Anything Is Possible: Priscilla, Prostitutes, And VIPs In London’s Gay Theater District

Queerty contributor Daniel went to London and continues to write about it for the tax write-off.

I arrived for my scheduled dinner the Palace Theatre in London’s Soho district ten minutes early and killed the time by standing under the large silver stiletto heel on top the theater’s marquee for Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical. Soho forms the heart of London’s gay, theater, and prostitution districts, and it being Pride weekend, loads of hot men had come out to cruise before showtime. I wasn’t on the hunt, just observing the manimals closely, like a under-sexed Jane Goodall.

When my dining party appeared, we descended into the Palace restaurant where — Mark Pacheco of the Really Useful Theater Theater Group told us — Andrew Lloyd Webber had penned most of the music for Phantom of the Opera. Mr. Pacheco added that he could give anyone an unforgettable theater experience complete with their own personal red-coated butler; vintage champagne, hand-crafted chocolates, and savory canapes to enjoy during the show; private dinners prepared by master chefs in the theater’s royal suites; and even a marriage proposal delivered by The Phantom of the Opera himself (“almost anything at all” Mr. Pacheco said). All of course, for a price.

We dined on champagne and a sumptuous meal with Cumberland sausages, caramelized shallots, creamed potato, red wine sauce — served by Kris, a young gay actor who waited evenings at the Palace and attended auditions in Soho during the day. I thought of Mr. Webber. How strange that decades ago he should sit in this same theater basement, penning fantastical showtunes that would one day become the staples of gay bar singalongs recited by heart from bears and aging theater queens worldwide; Cats, Sunset Boulevard, Evita. I wondered how many men cruising above knew the words to his songs.

Then Mr. Pacheco pulled out a slick brochure for the theater’s “VIP Experiences” with the words “Anything is possible” written on it. The cover had a tuxedoed man giving the fuck-eye to a purple-gowned woman smiling deliriously off into space even though her champagne glass was entirely full. The brochure mentioned that all seven of the Useful Theater Group’s theaters can provide as many unforgettable experiences and tasty treats as a few hundred pounds can provide — handcrafted souvenirs, floral bouquets, a theater district tour led by costumed period actors in a horse drawn carriage, and even use of the Palace Theater’s royal suites during the pre-show and intermission.

At one time only British monarchy had access to the royal suites and the royal box, Mr. Pacheco told me. King Charles II of Britain regularly snuck off mid-show into the theatre’s secret tunnels to enjoy royal box of another kind — the sweet loins of orange vendor-turned-theater-whore Nell Gywnn. Nell made her acting career partially by her wit and partially by fucking the king. And while Nell and the King enjoyed each other’s fruits, the King’s double sat in the royal box and watched the remainder of the show. Mr. Pacheco jokingly insinuated that he could arrange that sort of royal treatment too, if we wanted. There was a pregnant pause as we weighed options.

“You could never get this sort of experience in New York,” he said, and he’s right. For as long as I can remember New York has tried to scrub away the porn shops and prostitutes in the Times Square Theater District. Meanwhile, Britain’s theater history has long dripped with queer sexuality: Just think of the boys playing women’s roles in Shakespeare, the women playing men’s roles in British Christmas pantomimes; Lord Cromwell outlawing the “immoral” and “degenerative” influence of theater in 1642, and Britain outlawing “buggery” and “unnatural sex acts” for the same reason; the Lord Chancellor demanding that any play staged in London first meet his approval and Oscar Wilde encoding all the gay sex in The Importance of Being Earnest just to pass the censors. Theater has always been a realm of desire, subversion and fantasy — for everyone and their queer desires.

After dinner and dessert and Mr. Pacheco arranged to have our group dance on stage during Priscilla’s ho-down musical number, another one of his VIP theater experiences and probably the only time I’ll ever perform on a West End stage. Just so you know, the musical captured the film’s best lines and iconic scenes in show-stopping pop-numbers with insanely over-the-top drag (dancing paintbrushes with pink paintbucket headdresses, twirling cupcakes with rainy umbrellas). Kris, the waiter from the Palace restaurant, told me that the LCD-covered bus alone cost about three million dollars to make.

And yet I wonder how long this campy musical — in which a drag queen reunites with his son and a male divorcee falls in love with a transwoman — can survive on Broadway. Not only because a glittery pop adaptation of an Australian film might quickly burn through its queer American audience, but because for all its openness New York remains a city that shortened its own Pride parade by 20 blocks, in a state where lawmakers refuse to recognize gay marriage in any form, in a country where we can’t seem to put on a gay Jesus play or a Pulitzer Prize winning theatrical piece about AIDS without politicians and citizens faking heart attacks. How could a musical so dripping with queer sex and fantasy last in a such place?

Which explains why I and everyone in the Palace Theater had come to London to live out a fantasy — to celebrate Pride in a march of millions, to enjoy a campy remake of an astounding queer film, and to partake in the decadent luxuries of theater and perhaps even some recreational sex. We had all paid admission (no matter how menial) and as such we were all accomplices, actors in a larger drama.