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Last Updated: Friday, 13 October 2006, 08:37 GMT 09:37 UK
Priscilla, Queen of the musicals
By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

Priscilla: Queen of the Desert
Jeremy Stanford plays the part of Mitzi in the production
One of Australia's most successful films - the camp classic Priscilla, Queen of the Desert - has been reborn as a musical.

The multi-million dollar production has opened in Sydney and its directors have promised that it will be bigger, brighter and glitzier than the movie.

That hefty weight of expectation is borne mostly by the three male leads.

"It's agony - especially the corsets!" explained veteran actor Tony Sheldon, who plays Bernadette, the feisty transsexual.

"The make-up takes me two hours to do and the costumes are extremely heavy," he told the BBC.

"The heels though were conquered quite early on in the rehearsal period!"

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is the story of three drag queens on a journey of self-discovery across the Australian outback.

When you see somebody of world class status like Philip Seymour Hoffman coming to Australia you know that something good is happening
John Burfitt
Arts commentator

Stellar performances from Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce made it a huge hit at the box office in 1994.

"I've had messages from within the drag community that I'm doing them proud and that the character is totally believable," said Sheldon from his dressing room at Sydney's Star City casino.

"That meant the world to me."

These are exciting times for Australian theatre.

Oscar-winning actors Philip Seymour Hoffman and Cate Blanchett will add some Hollywood glamour when they arrive next year to direct separate productions.

"This is fantastic news," said John Burfitt, a Sydney arts commentator.

"When you see somebody of world class status like Philip Seymour Hoffman coming to Australia you know that something good is happening and shows you what the pulling power of Australian theatre is."

It was not always this way. Generations of Australians were once brought up amid the country's notorious "cultural cringe."

Terence Stamp at the premiere of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert
Terence Stamp, who starred in the film, attended the premiere

Back then the overriding feeling was that the only place to find invigorating art, literature or theatre was overseas - in fact, anywhere but Australia.

Those gloomy concerns about intellectual inadequacy have mostly disappeared, although that tired joke about a tub of yoghurt having more culture than Australia is definitely not appreciated here.

Certainly Hoffman is looking forward to his Antipodean adventure.

The 39-year-old American, who won an Academy Award for his powerful performance as author Truman Capote in Capote, will direct the world premiere of Riflemind in Sydney.

Blanchett will have her hands next year full directing David Harrower's award-winning play Blackbird, that details the unsettling fallout from an underage sexual relationship.

Sydney acting teacher Simon Hunt believes that a new age has dawned for Australian drama.

"Theatre faces a tricky test in Sydney because there's such a fantastic sports scene that means that people haven't wanted to see plays or sit in a darkened room," he said.

Cate Blanchett
Hollywood star Cate Blanchett will direct Blackbird next year

"But Hugh Jackman coming back to perform in the Boy from Oz has renewed interest in the live arts so it's an interesting time."

But not everyone is feeling so positive.

Camilla Rountree, a producer at the Riverside theatre in Sydney, complains that there is too much emphasis on glamorous "event theatre" driven by international celebrities.

"I think there's not enough work put into developing scripts, playwrights and directors as teams in Australia," said Rountree.

"The industry has become polarised. You have the large, well-funded companies at one end of the spectrum and a lot of very small productions at the other end, where most of the most interesting work is happening.

"At the larger end that's where the least interesting work is emerging."

Australian fans eager to see this season's big budget musicals Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Titanic will disagree.

Critic John Burfitt says the audience will be royally entertained.

"Priscilla is great fun!" he explained.

"It's an over-the-top party piece but the lovely thing about it is it is a truly Australian show."

Through the dazzling sequins, extravagant wigs and camp frocks the future of Australian theatre seems to be bright.

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