She’s Not Just a Bus, She’s “Priscilla”
Brian Thomson designs the Broadway musical’s fabulous title bus
How’s this for pressure? Brian Thomson isn’t just designing the set for a new Broadway musical: He’s designing the title role.
Or rather, the title vehicle. In Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical, “Priscilla” is the bus that three performers—two drag queens and a transsexual woman—drive across the Australian Outback as they head for new jobs and new lives. Along the way, they have campy adventures, make heartfelt revelations, and belt out classic pop songs like “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” “Like a Prayer,” and “MacArthur Park.” But as fabulous as they are, the divas would be nothing without their mobile home, which serves as a set, a symbol, and a source of sassy jokes
Since the show launched in Australia in 2006, Thomson has created five versions of Priscilla, and the bus that rolled into Broadway’s Palace Theatre is the most versatile yet.
On the most basic level, it needs to facilitate the technical demands of the production, which is based on the 1994 film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. As Thomson notes: “We needed it to open for interior scenes. We needed it to change color. And don’t forget there’s a shoe on top of it [for one elaborate musical number.]
We also had to find a way of showing the audience that the lip-syncing [occasionally performed by the leads] was not done to records, but was done to live female voices. When you first see the three singing divas, they fly down, but later, they rise up to the top of the bus.”
Thomson has tackled these challenges with a variety of technical tricks. The bus has a retractable panel, for instance, that slides open to let us see the drag-fabulous world inside. And behind three beaded curtains covered with pictures of palm trees, there are elevators that zip performers to Priscilla’s roof in just a few seconds.
The biggest challenge, however, was making the bus change color. In a major plot point, the main characters paint her pink after she gets tagged with hateful graffiti, but there’s not enough time to paint the bus during the show and not enough money to have a pink Priscilla waiting in the wings.
“We tried all sorts of techniques to make that happen,” Thomson recalls. “There were panels that were going to flip and all sorts of stuff, but I sort of knew instinctively that the only way to do it was to do it theatrically, and that was to use lights.”
Cut to Broadway, where Priscilla boasts 30,000 LED lights on all her sides. With the push of a few buttons, she can become pink or blue or green. Or she can become a massive screen. During an aboriginal dance number, for instance, we see an animated snake slither up her side. A few minutes later, an animated rubber ducky floats by.
For director Simon Phillips, those flourishes are an important part of the show’s overall tone. “[The musical] does try to have its cake and eat it, too” he says. “It has a very truthful story at the heart of it, but it also has these forays into frivolity, and the bus is no exception.”
Even frivolity needs a plan, however, and that thoughtfulness unites the technical and artistic aspects of Thomson’s design. “Nothing can just be plonked there without any thought to how it got there,” he says.
That’s why Priscilla’s three elevators aren’t hidden with a bedsheet or a piece of plywood. The palm tree curtains tell us something about the personalities of the queens who own the bus. There’s care in the smaller details, too: The Kewpie Dolls stuck on Priscilla’s walls are creepy and funny, but they’re also a reference to the Australian movie Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.
Thomson’s work was just as quirky when he designed the landmark cult film The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and he’s had similar creative freedom on Priscilla. “I did have fun with the bus, and that was all my invention and no one had any input except for me,” he says. “I guess everybody trusts me, which is most comforting.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor