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Priscilla rides again, as one of Australia’s most successful, iconic and loved films is adapted to the stage for a musical like no other, with 750,000 ping pong balls on order and all its fun and all its heart intact, producer Liz Koops tells Andrew L. Urban.

The producers of the stage musical version of Priscilla have ordered 750,000 ping pong balls from China – and if you’ve seen the film you’ll understand the significance of this, although you’ll be perplexed at the vast numbers. If you haven’t seen the film, you’re in for some fun. For those in the know, it is worth noting that some of the balls have been printed with the message, ‘For external use only’. Boom boom.

"It’s a lot of fun but it has serious undertones and a lot of heart"

“You can’t leave that scene out,” says producer Liz Koops, whose Back Row company is staging the musical version of one of Australia’s most successful and best remembered movies, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), “so on stage you’ve got to go over the top. Priscilla is a great contemporary iconic Aussie story. It’s a lot of fun but it has serious undertones and a lot of heart.”

Written and directed by Steph Elliott, the film became a phenomenon, with Terence Stamp, Guy Pearce and Hugo Weaving playing the central roles (a transsexual and two drag queens) - not counting the bus, which they christen Priscilla - that took them from Sydney across the desert to Alice Springs for a cabaret gig in one the town’s resort hotels.

Taking a film to the musical stage is risky, but Koops has plenty of experience with stage shows. In 1995 she formed Back Row Productions with Peter Holmes a Court. One of her first productions was Dein Perry’s Tap Dogs. After sell-out seasons in Australia the doggies were catapulted to international acclaim at the 1995 Edinburgh Festival and a sell out season at London’s Sadler’s Wells. Tap Dogs continues to tour throughout the world, having performed in 20 countries and over 300 cities on six continents with up to four companies touring at any one time, becoming Australia’s biggest theatrical export grossing in excess of US$230m.

Other tours she has produced include seasons of Miss Saigon, (Portugal), Chicago (Greece), and Cats (Portugal), Grease (Monte Carlo) Forthcoming tours include the first international arena tour of Starlight Express (Scandinavia and Greece) and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (Dubai).

One of the film’s producers, Michael Hamlyn, has been talking about staging a musical version for years, but it never seemed quite the right time, until now. “Michael, a friend for some years, has always wanted to do it … and that was before Mamma Mia or We Will Rock You toured Australia. So we wanted to come back after Tap Dogs to work in Australia and this is a great opportunity,” says Koops on the eve of the world premiere at Star City.

“The film is so iconic that I’m sure people will be wondering what we’ve done to it,” she says, “but I hope they’ll be happy with the package.”

"the many special moments from the film have been captured theatrically"

The package includes the specially built Priscilla the bus, “a fabulous, sumptuous bus which becomes a magic box changing into other sets, and built on a double revolve so you get the impression of it driving across the desert.”

Koops promises that the many special moments from the film have been captured theatrically. Members of the team that created the worldwide hit film including writer and director Stephan Elliott, costume designers Lizzy Gardiner and Tim Chappel, make-up designer Cassie Hanlon and producer Michael Hamlyn join forces with writer Allan Scott, Australian theatrical producers Koops, Garry McQuinn, John Frost and Michael Chugg and an all-Australian creative team to bring Priscilla to life on stage. Several new songs, including I Say A Little Prayer, Both Sides Now and Thank God I’m A Country Boy, have been added to the original soundtrack material, which is memorable for songs like I Will Survive, I Love the Nightlife and Finally.

Recreating the role of former Les Girls Bernadette [Terence Stamp in the film], is musical theatre veteran Tony Sheldon (The Producers). The character of Mitzi [Hugo Weaving], who leads the desert adventure, is played by Jeremy Stanford (Buddy, Certified Male, High Society) with rising star Daniel Scott (Dusty) playing the flamboyant and fun-loving Felicia [Guy Pearce]. The character of Bob [Bill Hunter], the down-to-earth mechanic, is played by Michael Caton.

“Steph Elliott has been wonderful,” says Koops, “and he fully respects the theatrical process, happily accepting guidance on it. Director Simon Phillips has been insistent on keeping the film’s mood for the stage.

The ensemble cast includes Genevieve Lemon, Lena Cruz, Trevor Ashley, Danielle Barnes, Amelia Cormack, Sophie Carter, Michael Griffiths, Nick Hardcastle, Mark Hodge, Ben Lewis, Marney McQueen, Christina O’Neill, Kurt Phelan, Damien Ross, David Spencer, Dean Vince and Jeremy Youett. They are joined on stage by a band, and all 24 songs – including many new ones – are performed live.

"the differences between film and musical have been a revelation"

The $6.5 million show will run ‘indefinitely’ at Star City in Sydney, and Koops hopes it will then tour internationally, but before the world premiere, she is being restrained and modest. “We just want to open the show and see how it goes….but everyone who worked on the film has loved working on the show and amazed at how it has come together, while the differences between film and musical have been a revelation, both terrifying and exciting.”

Published September 28, 2006


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Priscilla The Musical

(Adapted from the film:
The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert)
World Premiere: Lyric Theatre, Star City, Sydney
Saturday, October 7, 2006

Liz Koops

Tony Sheldon

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