The Haggadah according to Priscilla

April 2, 2012 at 9:39 pm, by

When I heard that Priscilla Queen of the Desert was coming out as a musical on Broadway, I was overjoyed. This heartfelt, visually breathtaking film from Australia seemed like a natural leap from the silver screen to the stage. Unfortunately, I think on the endless plane-ride from Sydney to Broadway, something got lost in translation.

Priscilla Queen of the Desert is the unlikely story of personal liberation and self-expression of a small band of misfits, traveling through the outback. Shunned for their identity, they are forced to seek out a new land, where they might have to fight for their rights, but will be able to be free and be who they are. They leave the wealth of the big cities of Australia to find a backwater land to call their own. Sound familiar? This is not a coincidence. With Passover right around the corner, I cannot help but think how similar the story is to Exodus, as the band of protagonists gets lost in the desert and on the way, find themselves.

The only difference is, they are Australian drag queens. Perhaps some of the Israelites were also Australian drag queens, but the Haggadah remains silent on this topic. In any case, the story of Priscilla is an incredible combination of wild wigs, 5-foot platform heels, so much ABBA music, and a really touching personal story. Between Tick/Mitzi, who is battling to find his way back into his son’s life despite his love for frocks; Bernadette, the aging mother figure who brings classical elegance and scathing wit to the group; and Adam/Felicia, a hot young thing always looking to get into trouble; the cast is filled with colorful characters, each with their own depth.

In the movie, the brilliant colors and trilling tunes are the backdrop for real stories of pain and persecution and personal loss. Each of the characters is attacked for what they are and must defend it in different ways. Felicia goes to a bar and is attacked when they discover she is a man. Bernadette is mourning the loss of her status within the GLBTQ community, as her aging is rendering her less relevant by the day, despite all she has to offer. And Tick encounters a real loss of the firstborn, as he fears his son will never accept him in his real form.

The three set out through the desert, on their way to the somewhat questionable promised land of Alice Springs, a backwater village where they hope to conquer the impossible: Bring the glitz and glamour of Sydney to down-home Australia. On the way, they find love, pain, courage and each other. It is an artfully crafted story, that tells the tale of the importance of acceptance of others and of ourselves. This is the meaning of true freedom–that illusive gift that allows us to be who we really are, for which we are willing to travel miles through the desert.

When I went to see the musical, the poster bragged that the show has over 500 costumes. In the theater, there is a massive disco ball that casts little rays of light all over the classical old interior. The choreography seems to have taken a note from male go-go bars, featuring arrestingly beautiful men scantily clad to say the least, and the most creative and crazy getups, from dancing birthday cakes, to lobsters, to Elvis. It is truly magnificent. And yet it lacks what makes the movie great: the power of the personal story. Though the show attempts to introduce elements of the basic narrative, it does not play on the heartstrings the way the movie does.

To borrow the words of the Haggadah, “even if we were all wise, all men of understanding, and even if we were all old and well learned in the Torah, it would still be our duty to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. And the more we tell it, the better.” The Haggadah, which means “the telling,” is the most important ritual of the Passover Seder. Every year, we get together to remember that as free as we may be, we were all once slaves. Indeed, in our personal lives, we are often slaves right now – to our schedules, to our personas, to our work. Every year, we bring this to the forefront to remind ourselves that we can be free. That once upon a time a bunch of Jews had the crazy idea that they would leave the great empire of Egypt, to go into the desert and seek out a land to call their own, where they could be who they are. This is also the message of Priscilla – that you have every right to be loved for every ounce of your being, and that that being is beautiful. That you need a community in order to feel safe. That if you cannot find your freedom here, you must “go west” and find it elsewhere. Because without each other in the wilderness, each of us is just another “cock in a frock on a rock”.

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