And then the show opened.
This is a fact. Priscilla is now playing in Milano to rapturous audiences that are building each week. The biggest show to play Italy is now going up eight times a week at the Teatro Ciak, or Priscilla Palace, as it’s been renamed.
How it got there? Well, that was a journey that none of us ever expected to take. We knew it would be challenging – the show always is. The first production in Sydney was a cavalcade of all-nighters, cancelled previews, bus-less shows and anxiety that opening night would be a disaster in front of the city’s VIPs. But miraculously (or rather, through the tireless work of the team and the driving vision of our director) the very first opening night ever of Priscilla was the sort of night that 30s movie musicals made into a cliché – flawless, exciting, and a standing ovation that never seemed to end.
I never thought we’d go back to that hellish tech period again.
Well, in Milano we found the eighth circle of hell. Viewing it from months later, with the show now smoothly running, it’s hard to remember how agonising it was; the daily frustration and disappointment of falling behind schedule again and again, props that didn’t show up or work the way they were meant to, backcloths that needed to be lit by a magician to look presentable (luckily Nick Schlieper is a magician), teching in an oversized tent with barely any heating thus requiring you to wear an overcoat and a scarf indoors, production meetings that were more like vicious divorce proceedings, crew smoking inside the theatre (even in the wings), standoffs between departments about matters that would be surprising in a factory in China, let alone an arts venue in the country that gave the world the Renaissance.
Every day there was a new shock. But I think the hardest thing to come to terms with was feeling like we were back at the start of Priscilla and not knowing if we could get it on. Only months earlier we were opening on Broadway, in the most glorious production and theatre, walking blocks to work each day through the most exciting city in the world. We’d gone from Sydney, to the West End, to Broadway. Now we were taking a bus 45 minutes each day from our student-esque accommodation on the outskirts of Milano (the part that looks more like East Berlin than Italy) to an underheated tent to watch a bus not be able to move onstage. And rip the stage up if it did.
I have been part of more conversations in my life than I ever want to again about what went wrong. I certainly learned that handing out blame, while an amusing way to pass a stillborn tech, achieves absolutely nothing – the blamed person works worse and the show problems don’t get solved any quicker. The simplest explanation is just that we didn’t have enough time to pull off such a complicated production in a country that isn’t versed in huge musical productions. Bus and floor issues should have been solved in a workshop away from the stage weeks earlier, not in front of the entire cast and crew who are biting their nails and wondering whether we’ll play a preview that night or not. A show with 500 costumes is probably too large to be made by one shop, no matter how gifted they are. The rigid hierarchy of a musical, from production managers to company managers to swings, as is tradition in America, England and Australia is that way for a reason – it is necessary to get the beast on that is a commercial musical.
There was a lot of anger, some sadness and, despite everything, a lot of laughter (and not always derisive). The cast battled through in heroic fashion. They left the rehearsal room matchfit and never lost that through the obstacle course that tech became. They were unfailingly lovely to each other and us and complained so little it was almost saintlike. And despite the conditions they were sometimes working in, still gave wonderful performances. The crew battled a theatre that was not designed to hold a show of Priscilla’s size and made it work for them. Simon turned up just at the time he was really needed to boost morale, and he did so, he and Garry especially. What amazed me was the team’s ability to be battling such dreadful odds and still care about doing a great show, when they had every right to just give up.
We only did one preview before opening night. It was a benefit for a major newspaper, so the house were all corporate guests on free tickets. First previews of Priscilla are, without fail, hysterical. The screaming, laughter, cheering. Even the first preview in Sydney where the show stopped 14 times and ran till after midnight had an audience that reacted like they were at the best party ever. This first preview in Milan felt like being at Long Day’s Journey into the Night. Being our only preview, it was a little frightening to think that maybe the show didn’t land like we thought it was going to for once. Even though we’d had wonderful invited audiences at the rehearsal room runs.
And then came opening night. It was one of the hardest opening nights ever. The bus still didn’t do what it was meant to, ie, turn. It could move up and downstage, but there was hope that last morning that finally the castors versus driving motor problem had finally been solved. So we all turned up that morning very chipper and hopeful that we were going to have a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland experience and on opening night, the show was gonna be just like Broadway! As the hours wore on that afternoon and the bus engine burned out again and the Aria shoe couldn’t be attached to the roof, despondency set in. The audience were coming that night no matter what.
I got ready for opening night in the toilets of the theatre. I stepped in urine while I was getting ready, which kind of summed up my mood at that point. Nonetheless, the vibe was electric, there was free champagne before the show, and an audience was turning up ready to see an extravaganza. Simon made a speech before the performance, common for a first preview, almost unheard of for an opening night (though a practice he ended up repeating at the Sydney opening night of ‘Love Never Dies’ a month later).
And the show itself? It was wonderful. Yes, Priscilla is about a bus, and we have a very expensive bus onstage. But Priscilla is really about a group of friends and their adventures, amazing costumes and some of the best pop songs ever written turned into Ziegfeld-esque production numbers. And all of that was still onstage, beautifully led by Simone, Anto and Mirko, a trio of wonderful performers who told the central story of the show as brilliantly as it’s ever been told. The audience went crazy and it ended up feeling like another fantastic opening night.
Since then the show has turned into the complete version – the bus turns, the shoe does its magic and all the little things are being added bit by bit. The reviews were apparently great (I can’t read Italian, so I’ll take that on face value) and audiences are embracing the show.
There’s a lot to be learned from the Milanese experience – antipasto and red wine is crucial every evening, don’t underestimate the potency of gin and tonics in a foreign country, museums might sound fun to visit on your day off but your mind is still on rehearsal, no matter how many times you see the Duomo you’ll still be impressed (and still be offered a toy helicopter or weird thing that goes splat). But the life lesson for me was about learning to let go of what you wanted the show to be and to accept that the team and I had worked as hard as we possibly could. No human being can make the impossible happen, no matter how much they wish it. I had a pretty emotional experience just before the opening night performance – I went to visit the principal dressing room, and I’d become very close to Anto, Simone and Alice who happened to be in there – and I wished them the best. I then started crying and saying emphatically “Priscilla is not the bus, it’s what you do onstage that makes the show matter”. I felt so sad that we hadn’t delivered on opening night the production they deserved to have around them. But then, the production that the audience adored that evening was because of them. So maybe the lesson is – make sure you cast amazing actors!
We’ve all moved on since then – lots of the creative team travelled Europe afterwards. I went to Noosa and sunburned away the exhaustion of the last two months. I’ve done two of my own shows since then, and already am into rehearsals for the next Priscilla – this time in Brazil. Although there’s tons I’d do different if we went back to Italy, I don’t get caught up thinking about it too much. After all, there’s no point crying over spilled mascara.