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10 May 2010 @ 06:37 pm
Priscilla: the crowning glory of three queens

The story behind a show is sometimes more interesting than what you see on stage, says Garry McQuinn, one of the original producers of Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical. McQuinn should know.

A dozen years ago McQuinn and his producing partner and then-wife Liz Koops were asked by Michael Hamlyn, an original producer of Stephan Elliott's big, bold gay fantasia - The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert - if they were interested in producing a stage show of the hit movie. For eight years they knocked on doors and worked the phones seeking backers for the project.

Eventually they raised $6.5 million, largely from investors outside Australia, to launch the stage musical at the Lyric Theatre in Sydney in 2006.

After 2 1/2 years in Australia they opened in London and are now ramping up for an assault on the most important musical theatre market in the world, Broadway.

Priscilla is not the only Australian musical in recent years to make a splash internationally. The Boy From Oz, with Hugh Jackman as Peter Allen, had a very successful year on Broadway, where it opened in 2003. And five million people in 13 cities have seen productions of the Jacobsen family's Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story.

But Priscilla is set to become the first Australian movie to open on Broadway as a stage show. After many years of hard work and an investment of about $30m, it is also poised to return serious financial dividends and run for many years in multiple productions. "I'm very proud of it, we've got a first-class show," says musical promoter Michael Chugg, an initial minority investor in the show. He predicts a few more years of hard work before paydirt in about 2013, when further touring productions of the show will be launched.

Made for just $3.2m in 1994 and loosely inspired by the lives of drag queens on Sydney's Oxford Street, Elliott's movie hitched up its skirts and took $16.5m at the Australian box office and $60m worldwide, including about $15m in the US.

Priscilla the stage musical opened in Sydney in October 2006 and played Melbourne, Auckland and Sydney again, before being staged anew for a cool pound stg. 4m ($A7m) at the Palace Theatre in London's West End, where it opened in March 2009.

The initial reviews in London, like those in Sydney, were not all rosy. Where the Sydney show was deemed undercooked, in London critics took aim at poor sightlines due to pillars in the theatre, among other quibbles.

The producers took these criticisms on the chin and bunkered down, tweaked the presentation and, as they did in Australia, eventually won over the critics that matter most: audiences.

The Australian show was eventually profitable despite the big start-up costs. Priscilla on the West End is ticking towards profitability, houses are at 75 per cent capacity early in the week growing to about 90 per cent on weekends. The Palace is small - 1300 seats, compared with Australian venues, which may seat 2000 - so income is not earned as quickly there. McQuinn says he hopes to see a profit by the end of this year.

The Broadway season from March 2011 will follow a three-month, out-of-town tryout in Toronto from October 12. Producers in another eight territories are keen to mount versions of the musical. "It's a lifetime's work in this show," McQuinn says.

His descriptions of what it has taken to prepare for a tilt on Broadway certainly indicate as much. The story of three drag queens who commandeer a bus and drive through the outback to Alice Springs, Priscilla is a high-camp road movie with a soundtrack of gay anthems by ABBA, Gloria Gaynor, Joni Mitchell, Alicia Bridges and Charlene's I've Never Been To Me. At its heart, it is also a father and son story.

The original Sydney season of the musical featured Tony Sheldon, Jeremy Stanford and Daniel Scott in the lead roles. Sheldon went on to open the London show where he was joined by Oliver Thornton and Jason Donovan. Sheldon recently resigned from the cast for some R&R before he joins the Toronto and Broadway production. Producers are in the final stages of securing his visa.

MTC artistic director Simon Phillips, who directed the Australian and London productions, will make his Broadway directorial debut with Priscilla. The original creative team is intact, with the exception of choreographer Ross Coleman who died last year.

Given the continuity of personnel and the fact the Australian version begat the London one, cloning the twice-successful show should be relatively straightforward. Especially as a significant proportion of the show's cost is the huge onstage bus and the costumes by Oscar-winning duo Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner, and the Australian bus and costumes should have been usable for London, as that tour wrapped before London began.

But McQuinn says transferring Priscilla to the world stage is far from straightforward.

The script was re-worked for English audiences and will need further work to chime with Americans, who tend to be less familiar with Australia. The production will move into the Toronto theatre three months before opening night and a further three months has been allowed between the Toronto season and Broadway opening, for further workshopping.

McQuinn and Koops have a reputation for being perfectionists. "Our focus on below-the-radar detail regularly frustrates our partners and I know that we have a reputation for being difficult to work with," McQuinn says. "But I also know it's too easy to cut corners. Many of our producing compatriots assume the art of putting on a show is second to commercial considerations. We stand or fall by the business but I'm convinced that production values and good story-telling are imperatives because you can't ultimately fool an audience."

Their company, Back Row Productions, originally partnered with musical theatre titan John Frost. But as Frost's own business grew, he reduced his interest in Priscilla. Other producers are the writer Allan Scott and Hamlyn, son of publisher Paul Hamlyn.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Company is a 25 per cent partner in the London show and Nederlander Producing Company will take a quarter share of the Broadway show. Dirty Dancing has employed a similar strategy of co-producing with local partners.

McQuinn is convinced that tapping local expertise and facilities (RUC and Nederlander also own theatres) is the best way to operate. But this has led to tensions behind the scenes, with other producers saying that after 15 months the London show should have turned a profit by now.

Chugg doesn't agree. "It's a huge investment and we're probably in a theatre that could be 200 seats bigger," he says.

Until last year McQuinn and Koops were married. McQuinn says their producing roles have remained the same but they have had to create formal communication lines.

"Back Row is essentially a small family business," McQuinn says.

"I mostly look after production issues, show planning, creative liaison and legals. While Liz generally oversees international strategies, marketing, ticketing and partner liaison, we share financial oversight and company administration.

"It's a struggle sometimes to hang on to the intimate collaboration that came more naturally when we were also personal partners," he says. "I don't think either of us realised how much our after-hours relationship informed and supported the management of our business. I can no longer assume that I know what Liz is thinking, the same will be true of her. So there's extra time and effort spent if we are to back each other up effectively and run our business efficiently."

McQuinn says if he had known at the start of production what he knows now he "would take a deep breath and think about" whether or not he would have taken on the show.

The budget for Broadway is $US15m before opening night. The figure does not include the research and development that was invested in the first two productions. "We're in the mid-range for major musicals but it still scares the shit out of me," McQuinn says.

New buses have been made for each show to suit smaller or larger stages in Toronto and New York. Likewise, costumes have had to be redesigned for smaller storage spaces and stages.

McQuinn says the next priority after Broadway is to develop the road production: redesigning the show so it can move in and out of theatres easily and cheaply.

"We've got probably half a dozen international presenters nagging us to do the show."

There is interest from Italy, Spain, Germany, South America, Japan and South Korea.

Al Clark, who produced the movie, is chuffed to hear that Priscilla may play on a stage in Korea where, back in 1994, censors banned the movie on the grounds that it promoted a homosexual lifestyle.