Out of the Desert, Into Drag: An Encounter with Priscilla the Queen

When it comes to popular culture I have always disliked drag. Whether in film or TV, guys dressing up as girls always seemed to be the least original type of humor combined with the most obvious type of lowest common denominator pandering. I think my distain for this recurring trope stems from the football players I went to high school with who would dress up like cheerleaders every homecoming and walk around saying, “See, I have boobs! Get it?” as if they had suddenly uncovered some hidden pool of untapped hilarity and were revealing it in some Moses-like gift to humanity. As a result, films that portray men dressed in women’s clothes and doing girly things with a ham-fisted wink to the audience have always bugged me.

As a result of this bitterness, when I was told by a colleague that we would taking our Speech and Debate team to a Broadway musical when we went to Connecticut for our national tournament, I quickly scanned the list of available shows and thought, “As long as its not Priscilla Queen of the Desert – The Musical, I’m good”. Chicago might be fun, and I’ve never seen Billy Elliot (its got some Irish folks in it so that might be alright), but I had no desire to see Priscilla, a musical based on the film, The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which is about three drag queens on a road trip through Australia. As luck would have it, that was what we ended up seeing.

Despite my ingrained reservations, I decided that I would look on the bright side and try to enjoy the experience as best as I good. For starters, I had never been to a Broadway musical before and although this may not have been atop my bucket list, the important thing is that I would at last get my “See-a-Broadyway-Show” cherry popped. Additionally, most of the students on the team were thrilled at the chance to go to the theater while away for nationals and were excited when they heard which musical we were going to see. So I decided that for their sake I could grin-and-bear-it for two hours and we could call it a day.

The theater itself was pretty cool. We made it to the Palace literally with minutes to spare. And although some of the more seasoned travelers in my party looked with disdain at Time Square and all its touristy pretensions, I was impressed by both the location and the surrounding area. Finally getting to my nose-bleed seat as the lights began to dim, I noticed the giant rhinestone covered stiletto right in the center of the stage and took comfort in the fact that at least the building was air-conditioned and that we were about ten feet from the bar if I got thirsty during the performance. And then the music started, the curtain rose, and the show began.

Now, as the reader has no doubt surmised from the set-up at the beginning of this piece, I had a wonderful time and it was an absolutely amazing show. Every expectation I had was completely dissolved; my earlier belief that this show was going to somehow play into all the annoying gimmicks that bad sitcoms and worse movies had taught me to hate had been revealed for the error that it was. For starters, the music was great. The show relied primarily on previously released music such as, “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”, and “I Say a Little Prayer”. Plus, they were even able to awkwardly fit in that ridiculous old song, “MacArthur Park”. The roles were expertly performed by Will Swenson, Tony Sheldon, and Nick Adams – all performers with multiple theater credits to their name.

While the story was fun and engaging by itself it was also interesting to see how perfectly the plot and medium worked together. The aesthetics of drag merged flawlessly with the natural spectacle of the Broadway musical. The exaggerated femininity of the costumes coupled with the iconic songs created a type of cultural collaboration that enhanced both aspects of the experience. The songs were big. The performances were big. And it all blended together so well. My students were loving the show so much that their exuberance caused an elderly couple sitting by to leave during the intermission.

Another impressive part of the show was the elaborate tech that was involved. In addition to the larger than life costuming, they also had a giant bus called Priscilla that featured heavily throughout the story and moved around on stage. Our veteran theater-goers were impressed, but for many of the students who had never been to a show like this before, let alone one with such a high production value, they were absolutely blown away.

For me, the most illuminating thing about the show was the way that it revealed the inherent silliness of my earlier ignorance about drag. For one, it showed me that the comparison I made between films like White Chicks was fallacious to the point of stupidity. Because of some overt similarities, I had linked two things that couldn’t be more disparate: one which was reductive and was more about mocking juxtaposed masculinity and femininity, and the other was about an exaggerated-homage to the feminine that was both tribute and a type of stylized art. The plot served as a perfect to introduce the uninformed – like myself – to the culture of gender illusion.

As we left the theater that evening one of my students looked over at me and asked, “So how much did you hate all that?” I was pleased that, unlike the mock enthusiasm I had prepared prior to the show, I was able to answer that I genuinely loved it and was thrilled that it was my first Broadway experience. I have since bought several copies of the soundtrack to gift to friends and even watched enough of the Tony Awards to see the show win twice (Best Costume Design and the award for Best Actor in a Musical to Tony Sheldon).

While this newly enlightened position doesn’t mean that the next time Hollywood decides to stuff a tough guy in a dress and make him dance like a ballerina I’ll not continue to roll my eyes and skip the movie, I have learned enough to understand the difference between that and the performance art that is explored in Priscilla. For Broadway fans the reasons to go see the show have been there long before this review, but next time, think of a friend you might have who had reservations similar to mine, take him or her with you, and watch quickly how grumpy silence turns to enthusiastic applause.


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