In 1994 Stephen Elliott released a campy film, “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” with well-known pop songs from the ‘70s and ‘80s as its score. The story followed two drag queens and a transgendered woman as they toured on their bus, Priscilla, into a resort town in Australia to do their famed show. Along the way, a comedy of errors unfolds, as they encounter homophobia and really oddball characters, all of which help their growth expand and their opportunities widen.
In 2006, Elliott, with the help of Allan Scott, adapted the film into the musical stage show, “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” It has won the 2008 Sydney Theatre Award for Best Production of a Musical and Judith Johnson Award for Best Performance By an Actor in a Musical (Tony Sheldon). Its costume design also won the Laurence Olivier Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, Drama Desk Award, and Tony Award.
For the first time, the show will be on the main stage at Thalian Hall as the season opener for Opera House Theatre Company. Directed by Ray Kennedy—who saw the show on Broadway, as it was produced by one of his friends—“Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” will star Jeff Phillips as the middle-aged, transgendered retired Les Girls entertainer, Bernadette.
“She is based on a real person named ‘Carlotta Spencer,’” Phillips tells, “a singer and comedian, and Australia’s most famous transgendered person. She was wildly successful and wealthy. After her retirement, she went on a multi-million-dollar, self-produced tour.”
encore interviewed both Phillips and Kennedy to find out more about “Priscilla,” its timely and relevant storyline, and how audiences can expect to be impacted by its balance of sheer fun and raw humanity.
encore (e): Jeff, tell us about Bernadette.
Jeff Phillips (JP): We see her at the start of the show where her husband has just died. She is in a state flux, like many of a certain age who have lost their husbands. But, when one of her “children” calls for help, like all good mothers, she puts aside her own trials to focus on healing theirs.
e: What are you learning from Bernadette?
JP: [She] is a reminder that as we age, more is required of us. She has to learn to be more patient with the young. Yes, she has fought battles and climbed mountains, but there are those who have not. We have to reach back and help others up the mountains and, because we are battle-tested, we have to be willing to pick up the sword again to fight for those who may not have the means to do so themselves.
e: Ray, tell us about the auditions and how Jeff and the rest of the cast left an impression on you.
RK: Jeff has completely immersed himself in Bernadette. You also will see a deeper, complex side to Jason Aycock, and to Blaine Mower, who gets to sing, dance and act. I am very pleased with all three. They get to create a lot of great moments—some funny, some poignant and a couple that are heartbreaking.
e: Homophobia is addressed in the show. How do you think this piece of art highlights extremist beliefs and addresses it with compassion?
JP: This show is in the tradition of the old “road-trip movies.” Any road-trip movie, whether gay or otherwise, offers the audience the promise of change, transition, and some type of momentous epiphany. You have to remember, as I certainly do, when the movie (on which the musical is based) came out: early ‘90s. It offered a time of (brief) relief for the queer community from the devastating costs of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. That brief relief was a result of developments in HIV/AIDs medications, and the growing acceptance of gay men and trans folks. The ‘90s were a time for recollection and a return to some hopefulness for the LGBT community from the prior decade, which had been plagued by stigma and shame. This is why “Priscilla,” the movie, so wonderfully and so aggressively worked in the ‘90s and now works as a musical in 2017.
With the recent presidential administration’s action in rescinding protections for trans-students, I think this piece of art so directly reflects this (hopefully brief) resurgence in homophobia and transphobia. I think “Priscilla” succeeds in showing us trauma and strength that the rich gay male (drag queen or otherwise) culture can offer for the relief from the pain of daily stigmatized life. I think art will often force us, at times, to celebrate and embrace the awfulness of our pop-culture histories with wit, and in the case of “Priscilla,” with fabulous disco songs, feathers and sequins.
. . . Oscar Wilde stated, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” I think artists are the educators of the soul. That is why I think musicals can be so impactful. Songs stay with you—lyrics become part of the zeitgeist and a person’s psyche, thereby continually teaching its message.
RK: This could not be more timely. “Priscilla” is about accepting people and giving them respect, whether straight, gay, bi, transgendered, and of any race. People have a sameness about them. They want friendships that are honest, to fulfill their dreams, and are usually looking or finding true love.
In the past year, I have realized there are people who do not support anyone but “them”—i.e. someone who looks or thinks like they do. And anyone that does not fit in the basket is an enemy. Not so in “Priscilla.” We have a very multi-cultural cast in every way: race, gender, age, religion, sexual identity. And we are very tight, in our love for each other and sameness and differences. Rehearsals have been amazing, and I know this cast will always be connected because we know this is a special show needed in very tough times.
e: Jeff, how many times have you done drag in Wilmington theatre productions?
JP: Great question because it made me have to look back at the roles I have done. Four times. The first was in 1992 in the original Opera House production of “The Lambda,” as the character Joey Divine. Next was Edna Turnblad in Opera House’s “Hairspray.” I did a small role as “Sweet Lady Booze” for C’est La Guerre’s production of “Bukowsical,” and, now, Bernadette in “Priscilla.” I have been fortunate to play both great leading men’s roles, as well as leading lady roles. But I don’t look at Edna or Bernadette as drag roles. For “The Lambda,” yes—I was a man playing a man who does a drag character. For “Hairspray” and “Priscilla,” they are fully formed individual character parts. My job is to be true to Bernadette as well as respect and honor her.
e: What about the role do you love that perhaps other roles haven’t provided you as an actor?
JP: This is the first main-stage show [that] really gets to showcase and celebrate the idea of “camp.” “Priscilla” houses its camp within the framework of drag culture. Camp within the gay culture is an idea of clown-like values, such as exaggeration, satire and ribaldry. “Priscilla” queens are brutally honest by exhibiting insult comic-like techniques. In other words: They will cut you. But they will fight for each other. They can bicker among themselves but let an outsider try to hurt one of their own, and hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned.
More importantly, the show allows the audience to see the person behind the makeup and live a bit of his/her inner journey. I think it demonstrates we are all more alike than different. I love that Bernadette’s “traditional” beauty has passed and she is having to deal with that. She is older, heavier and newly single. She is unsure about what life may or may not have in store. Much like for heterosexual women, in gay culture, body image and ageism are very real issues that Priscilla directly confronts. The show forces me to confront my own age and size as an actor and to let the walls fall down. Just verbalizing the answer to this question makes me do that, too.
e: What songs connect with you most?
RK: Confession: I was a disco dancer in college competitions—polyester suit and twirling my friend Felecia all across the dance floor … the whole nine yards. So, I love these songs: “I Will Survive,” “Shake Your Groove Thing”—they bring back such great memories.
JP: I love the arrangement of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors.” The words resonate more today than ever. I like how the first part of “MacArthur Park” is arranged to further highlight Bernadette’s narrative. It breaks my heart every time I sing it—a mixture of pain and hope that appear in lyrics based on the scene structure. At the end of the show, the three-part harmonies of “We Belong” is great.
e: Who’s doing what per tech, lighting, sound, music, stage design? What can audiences expect to see of this world?
RK: Well, Terry Collins is building a bus! It’s the first show I have directed that a stage set is the fourth main character. Priscilla the bus is very important and a big part of the show. Dallas Lafon is doing lights—integral to the look of the show. And I cannot say enough about Juli Harvey and this costume extravaganza. There are hundreds of pieces—perhaps the most expensive costume plot we’ve ever had. Lorene Walsh, a valued member of our team, leads a nine-piece band to perform over 25 songs!