‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’ — the gayest movie in history — becomes the gayest stage musical in history … and that’s saying something


ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

Screen shot 2013-05-09 at 10.47.13 AMThe last time most North Texas audiences got to see Wade McCollum, he was slithering around in a pair of tight-fitting pants (and little else) in Dallas Theater Center’s production of Cabaret.

When he returns this week, you’ll see a very different side of him.

“You know what I look like in nothing,” he says. “Now you’ll know what I look like in drag.”

And not just any drag. McCollum headlines the national tour of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, a jukebox musical so full of outlandish costumes it does them a disservice to call them “just” costumes.

“They are more than costumes — they are engineered creations,” says McCollum, who plays Mitzi (the Hugo weaving character from the film). “The seeds of all the ideas are in the film. But here you’ll see the trees and all the fruit.”

Michelle Harrison, a Dallas native and costume director for the national tour, confirms the scope.

“I’m responsible for five [tours] right now, and Priscilla has the most costumes by far. There are just under 500 total costumes — and that’s taking a costume of one person’s individual look, not all the pieces that make it up, or for the swings or understudies,” she says. “It takes up a 53-foot semi-truck. Costumes are transported in rolling closets called gondolas; most shows have 10 to 20 gondolas. Priscilla has about 40.

It’s huge.

“I should finally just count my own costumes,” McCollum admits. “I counted once while walking to a party; I think I came up with 20 to 22 costume changes [for me], some of which are, like, 30 seconds long.”

But does McCollum have a favorite look among his wardrobe.

“There are so many great costumes, but I’d have to say the finale — where we wear these huge Marie Antoinette dresses — is really more of an emergency shelter than a dress. It’s 7 feet wide, with a huge metal skirt and 5-foot-tall wig that represents the ocean with the Santa Maria on top.”

That’s not even the most outrageous thing. When all the actors come together, domes come arching up over their heads and together they create the Sydney Opera House. “It’s one of those moments when you say, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’” says McCollum.

That’s a surprise especially when you consider the low-budget Aussie film — about three drag queens road-tripping it to the Australian Outback in a bus they christen Priscilla, only to shock, upset and occasionally delight a series of baffled locals along the way — notoriously had one of the cheapest costume budgets ever imagined: $15,000 (out of an overall budget of $1 million). The costume budget for the Broadway version? Reportedly half a million alone, “if not a little more,” confirms Harrison. “Everything from the shoes to the wigs is of excellent quality, but there is also stuff from the dollar store, which works, because the three queens don’t have any money, either.” (The iconic $7 flip-flop dress from the film — which was instrumental in winning designers Tim Chappell and Lizzie Gardiner the Oscar — is in the stage production’s Tony Award-winning costumes as well.)

Indeed, one of the directives given to Harrison and company in constructing the costumes for the tour was not to make them look “too nice.”

“It’s definitely something we have to keep in mind, especially with the shoes. When we finished them, they looked too good — we needed to make them look a little dirty, a little used.”

Harrison’s own fave among the costumes varies depending on her mood.

“Definitely one of my favorite and one of the hardest to create were the cupcakes — big, bulky and hard to fit. We put them on the actors 12, maybe 14 times before we readjusted them right.

And I love that flip-flop dress. But where I am now, I am in awe of all the shoes. They are amazing.”

An ironic thing about the national tour is: It’s easy to attract New York audiences to a Broadway production with drag; but has art imitated life? Has this road show production of kitschy flamboyance and uber-gay characters wooed folks in the hinterlands or delighted them?

Definitely the latter, says McCollum.

“They say if it plays in Peoria, you have a hit,” he says. “Well, we have all been incredibly surprised at the deafening roar of the crowds every night. Sure, some people may not relate to [drag queens per se], but on a fundamental level it’s about humans: An older woman finding love, a young kid who can’t be as radical as he wants to be, a father afraid of rejection. It’s the trope of belonging, the beauty of diversity. Audiences find themselves relating to [the characters] as people.”

But the camp certainly plays a role.

“Hey,” McCollum says, “seeing the show is like being inside a drag queen’s imagination for a night. Who doesn’t want to be there?”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 10, 2013.