The announcement that Strictly Ballroom – The Musical will premiere in Sydney in 2013 was perhaps the year’s least surprising entertainment news. For the uninitiated (if there are such people), Strictly Ballroom (1992) was one of three feelgood Australian films released around that time that were pop culture milestones, the others being The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel’s Wedding (both 1994). All three films were gaudy, irreverent comedies whose heroes lived colourful fantasy lives, while surrounded uncomfortably by the real world. All had a generous soundtrack of 1970s and 1980s pop songs. All featured the late Bill Hunter in major supporting roles. All were hugely popular at the Australian box office, despite being Australian, and won substantial arthouse followings elsewhere.
Moreover, all lend themselves to the stage. One of these movies has already been adapted successfully, with the shorter, catchier name of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical. Following stints in Sydney, London and Toronto, it opened at Broadway’s Palace Theatre on 20 March to enthusiastic crowds and generally good reviews. By the third week of May, it was making more than $1 million a week (nothing compared with long-running megaliths like Wicked and The Lion King, but still impressive). Recently it celebrated its 100th Broadway performance. Not bad for a show with no original songs and a rather peculiar concept (three drag queens on a road trip through the Outback). Then again, Broadway likes peculiar concepts.
The US outing makes a few changes. One character’s obsession with Abba in the movie, ‘updated’ to a Kylie Minogue passion in the London production, has now changed to Madonna. Our Kylie just isn’t famous enough in New York. Otherwise, the show still revels in Aussie icons and clichés, to an uproarious response from the crowd. Even when they don’t get all the references, they still love the show.
Sadly, the Australian accents, from most of the cast, remain unconvincing. But of course, this production isn’t meant to be a true reflection of Australia, any more than the movie was — or any more than Oklahoma! or Guys and Dolls ever tried to show the ‘real’ America. Despite the darker moments, this is now the image of Australian culture for many Americans: glitter, high camp and garishness. Previously, Broadway’s most popular show from Australia was The Boy from Oz, with Hugh Jackman as the flamboyant, camp, musical legend Peter Allen. ‘That’s what Australia means to me now,’ one New Yorker told me after watching Priscilla. ‘Are most of you gay? That would explain why you have such a small population.’ Sadly, I think he was being serious.
Is this really such a major part of our culture? A friend once told me proudly of a university thesis that she had written, arguing that Australian men are basically gay. Her main argument? We call each other ‘mate’ all the time. (Feel free to go back and reread that line if it doesn’t make sense. It still won’t make sense, but read it anyway.) Perhaps the cinema’s greatest ode to homosexual Australian men, she proposed, was not Priscilla, but Gallipoli (that classic film about ‘mateship’), which is a cult film within the Turkish gay community.
But this isn’t about gay culture. (‘Not that there’s anything wrong with that!’ as Jerry Seinfeld said.) It’s just that Australia is now represented as a nation of bad taste. Enjoyably bad taste, but bad taste nonetheless. Though an impressive production, Priscilla the musical doesn’t try to be a work of highbrow artistry. It only received two nominations at the Tony Awards (the Oscars of Broadway), both for some of the few Australians still involved in the production: lead actor Tony Sheldon and costume designers Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner. To nobody’s surprise, Chappel and Gardiner won. They had already won an Oscar for the same designs back in 1994, and even that prize won enough attention (when Gardiner appeared in a notorious frock made of American Express cards) to perhaps treble the movie’s US box office. It was a reminder that the costumes, like the movie itself, were all about tackiness.
Sure, Americans have other images of Australia. They had Oprah showing them the usual sights: Uluru, the Reef, Sydney Opera House, Nicole Kidman. They still adore Steve Irwin and dimly remember Paul Hogan. But while the British also know us from soap operas (and Priscilla’s UK performances even cast household soap-opera names like Jason Donovan and Ray Meagher), the Americans are seeing our sequined, tawdry side. Australia seems strangely proud of its crassness. Priscilla, both on screen and on stage, revels in it; Muriel’s Wedding didn’t romanticise it, but it was still part of the appeal. Now, it seems to be selling to the US — or at least to Broadway, which perhaps makes sense.
Strictly Ballroom, if it ever gets to Broadway (which is presumably a goal), will further this reputation. It’s surely time for a musical play based on Muriel’s Wedding, that best movie of the three, whose protagonist (like one of the major characters in Priscilla) had an Abba fixation. Of course, Broadway already has a long-running musical full of Abba songs, Mamma Mia!, which is still going strong, despite being turned into a truly awful (but tragically popular) movie.
Still, I once heard of a stage version of Muriel’s Wedding that, for copyright reasons, was stripped of its Abba songs. This might seem unthinkable, but it received good reviews — at least from the only person I know who saw it: a discerning amateur theatre critic. Muriel’s Wedding didn’t need Abba. It’s the script, stupid!
The scripts for Priscilla and Strictly Ballroom were less intricate, leaving plenty of room for musical numbers and generous levels of gaudiness. So that’s what we are doing now: exporting our gaudiness, with great success. Is this a good way to promote Australia? Well, you might want to be represented with more substance and class, but you must admit: it still beats ‘Where the bloody hell are you?’