Somewhere in the Australian outback—in the New South Wales town of Broken Hill, to be exact—the titular bus, stalled by clogged fuel lines, has been spray-painted with a hateful message. No worries: Adam (Bryan West) has acquired lavender paint, and, performing to Petula Clark’s hit “Color My World,” he and his travelmates, Tick (Wade McCollum) and Bernadette (Scott Willis) are joined by a chorus line dressed in lavender paintbrush skirts.
It’s an astonishingly endearing and hilarious moment, the more so because it tops an already astonishing series of music and dance effects in this show. But it’s also at this point that a nagging epiphany reveals itself: As adapted for the musical stage, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert has become a minstrel show, with all of the complicated baggage that concept carries.
America’s favorite 19th-century entertainment style is incorrectly condemned as a completely racist enterprise. In fact, the stereotypes that gave rise to minstrelsy’s parody was invented by slaves to gull their masters, part of a complex survival vocabulary that continues to inform a sense of humor chronicled in Mel Watkins’s essential study On the Real Side: A History of African-American Comedy.
That battle for civil rights took a century to get from emancipation to Selma. The battle for gay rights popularly dates from Stonewall, although there were decades of mainstream entertainment before that in which gay and lesbian images were presented with varying degrees of sympathetic coding. But coding is itself judgmental, and ill serves a cause that would benefit from unapologetically positive media images.
As it moved from screen to stage, Priscilla picked up a jukebox full of stereotypes. Do they benefit the cause? Or at the very least, do they avoid harming it? Any piece of entertainment that offers a picture of a persecuted group is political. Even if it tries to be passively so, it asks us to accept a point of view.
Priscilla is a drag-queen road movie, the road a time-honored path of self-discovery and bonding, typically the travel route of men—a topic explored by critic Leslie Fiedler in his essay “Home as Heaven, Home as Hell” from What Was Literature? Our travelers are, in fact, two cross-dressers and a transsexual, soon to be joined by a mechanic named Bob, who seems conveniently bi-curious (and helps set up the biggest laugh, a send-up of “MacArthur Park.”)
The show opens with a trio of angelically costumed divas, as they’re termed, suspended against a backdrop of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, joining Tick in “It’s Raining Men” as we see evidence of his dissatisfaction with what’s become a dead-end career in that city. Turns out he has a wife and young son in Alice Springs. She runs a casino and invites him to perform there.
He invites along young, impulsive Adam (whose drag-show persona is named Felicia Jollygoodfellow), and Bernadette, a former star of the Les Girls drag revue, setting up a clash of personalities that produces most of the show’s one-liners, a deft procession of bitchy put-downs.
A key moment in the film version occurs when the desert-stranded travelers are discovered by an Aboriginal man, who invites them to join a party of music-making. This link between two oppressed tribes affirms the potential for triumph against human enemies even as it plays out against the potentially more dangerous physical environment. Lacking this, the musical grabs at more superficial devices in its search for affirmation, relying mostly on a succession of anthemic songs.
“I Will Survive” is an obvious choice, used in both movie and play, serving the latter as its act-one closer, but the musical’s play list churns through such iconic numbers as Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It?,” Pat Benatar’s “We Belong,” Dionne Warwick’s “I Say a Little Prayer, ” The Village People’s “Go West,” Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff,” Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and a Madonna trifecta of “Material Girl,” “Holiday” and “Like a Prayer.”
The seemingly nonstop procession of costumes is an outrageous array, occasionally recalling that the (less costumed) film version, by the same designers, picked up color and design elements from the outback environment. Most such subtlety is crowded out by the glitter and noise, which brings us back to the earlier question: Does the minstrel-show aspect of “Priscilla” impede acceptance of characteristics of the culture in which it’s set?
I think a very mixed message is conveyed. The audience for Broadway musicals is timid, which is why Andrew Lloyd Webber fares better than Stephen Sondheim. Like its successful predecessor, La Cage aux Folles, Priscilla counters its camp with a more traditional family relationship, although the tension with which Tick anticipates the eventual encounter with his son is as manufactured as the reunion is clichéd.
The positive message comes through what remains of the characterizations of the principal trio. But inviting straight, nervous, no-gay-marriage America to delight in the camp without knowing the code is to remember what closed the Continental Baths back in the ’70s: unsympathetic gawkers. Girls just want to have fun, sure, but the current climate demands a better-educated audience.