opera” and the helicopter in “Miss Saigon.”  Are special effects what I go to musical theater to experience? Not really. But if a recreational vehicle is a key element in a show, let it be pulled off as well as Brian Thomson (credited for “Bus concept and production design”) does.

Compensation also comes with the lovely trio of divas floating—and singing—above the stage, serving as a clever way of getting around the lip-synching issue. The crazy costume parade is unrelenting, keeping things from getting dull. And the final moments between father and son are obvious but adorable.

Your thoughts?
 

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  • Sign me up
    Sounds lame and fun simultaneously, much like Rock of Ages. While I prefer the drama of a Les Mis I must admit that I will see this one too. Appreciate the heads up review. Will be in Indy probably in 6 years.
  • Great show!
    Saw "Priscilla" in London and would have to say the audience has more fun in this show than most others. It gets an A+ for original staging and costumes and does have some take-home thoughts along the lines of diversity and getting along, for those people able to get past the glitz and music.
    Go see this show in NYC for sure. There's very little chance it will go on the road...at least not with the complicated bus of the same name. And Linda is right...it will likely get to Cincinnatti and Louisville and we'll probably have yet another round of repeats like the very disappointing 2011-12 Broadway Series. They ought to be ashamed.
  • Agreed
    I totally agree with this review. I saw Priscilla in May on Broadway and expected cheesy lameness. What I got instead was an AMAZING experience that was one of the best theater adventures I've ever had (and I've had a lot). Lou is correct that they way they used the bus was alone worth the price of admission, it was truly phenomenal! I highly suggest this show to anyone!
  • Ditto
    I'll start with a big "ditto" to the previous comments. The show is cheesy, campy, and relies heavily on well-known music, but it's also a lot of fun. I saw it in NYC over Memorial Day weekend and was one of the audience members chosen to dance on stage during the show. ("Yes, all those ballet lessons paid off," says my mom.)

    I agree that far too many new shows these days rely on familiar music and/or movie plots. Priscilla does both. Is it that the creative teams aren't so creative anymore, or are they trying to capture a greater audience by catering to the masses? Hard to say, but it is a disappointing trend.

    Our trip last May included 2 shows based on movies (Priscilla and Billy Elliot), 1 with recycled music (Priscilla), 1 revival (Anything Goes) and only 1 truly original work in its 8th year off-Broadway (Naked Boys Singing).
  • Priscilla Tickets
    Did you all feel you had as good a time at Priscilla as you did at Mamma Mia (assuming you did)? Are they the same type of musical? I have an NYC trip coming up and it's on my short list.

    Also, what did you all do about discounted theater tickets? Are there any sites you go to? I'm looking for cheap orchestra seats. So far I found $77 orch seats at http://www.ticketmaster.com/artist/1061975 with code BBOX9. Are there other sites I should go to?

    How big is the bus?

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