Musicals, commodity, and complicity

Over the weekend I reviewed Showbiz Christchurch’s production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical. TL;DR – it’s a terrific show and a credit to everyone involved, bar the fact that it contains a really vulgar, racist, sexist scene (and that the audience near us thought that some of the the homophobic bits were really funny).


One of the difficulties in reviewing a literally spectacular piece of musical theatre like Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical is that it’s a commodity.

Some big name, big budget shows, like Priscilla – but also, say, Miss Saigon or The Phantom of the Opera – are highly standardised. This is proper Culture Industry, Adorno and Horkheimer stuff – art as big business and industry. It’s noted in the programme for Priscilla that the show’s budget exceeded $1 million, something extraordinary when you consider that, as a ‘pro-am’ company, a significant amount of the people involved have given their time to Showbiz for free. When these shows are put on, and when audiences want to see them, it’s arguably to recreate, as well as can be done, the original show – or, to be more fair, its platonic ideal. Crowdpleasers like Hair or Jesus Christ Superstar offer creative teams a lot of scope in terms of staging and design, but if you’re presenting the others, then there had better be those costumes, that chandelier, and that helicopter.  There had better be the experience of seeing that show.

A friend, not unkindly, calls this ‘just add water’. At this very expensive end of the musical theatre pool all the licensed materials give you a recipe or a framework, which could include everything from the book and the arrangements, to specs or at least very clear expectations for the set and costumes (which might be outsourced – more business), to licenced marketing materials (which adds authority and legitimacy), to logistical and creative assistance, and in some cases right down to access to choreography. This helps you, and protects the integrity of the show as Product, and it also signals to the audience, who have a clear expectation, that they are getting what they want. You, the producers, add time, money (and fundraising! so much fundraising), resources, logistical and managerial and legal expertise, and (in this case of pro-am companies) the best on- and off-stage talent you can get your hands on for little to no money. Looking at it this way, your criteria for success, and the reviewer’s scoresheet, might arguably concern whether or not you have successfully (re)created the desired product in a local context.

This set up offers a promise to the audience and terrific opportunities for producers and performers. Additionally, a show that’s staged by a production company that participates in a consortium is buoyed and aided by this framework. By pooling resources, you can ensure that your French revolutionary barricades are the most professional, good looking, functional and even spectacular barricades that they can be, whether you’re a big inner city company or a small regional theatre. You can deliver that product to people who might not get the opportunity to otherwise see it; you offer musicians and actors and dancers and crew (and so on and so forth) the opportunity to work on something big, splashy and special. It’s a great system, and I’m always astounded at what Showbiz, and companies like them, are able to pull off. This is particularly the case with Priscilla, as the show itself is a logistical monster – a great glittery machine that feeds on the energy of people.

This standardisation is also a trap.

If there’s something about the product, that show, that you don’t like, or that doesn’t read well in 2017, or that has always been surrounded by red flags and flashing lights and klaxons, then chances are you are stuck with it. It’s a part of the machine – a component in a standardised, heavily protected and licensed product; you probably can’t expunge it.

How different companies across the country deal with this varies. Aside from the questions about how well the show has been staged, this is the ambivalent space in which I think some of the most interesting, and sometimes most inadvertently toxic, stuff comes out. This is where we figure out how we, as individuals and audiences and communities, think about issues such as fairness, and discrimination; about representation, and inequality, and the politics of entertainment. If anyone ever tells you that entertainment is innocent, then they are lying. Entertainment, and popular culture, is a demo(cra)tic space in which we tell stories about ourselves to ourselves, and these stories are loaded with values: taken-for-granted ideas about how the world is and should be.

At the more flexible end of the spectrum, NZ Opera staged The Mikado without doing any meaningful work to talk to audiences about the show’s Orientalism, or to justify some of its design choices. Gilbert and Sullivan’s work is marvellous, and just as sharp and crowd-pleasing now as it was when it debuted, but this failure to engage, or to even head off potential issues at the pass with a degree of thoughtfulness and poise, is kinda baffling. (See also some of the astonishingly racist aspects of The Court Theatre’s otherwise interestingly steampunk-infused production of the show a few years ago, such as its mock-Asian call for audiences to turn off their cellphones.)

At the more restrictive end, you may have poured countless amounts of time, energy, money, and human resources into a show – a standardised, then localised product – that contains something that doesn’t fit: a joke or a number that doesn’t feel right or even work properly in the context of Christchurch, New Zealand, in the here and now (this is how I felt about the Jewish number in Spamalot); something that has a horizon of expectation that’s incompatible with that of local audiences; something that hasn’t translated well in its adaptation from screen to stage, or from its country or cultural context of origin; a character or set of characters who can’t be reasonably cast from the available pool of talent; a setting or frame of reference or set of implicit values that is out of date or doesn’t make sense anymore; content that once got a free pass but that now really doesn’t feel okay at all; content that might get a free pass if it weren’t playing to audiences that are predominantly white and well heeled (or insert any other dominant group here); content or characters who could be read in a number of different ways, and which need to be carefully framed (e.g. are we laughing at this, or laughing with this? Punching up or down?).

I have real sympathy for companies staging these large, popular, highly standardised musicals because in these cases, by and large, you’re stuck. In Priscilla, you’re stuck with Cynthia, the hypersexualised Filipino mail order bride who puts on a ping pong show at the local pub, against her Aussie husband’s wishes, and the associated musical number that’s (mortifyingly, horribly) put on for the theatre audience’s gratification.

