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By Sylviane Gold
Every now and then, dancing in a Broadway show requires some new vocabulary. For example, Andrew Hallsworth, the Melbourne native who is associate choreographer of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, had to explain “bogans” to his ensemble. They’re the riff-raff you might find drinking and spitting and fighting in an Australian mining town.
And he had to explain “naff,” which means tacky or low-rent—like the routines so devotedly prepared by Sydney’s gay community for the annual Mardi Gras parade.
If you remember the 1994 hit movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, you’ll know why those words were essential. Its vamping, voguing heroines—a matronly transvestite and two younger drag queens who make their livings dressing in outrageous gear and lip-synching to disco hits—tangle with a variety of bogans as they drive their ramshackle bus through the outback to bring their naff act to the Australian heartland.
The stage version, which starts previews at the Palace Theatre this month, began in Sydney in 2006. It rode its huge success to London’s West End in 2009. Later that year, as plans for the Broadway production began to take shape, disaster struck: Ross Coleman, the show’s veteran choreographer—“sort of Australia’s Bob Fosse,” Hallsworth calls him—died. Hallsworth, who’d spent a dozen years working with him as both a performer and an associate, and who had been the assistant choreographer on Priscilla, was put in charge of the show’s dancing.
He took it on even though it meant reconciling two seemingly incompatible impulses: the need to “build up” Priscilla for Broadway and his “sentimental” regard for his mentor. “I sort of didn’t want to eliminate any of Ross’ work,” he says. “But I knew if there was anybody who was going to do it, Ross would want it to be me.”
They had become a team, says Hallsworth, who co-choreographed several earlier musicals that Coleman directed. “Sometimes he’d start on one side of the room and I’d start on the other and we’d meet in the middle and step back and say, ‘OK, let’s see what’s happened.’ We just had a knack of doing that.”
Bringing Priscilla to Broadway was not a simple matter of recasting and perhaps polishing the original. The Sydney production included Australian pop hits that would not be familiar to American audiences. So there are now four new numbers, one of them the opening. “The show seems completely different in the North American version, but it’s not really,” Hallsworth says. “Ross’ original choreography has been trimmed, cleaned, refined a little bit. And all the new stuff is my choreography. But the heart of the show is the same.”
Although much of that heart resides in Vegas-style parades of extravagantly decked-out drag queens, Priscilla uses a wide range of dance styles as its three leads travel from gay-friendly Sydney to the less welcoming boonies. “We really had to find little unique qualities for each part of the journey,” Hallsworth says. The choreography morphs from urban to country, from campy to innocent, from feminine to masculine. There’s even a brief bow to the dance of Australia’s indigenous population, though Hallsworth says that incorporating authentic moves was never considered: “We just have flavors of Aboriginal dance—hint of—so as not to step on any cultural sensitivities.”
Coleman and Hallsworth also had to consider those over-the-top costumes when devising the choreography. Taking ’70s bell-bottoms and platform shoes to what Hallsworth calls “a drag extreme” in one number, the designers created the equivalent of hoop skirts for each leg and topped (or bottomed) them with enormous curved-sole platforms. The company took to calling them Gumbies, and dancing in them was not the first problem. “Just to walk in them, you really have to pick the leg up,” Hallsworth says. “It’s this overexaggerated walk where you’ve got to push your hips way out.”
The sky-high headdresses—in one number the cast performs under five feet of feathers—required special attention as well. At first, turns had to be slowed down, or a hand had to go up to stabilize the headgear. “It’s all pretty workable now,” Hallsworth says, “though you can’t throw your head around. But drag queens wouldn’t do that anyway.”
Another challenge was choreographing for the three flying singers—the Divas—who provide the sound for the lip-synching sequences. They spend much of the show hovering overhead, so they can’t move around too much. “It’s really a whole lot of arm-ography and head-ography,” Hallsworth laughs. “It’s difficult, because you can’t stand there and flap your arms for number after number. So each of their routines has to suit whatever’s going on down on the floor.” And if it looks, well, a little bit naff, all the better.
Sylviane Gold writes on theatre for the New York Times.
Photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy Priscilla