From drags to riches

<i>I Will Survive</i> judges (from left) Jason Donovan, Toni Collette and Stephan Elliott, and host Hugh Sheridan.
I Will Survive judges (from left) Jason Donovan, Toni Collette and Stephan Elliott, and host Hugh Sheridan.

IN 1994, director Stephan Elliott breathed life into a small Australian film, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. It would become a cultural touchstone, blending Australia's cosmopolitan gay capital with its mystical, ancient heart.

Its plot - three city-bred drag queens embark on a coming of (middle) age journey from Sydney to Alice Springs in a bus nicknamed Priscilla - resonated powerfully. It was adapted as a stage musical in 2006 and has conquered Broadway and London's West End.

Eighteen years later, it has been turned into a television talent quest, in which host Hugh Sheridan and two judges - Elliott and actor Jason Donovan, who starred in the musical in London - search for the perfect musical theatre ''triple threat'': a singer-dancer-actor.

Elliott describes Priscilla as ''the old bus and chain'', touching gently on the unbreakable connection he has to it. He has affection in his voice, but when he talks about the ups and downs of the 18 intervening years, it is clear that connection has not always been easy to live with.

''When we were making it, I thought it was never going to work,'' he says. ''I thought none of us would ever work again and that level of freedom, which I have never had since, somehow made its way onto the film.

''When it erupted, did I see it coming? No, I didn't. Did I get rich out of it? No, I didn't. There was a bitterness that came with it after that, which was realising how many people got rich off it and I was still basically struggling just to pay rent.

''That took about a decade to get a handle on and there was a period there where I was ready to murder anyone who said 'Priscilla'.''

A television series had been suggested by the film's production studio, PolyGram Filmed Entertainment. Elliott wrote six or seven hours of it, but it did not eventuate.

Adapting Priscilla as a talent show, in the style of British programs that have searched for leads for musicals such as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (in the show Any Dream Will Do) and The Sound of Music (How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?), was raised many times. When the discussion was opened again this year, Elliott says, ''the time felt right''.

''The one thing I remembered, which I was reminded of when I went to the premiere of the [stage] show in Sydney, is what joy it brings people.

''That crowd went bananas. They were just so happy. And that's what it was like doing the film. It was a really fun experience. I felt that if we could encapsulate the same sense of freedom in the TV series, it would work.''

Elliott is front and centre with I Will Survive, he says, to protect the integrity of his original work. ''I don't want to be an actor, and I don't want to be in front of the camera. I'm happier behind a camera, but the only way to do it is to be a judge,'' he says. ''That puts me right in the front line to protect the integrity.''

The shoot - an actual road trip from Sydney to Alice Springs, retracing the film journey, with some side treks built in - has been ''complete chaos'', Elliott says.

''We have 10 cameras running in all different directions, stuff going wrong, but it is very funny.

''Some days we can't get off the ground from laughing so hard. Everybody gets the joke and that's what the brand brings with it.''

The series begins with auditions, takes its top-12 performers on the road trip and, returning to Sydney, takes its finalists to the US, finally arriving on Broadway. Though the Priscilla musical has closed on Broadway, the prize includes $250,000 cash and US representation.

Sheridan signed on after parting ways with Channel Seven's top-rating drama Packed to the Rafters. Though known mostly as an actor, he is a legitimate ''triple threat''; that is, an actor-dancer-singer, though he concedes it is something he hasn't always felt comfortable with. ''Once people are established in musical theatre, it's hard for people to take them seriously as an actor,'' Sheridan says. ''I'm lucky because Rafters allowed people to see me as an actor.''

What I Will Survive is setting out to do, he says, is explain how ''these days it is important to be able to do everything regardless; each discipline as good as the next''.

Sheridan says he was struck most by the transformational aspect of the road trip. ''Most shows use the word 'journey'; we use it, but we can because we're on an actual journey.

''The scenery is breathtaking, the locations are extraordinary … The stage show is not real, the movie is not real; this is real.''

The advantage of filming in Alice Springs and not in a television studio? ''You can't measure it,'' Sheridan says.

Most importantly, Elliott adds, I Will Survive does not stray far from the simple message in the original Priscilla film.

''Priscilla has a simple message of tolerance,'' he says. ''That's the heart of drag: an average kid, who isn't good-looking, who isn't famous, but for one fabulous night they can become this fabulous creation and be the centre of attention.

''The Rocky Horror Show was the same, about the misfits and the losers. And Glee has turned it into an industry. There are a lot of people out there who don't get a shot. And that is the real heart of Priscilla.''

I Will Survive airs on Wednesday on Channel Ten at 7pm.

This story From drags to riches first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.