There’s an interesting write up here about the legacy of the film 20-something years on within the sexual and racial politics of Australia. It takes note of the film’s emphasis on a very Australian whiteness, and points out how the original film struggles with issues of sexism and racism (with Cynthia, and also with the Aboriginal characters that have been cut from the musical) in a way that really complicates the story’s overall emphasis on diversity, tolerance, and survival. In the film, though, Cynthia is given at least a teeny tiny bit of depth. Here, she is just a cheap, nasty caricature played for absolute laughs and not much in the way of sympathy, and the issues regarding power, agency and cultural clash go pretty much unnoted. The night I attended Priscilla, the person next to me was rigid with shock, while the people behind whooped and hollered. (These are the same people who thought it was funny when the trio had ‘fuck off faggots’ painted on the side of their bus. Stay classy, Christchurch.)

The poor, rural white-trash character of Shirley, too, is pretty vulgar and cruelly rendered, although I’d argue that there’s a difference in that Shirley is white (in a cultural space that valorises whiteness), and that she has a degree of power and agency that Cynthia lacks. While there’s a pretty strong degree of punching down, I feel like Shirley comes off more lightly, although that’s up for debate too; your mileage may vary.

Both Cynthia and Shirley are interesting alongside the drag personae of Adam, Tick and Bernadette, as each is a type of performative, over-the-top femininity that is predicated on emotional and visual excess, most notably the the grotesque – see Bernadette’s great demonstration of how to lip sync properly. However, where drag (and camp) offers redemption through a playful, liberating and almost unreal site of transformation and liberation-through-performance, the other two characters have no opportunity to transform. They are stuck in their (stage) lives, without the escapist fantasy that is leveraged for powerful, redemptive political ends by drag.

What disappoints me, though, are some of the choices made with and around things you’re stuck with.

Sometimes, having a pretty standardised product is treated as a blanket get out of jail free card; that’s how it’s meant to be, it’s funny, get over it, get a life. That’s ‘just the way things are’. This is what Roland Barthes would call the protestation of innocence – the handwaving, nothing-to-see-here response that elides a legitimate claim through an appeal to naiveté. In Hairspray, the protestation of innocence regarding racial politics and representation was a) the casting materials that came with the show said don’t do blackface (and the response ‘we checked for it every night!’ – if you have to check you’re doing it wrong) and be flexible with your casting, and b) but hey, we don’t have any African Americans, are we just supposed to stage NZ stories then, you loser? Behind that, the production team nonetheless made choices about who to cast and how to make them up. It’s notable that despite protestations of equity, all things being equal, that that production chose not to have people who didn’t pass as white join the white kids, even though the reverse was true.

In productions of The Mikado, the protestation of innocence was that it was all in good fun; that NZ Opera’s design concept played with modern-day equivalents of fantastical, spectacular Japanese culture, that nonetheless were as simplified and reductive as the original use of Japan as an Oriental other-space in which to critique English bureaucracy – but now with highly gendered, fetishised signification (through the Harajuku girls) to boot. (See also historic criticism of Miss Saigon.)

In Priscilla, the creative team made the choice to emphasise Cynthia as the butt (har har) of the joke through the scene’s staging and through the responses of our three point of view characters. We, the seated audience, are the beneficiaries of her ping pong show. (To add potential insult to injury, looking through the programme, the very fine actress who plays Cynthia is also the only person who appears to be of Asian descent in the cast, and perhaps the only cast member to not pass as white. Please let me know if I am wrong in this.)

I just don’t understand why.

I really, really don’t think that companies should totally chuck out anything and everything that is difficult. All other issues aside, then there’d likely be nothing left! Shows like Priscilla are amazing, and this show was really beautifully staged and acted (by and large), but they are not ideologically neutral. (See also: Felicia / Adam’s desire to perform on the top of Uluru. Wince.) I do wish that there would be more front-facing thoughtfulness, not just in the way that individual characters or scenes or numbers are staged, but in programming and casting choices full stop. I hate the defensiveness and the ‘you just hate things / have sour grapes / have an agenda’ that springs up any time someone has the temerity to say ‘yeah, but…’; I’m particularly thinking back here a few years to discussions about gender and personnel in the Christchurch Arts Festival run of That Bloody Woman. I liked the point made by reviewer  about NZ Opera’s The Mikado; why didn’t NZ Opera front foot the issue and have a forum, or a panel, or at least a discussion about Orientalism in Victorian art and culture, and its role today? The history of representation is interesting and dynamic – why not engage with it?

Here, it just seems to be that ‘Cynthia is funny’. How is the show made better by her inclusion? What is it we are being asked to laugh at, and why? How does the makeup of the audience change the reception of this scene? Why is it ‘we’ feel that ‘we’ have the de facto right to tell any story we want, at the expense of whomever we want? And this is just another case, from just another show, and there’ll be another one along soon enough.

I would love – love love love love love – to see a clear point of view offered in the staging and direction of shows with questionable, difficult, or potentially slippery material. There is so much time and effort and expertise that goes into these productions; it seems just so ridiculous and counterproductive not to demonstrate a bit of understanding about how things are read and received in 2017. I would especially love a robust and genuine and intelligent defence of or encounter with content that is, in this case, pretty nasty and tacky – some thoughtful accountability, instead of the defensive suggestion that is offered, across the board by producers of shows, that if you’re not with us, you’re against us.

At the very least, could we somehow accept the idea that while big budget shows might be standardised products, that doesn’t mean we also have to be complicit with everything that comes with them.




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