Arts & Entertainment
7 min

Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical

Musical adaptation of drag classic set to make North American debut

In early 1992, my first year of university, I somehow wound up on a movie date with a woman. I genuinely liked her, but I’ve never been into sex or romance with girls, and I hadn’t then done enough to convince her of it. It was not a great, shining life chapter for me. I still owe her an apology.

She wanted to see Alfonso Arau’s film adaptation of Laura Esquivel’s steamy romance novel Like Water for Chocolate. I had heard the film included a nude scene featuring the tortured and dishy male lead character, Pedro, played by Marco Leonardi. I was into it, so I offered to look up the show times and suggested we grab dinner beforehand.

Maybe it was passive aggression on my part, maybe it was merely a too-eerie confluence of circumstances, but the film was scheduled as the early show at a one-screen repertory cinema, and as it happened, I had us there just in time for the late show. Playing instead was the 1991 Stephan Elliott film, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. We were already at the box office when we realized my mistake, so we stayed for the show.

We sat together in the darkness, our forearms touching awkwardly on the shared armrest, laughing, nervously at first, at the funny parts and choking up at the sad ones. As the story reached its denouement, a penny dropped for me. I realized then — during that film, with that person, on that night — that deceiving those around me about my sexuality, whether by lie or omission, neither simplified my life nor protected the feelings and sensibilities of others. What she didn’t know, I suddenly understood, could hurt her quite badly.

In case you’ve never had the pleasure, the film is a totally fabulous, often hilarious, sometimes moving and at times terrifying tale of familial and queer-sisterly love. It is a glimpse of the complexity and diversity of human sexualities and interpersonal relationships. It was, for me, one of those rare life-altering films.

In it, three Australian drag performers convert an old bus into the ultimate rolling drag bag, christen her Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and set out on a 2,500-kilometre road trip from Sydney through the Australian outback to Alice Springs. The characters stay in drag virtually the whole way, performing every chance they get, never once, even in the face of homophobic violence, papering over their bent natures.

And now, all these years later, the much-awaited Priscilla, Queen of the Desert — The Musical is gearing up for its Oct 12 North American debut at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre.

“When we started this, the author and director of the film made me promise we wouldn’t sanitize the show,” says producer Garry McQuinn of the stage adaptation. “I have a personal obligation to him not only to preserve the story that’s told, but to hide nothing and to be incredibly open and direct about the characters’ sexuality.”

Simon Phillips directs the Toronto production, and the cast includes Will Swenson as Mitzi, Nick Adams as Felicia and Tony Sheldon as Bernadette.

“The story is incredibly strong,” says Sheldon. “They are fish out of water, misfits who are thrown into a really, really hostile environment, and they form their own family as a result. It’s also about second chances. For people who’ve had a rough trot, who’ve faced rejection and disappointment, there is always a second chance.”

Sheldon has played Bernadette in more than 1,100 performances, from Sydney to London. He was raised in a theatre family; his aunt is Helen Reddy. He grew up in Australia in the 1960s in the real-life environment that inspired his character.

“Those were the people who came to our house for dinner and for Christmas parties,” says Sheldon. “My mother worked nightclubs, so you’d go and there might be a drag show on in the next room. When I was a teenager, I used to escort some of these beautiful men to events. My mother always thought it was very amusing.”

The show is set to open on Broadway early next year, joining a conspicuously high number of queer-themed works playing now or opening soon on the New York theatre scene. Although, as McQuinn says, “We may not be playing too many of the redneck states,” Priscilla — The Musical, intentionally or otherwise, represents a form of political activism likely to help turn the hearts and minds of US audiences, gay and straight, just as it did mine almost two decades ago.

–with files from Elvira Kurt

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert — The Musical
Opens Tues, Oct 12
Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St W
$20–130 at mirvish.com or 416-872-1212

Xtra got a sneak-peek of Priscilla, watch: