Manhattan showtime comes to West Auckland: as the massive 80s musical show Pleasuredome, starring Lucy Lawless, counts down to opening night, executive producer Rob Tapert and producer Charlie McDermott reveal the story of its creation.
Rob Tapert: You don’t give up and you try to work only on the things you really love – that’s what I think. Those are the principles that guided me as we took Pleasuredome from a crazy idea about how an audience can experience a show, to a script and finally to a production all set to launch next month in Auckland.
In 2000 I visited New York to see The Donkey Show with Kiwi director and producer Mark Beesley. It was a theatrical version of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, but with disco music. Part-theatre, part-party, all wrapped in an evening out with your friends.
It was an amazing, celebratory and wild event that mixed all our favourite aspects of the arts. Here was a new type of entertainment that a wider audience should enjoy. It was totally immersive, it got us dancing, singing and cheering for the characters from a Shakespeare play! And it inspired us to make our own event, bringing together the elements of The Donkey Show but to the medium we were most familiar with – TV.
We set out down various paths to sell a TV show that traded off of Xena: Warrior Princess, the show I co-created and which my wife, Lucy Lawless, starred in. The pitch was two women warriors battling a repressive government in some future landscape. Their weapons are great songs, dance and radical ideas. After doing all the Hollywood rounds it was clear that we should have been pitching Glee instead.
But in 2004 a chance meeting with an American movie theatre group led us in a different direction. They wanted a new midnight movie to replace The Rocky Horror Picture Show. With Mark as director, and me producer, our plan was to make A Great Musical Love Story that moved the audience but also created an environment where the audience could participate. A movie that was a cinematic event where everyone is invited and none are excluded and the audience is free to sing and dance in the aisle to their favourite tunes.
Mark started writing. Sitting in a sushi bar on Ventura Boulevard in LA, I read his first draft of Pleasuredome. I laughed, smiled and shed tears of happiness into my sushi. Mark had delivered exactly what was asked for. But in the year it took to get a script, the theatre owners had changed their minds and now wanted evangelical movies for Sunday mornings. (I was a fool, I listened to theatre owners.)
Over the next few years many opportunities were presented to finance the movie but always with caveats – Mark couldn’t direct, Lucy Lawless couldn’t star, or we had to give up all the rights. My dance with local funding via the NZ Film Fund II was a disaster.
The most successful Broadway financier at that time wanted to make Pleasuredome as a movie but thought it really should be a play. He thought it was perfect for Vegas. But I was a TV/movie producer who had learned never to stray from what I know.
After lots of expended energy, deals collapsed, the phone went silent, and a chilly frost settled over the script. I retreated into years of TV and movie production and Mark went on to direct and produce numerous local dramas.
Years later I took one last swing at getting Pleasuredome made as a film. But Mark felt he had done his dash. “Go get Michael Hurst and do it as a play like The Donkey Show, that show we saw years ago,” he said. After years of doors closing it was time to try something new.
Charlie McDermott: The first time I heard the word ‘Pleasuredome’ I was sitting on the porch of my old mate Michael Hurst’s place, beer in hand. As my mildly addled mind contemplated what a helluva great title that was, Michael told me that one of the national treasures of both New Zealand and the US, Rob Tapert, was the man behind this.
He explained that he wanted to book a theatre and turn this film into a play. I took the script away and read it that night. I read it twice. Then I read it a third time. It blew me away. It was like an explosion of colour and sound and people that I felt I really knew. And the music, oh my gosh. The songs were brilliantly woven into the fabric of the drama, bringing new meaning to some of the classics we know and love from the 1980s. “Do we actually have the rights to these?” I asked (having been a DJ in a previous life, I hold one of those songs in particular among my all-time favourites). And it turns out that we did!
Mark and Rob’s script was like Rocky Horror meets Paris Is Burning, with the magic of The Winter’s Tale, the grit of The Warriors and the power of cabaret. It’s a story set against the birth of dance culture, hip hop, inclusiveness, greed, addiction. It’s a story that tells us that above everything else, love conquers all.
As I read it that second and third time, it became clear what this needed to be. Immersive. We needed to take people back to that place in New York City in 1984. For real. Put them inside a real nightclub and break the fourth wall to create a party show like no one has ever seen before, where the audience are part of it – part club night, part musical, part party. We needed to make it one of the best, fun nights of everyone’s lives. So Michael, Rob and I agreed with gusto that this is what it needed to be, and off we went to make it happen.
Fast forward and here we are, four weeks out from our first preview, it’s 11:50pm on a Monday after years spent adapting, thinking, watching, changing, wishing, wanting, getting. Months that have allowed us to work with some of the most talented collaborators and partners in the world. Weeks that have seen us secure rights to songs, lose rights to songs, then secure rights to songs again. Days that have inspired us in Las Vegas and New York City. Hours that have shown us inside domes and state of the art technology. Minutes that have given us laughter, heartache and hope. And seconds where we remember that we wouldn’t change it for the world. We are exactly where we want to be.
So get ready Auckland, this one is something special, and in this age of experience, you are in for one hell of a night out.
Correction: An earlier version of the story incorrectly referred to the New Zealand Film Commission instead of the NZ Film Fund II.
Pleasuredome, The Ultimate 80s Musical Experience stars Lucy Lawless, Vince Harder and Moses MacKay and will play in a fully realised Manhattan streetscape just off Rosebank Road from September 28. Tickets are on sale now from Ticketek.
Subscribe to Rec Room a weekly newsletter delivering The Spinoff’s latest videos, podcasts and other recommendations straight to your inbox.