‘Queen’ preens for Aussie auds

…as producers dress homegrown tuners for int'l success

SYDNEY — As the glamazon cross-dressers of “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” stomp across the stage of the Lyric Theater this week, the producers of the new Australian jukebox musical are looking to see if those sequined platform shoes will carry them to runaway legit success.

The tuner, which cost $A7 million ($5.2 million), chalked up a healthy $4 million advance ahead of its Oct. 7 bow.

Producers Liz Koops, Gary McQuinn, John Frost and Michael Chugg have fast-tracked the show to take advantage of a lull in local live entertainment. They’re banking on a long season in Sydney and the production eventually will travel throughout Oz.

Export potential, however, is key in order to justify the development cost, it being too risky to plan a production for the limited Oz market alone.International producers are even flying to Sydney to assess the offshore possibilities for “Priscilla.”

Koops acquired stage rights to the 1994 film, written and directed by Stephan Elliott, who wrote the musical’s book along with Allan Scott. Melbourne Theater Company artistic director Simon Phillips directs the show.

Koops says it was once too expensive to produce original musicals in Australia; now it’s the only way that makes sense.

She says it’s become prohibitively expensive to acquire Aussie rights to foreign hits. But with the Oz dollar worth about 75¢, new productions are comparatively cheap to develop. Also, the country has ample creative talent, and fund-raising has become easier following the success of hit tuners such as “The Boy From Oz.”

Aside from “Priscilla,” two other quintessentially Australian candy-colored comic films from the 1990s have been rumored for theatrical reworkings: “Muriel’s Wedding” and Baz Luhrmann’s “Strictly Ballroom.”

The three films are light, comic and boast a soundtrack of pop faves. And each adopts a brash, larger-than-life comedic tone that should translate well to tuner mode.

Luhrmann has rejected numerous offers to sell the rights to “Ballroom,” which began as a stage production at the Natl. Institute of Dramatic Arts. “Muriel’s” producer Lynda House says negotiations are under way to bring that story to the stage.

Producer Dennis Smith this month is meeting potential production partners in London in a bid to take his Aussie-hatched Dusty Springfield biotuner, “Dusty,” to the West End. As he does this, he’ll be keenly monitoring “Priscilla” and “Dirty Dancing,” which opens Oct. 24 at London’s Aldwych Theater with a hefty £11 million ($21 million) advance.

The Brit production of the tuner, based on the guilty-pleasure teen romance pic, is co-produced with Karl Sydow and stars some principals from the Oz version, which played for 18 months domestically and in New Zealand and grossed more than $41 million.

On a much smaller scale, the Ensemble Theater’s Judy Garland biotuner “End of the Rainbow,” with Caroline O’Connor, played a return season Down Under before four weeks at Edinburgh’s Assembly Hall, as part of the Fringe Festival. Producers Ross Mollison and William Burdett Coutts are finalizing plans for an early ’07 West End season of that three-hander.

Homegrown tuners from Australia have a patchy track record in penetrating the international marketplace.

Peter Allen biomusical “The Boy From Oz” was a domestic hit both first time around and in the recent domestic arena tour with Broadway headliner Hugh Jackman. But the show had to go through a difficult, protracted reworking before it cracked the Great White Way in 2003, and then only overcame mixed reviews because of the critical and public embrace extended to its star.

Another local hit, the Jacobsen family’s 2001 Johnny O’Keefe tuner “Shout!” failed to travel because, while the pioneering Oz rocker of the 1950s was a household name Down Under, he was largely unknown offshore.

“We investigated a few international options,” says Michael Jacobsen. “The story and concept would have worked but would have needed significant overlay, so we abandoned those plans.”

Around the same time “Boy From Oz” reached Broadway, the Jacobsen family nabbed the rights to “Dirty Dancing” and the tide began to turn.

The arena overhaul of “Boy From Oz” wrapped its 36-show tour in Perth Oct. 2, with Jackman selling out venues of 10,000 seats or more. Pending the star’s availability, producers Robert Fox and Ben Gannon have hinted that a return season at Gotham’s Radio City is in their sights for the retooled show.

The eagerness of Australian producers to develop new musicals is relatively new.

Only five years ago, Frost lamented to Variety that it was almost impossible to produce home-grown tuners. Investors cannot tap tax breaks, so venture capitalists were avoiding live theater because, as he admits, “there’s a deep history of burned investors in Australia.” Also, the $5 million pre-production costs are a big gamble in the relatively small Oz and New Zealand market, even with a potential Asian tour.

Awareness of hit films or biographical plays of performers makes projects built around those key elements ideal.

“Priscilla,” which is based on Elliot’s film about three fearless drag queens who brave the Australian outback in a silver bus called Priscilla, blended inner-urban camp and outback butch in a mix that was widely embraced Down Under and abroad.

Show features actors Jeremy Stanford, Daniel Scott and Tony Sheldon dancing, singing and cavorting to new versions of original disco hits like “I Will Survive” and “I Love the Nightlife.”

According to Frost and Koops, the $750,000 bus, bedecked with hydraulic gadgetry, is the real star of the show.

The “Priscilla” movie grossed $12 million in Australia and remains the eighth highest-grossing Aussie film in the domestic market. It grossed $11 million Stateside, its cult following fueling a healthy international ancillary life. “Priscilla” is no “Crocodile Dundee” ($175 million Stateside), but it’s a title people remember and it helped launch the careers of principals Guy Pearce and Hugo Weaving, while giving a boost to British vet Terence Stamp. Whether the stage show will give a similar boost to Australian tuners internationally largely depends on the success of the Sydney run.

“Our whole brief is, let’s not worry about the future and focus on what has to get done,” Koops says.

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