The pleasure, pain and 40-year wait behind this Kiwi musical spectacular
By Bridget Jones
Sunday Star Times / 16 September 2017
It was the spring of 1980 when Rob Tapert first had his mind blown in one of New York's gay clubs. He's been chasing that feeling all over the world for nearly 40 years, but thinks building his own nightclub in West Auckland might be the best way to relive the incredible experience.
The man widely known for swords and sandals, and blood and guts is swapping it all for divas and sequins in a new musical theatre production he says is unlike anything New Zealand has seen before.
"There are things that make this so much more than a play or a musical. But at the heart and the emotional core of it, people are coming to a nightclub to watch a play within a nightclub, set in a New York environment, in 1984," Tapert tries to explain. "But that's tough to get on a billboard."
Pleasuredome. Technically, it is a musical set in 1980's New York City, as a legendary underground nightclub faces demolition at the hands of a bigoted developer hungry for progress - all told through the power of sex, drugs and eighties music.
Tapert's long-time collaborator - and wife - Lucy Lawless is the show's sassy diva, complete with a troubling cocaine habit and an unexpected new love. She's joined by an eclectic cast that includes Moses Mackay from opera trio Sol3 Mio, The Lion King's Vince Harder, and Neighbours' star Stephen Lovatt.
And in a fairly bold move, Tapert and his team decided to build that nightclub to execute the action in. A nightclub and a life-size, functioning New York street.
Inside the party, there's a floating DJ booth and a standing pit that puts punters within spitting distance of the stage. There is a VIP table-service area and there are bleachers to dance on. But before you pass the club's velvet rope, there's a subway station to walk through, a gaming arcade to play spacies in, and bars and food stalls to feed and water at, making the unusual location fully self-sufficient for a complete night out.
It's full-immersion in feeling and full-on in size, but it needs to be - more than 800 people are expected to fill the Pleasuredome each night.
A live musical production is something of a departure for Tapert, but the scale is familiar to the man who brought the likes of Xena: Warrior Princess and Ash vs Evil Dead to the New Zealand film and television industry.
Tapert, 62, has been working in New Zealand since the early nineties, when he was commissioned to produce five Hercules movies. Since then, he's made eight film and television series here, including Spartacus, 30 Days of Night and Legend of the Seeker.
Spartacus alone screened in 14 countries, and employed 315 permanent and 150 casual crew per week, 5000 extras days and 20 key cast roles per season. According to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, filming generated more than $200 million of spend into the New Zealand economy.
With a long career and history in Hollywood, you assume Tapert could work anywhere. But there's something about New Zealand that really fits. While the hopes are for the production to tour the world, Auckland was the only place, he says, a show like Pleasuredome could have been created.
"Kiwis - and I count myself amongst them - tend to like something new. They seem to respond to those fresh entertainment experiences, so I think here is a good place to start."
Tapert remembers being locked up in a hotel room on just his second trip to New Zealand, working on the script for Xena, when he was distracted by a noise coming from the road below. Turns out, it was the starting point of the Hero Parade.
"In my entire life, I had never seen anything like that. It was day two in New Zealand. Auckland is far more a liberal city than most places."
But Pleasuredome is very much an American story which began that eye-opening night, almost 40 years ago.
Meeting a friend on April 24, 1980 - the evening President Jimmy Carter ordered a surprise (and ill-fated) US military operation to rescue 52 American diplomats and citizens being held hostage in the US Embassy in Tehran, so it stands out - Detroit-raised Tapert found himself in the middle of a gay bar in the Big Apple for the very first time.
"I had never even dreamt of it. It wasn't on my radar. And that was my first introduction in any way, shape or form, into gay culture. It was all undercover when I was growing up, but it was all exposed in New York City."
He was still a year away from the release of The Evil Dead - the horror film that launched his career as a Hollywood producer - but there was something about the colourful, inclusive world of the club that grabbed Tapert's attention.
Almost 20 years later he found himself immersed in it again at the invitation of a former assistant who was dancing in The Donkey Show. Essentially The Bard's A Midsummer Night's Dream set to disco music in a club, his imagination was sparked again. This time he couldn't simply file the experience away to use later on.
Over the next decade or so, Tapert and collaborator Mark Beesley, who has worked on Outrageous Fortune, Step Dave and Savage Honeymoon among other Kiwi productions, could not shake the idea of combining a story about the LGBT community with the iconic music of the time. Realising the dream proved so much harder.
"It almost got made so many times, but it was a fail," Tapert admits. "A fail on my part for not understanding how everything works, and people wanted to replace key elements."
The original plan was to set it in ancient times, incorporating it into the last season of Xena: Warrior Princess, which launched its star, Lawless, as an icon of the LGBT community. Just issues around the rights to use certain songs stopped it heading to television.
Then, it was going to be a movie. In fact, in 2006, Lawless spoke about Welcome to the Pleasure Dome in interviews, then pegged as a raunchy and high-camp film set in New York, with a script touted as "the hottest seen in New Zealand for some time".
But, among other setbacks, Beesley, who wrote the script and was attached as director, pulled out. He told Tapert he'd made the film so many times in his head, that it was perfect. He didn't want to ruin that. He also suggested his "furious" friend should talk to director Michael Hurst about what it would look like as a theatre production. It was good advice; Hurst is now behind the wheel of Pleasuredome.
"It drove me back to ask myself what I liked about The Donkey Show. What was eye-opening about that night in the gay club?" Tapert says.
"And the show, in a simple way, has a message of acceptance, which is as important now as it was five,10, 20 years ago."
The entertainment value and emotional experience Tapert longed to share with an audience couldn't be found behind a screen. And once he committed to making this as a theatrical show, the production he loving calls "Rob's folly" started to fall into place the way "the universe wanted it to".
Even some tricky song rights were cleared thanks to his "immensely talented" wife of 20 years.
"Yes, some were cleared by Lucy Lawless appealing directly to the artist. She's a committed artist, and people respect that and that she's willing to - despite her husband's objections - go out there and follow her heart."
It all adds up to something the veteran of the business thinks will change the shape of theatre in New Zealand.
"I'm so convinced that it's going to be so entertaining for the audience that it will be a night to truly remember - and life doesn't often have that.
"There was a good rugby game on Saturday night, and there will be another one next week, but this will be a night to remember for everybody.
"Entertainment is growing and changing and this is a step in theatre."
Even with his untraditional approach, Tapert admits filling more than 800 seats every night is "daunting". But after almost four decades of stops and starts, he is ready to see the Pleasuredome come to life.
"I've willed things, hard-headedly. Someone once said 'movies don't want to be born, they want to be ripped from the womb', and there's always a little bit of that. But you know when it's the right thing and when it's coming together.
"You've just got to keep trying, but once things get on the right track you realise it was always meant to be like this. In this case, it just took more than 30 years for all the pieces to fall into place."
Pleasuredome runs from September 28 in Avondale, Auckland. Tickets from Ticketek.
Originally published in Sunday Star Times 16 September 2017