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.