by tony reverditto –
Charles Busch authored and stared in The Divine Sister, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, The Tribute Artist and The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, the latter of which, ran for 777 performances on Broadway, receiving a Tony nomination for best play. He also wrote and starred in the film versions of Psycho Beach Party and Die, Mommie Die! and is a two-time MAC Award-winner, performing his cabaret act in cities all over the world.
This brand new show, created for Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series, titled The Lady at the Mic has Busch, along with his invaluable, longtime Musical Director Tom Judson, paying tribute through song and personal reminiscence to five extraordinary and much-missed women: Elaine Stritch, Polly Bergen, Mary Cleere Haran, Julie Wilson and Joan Rivers.
It’s mind-blowing that 25 years ago, I produced and directed three of your shows: Psycho Beach Party being my favorite. Of your female leads, which has been your favorite and why?
Since I write ‘em myself, I’ve had a lot of great roles. I loved playing Angela Arden in the play and movie of Die, Mommie Die! Making that movie was one of the happiest, exciting, creatively fulfilling times of my life. My favorite role on stage was a 1989 play of mine called, The Lady in Question. Often, I first think of a role I’d like to play…In this case I was day dreaming about how marvelous it would be to play a noble, self-sacrificing, great lady, a la Joan Crawford or Norma Shearer, in a 1940s anti-Nazi melodrama. It was quite a lavish production by Off-Broadway standards and it was the first play of mine to get rave reviews across the board. I adored playing Gertrude Garnet, an internationally-acclaimed, concert pianist who is incredibly selfish and narcissistic.
Were you a drag queen who became a writer or a writer who became a drag queen?
I’m not sure what to think about that term “drag queen…” At the risk of sounding pretentious and getting a pie in the face, I’ve always seen myself as an actor/playwright who has created female roles for himself to play in the context of a play or movie—I don’t have an offstage drag persona. Perhaps things are changing a bit with the great popularity of Rupaul’s Drag Race, but I’m not a hundred percent convinced that when a performer is called a “drag queen” that there isn’t an element of patronization going on. To me, it implies that drag is your lifestyle and the rage, bitchiness and outrageousness, wacky, neurotic behavior that often goes with it. I admire so many of the young drag performers, who now celebrate with pride being called drag queens. I may not even be the best judge of what I project. That said, call me whatever you want, as long as that check clears!
“It’s cool to think of yourself as an outrageous self-creation, but I’d rather be known as a no-nonsense, dependable pro.”
What advice would you give to up-and-coming performers?
If you want a real career in show business, drag or otherwise, you must maintain a core of pragmatism and a serious work ethic. You’ve got to show up on time and can’t be stoned or drunk, because at a certain point people think, “She’s talented but life is too short” and they stop calling. It’s challenging when you’re a celebrity in a small niche, because it’s easy to think you’re more important than you are. I was raised by my Aunt Lillian, an extremely wise woman and she indoctrinated me at an early age to force myself to be as objective as possible. She warned me against living in a fantasy world and making up lies about myself. She said it made one very vulnerable to exposure and humiliation. It’s cool to think of yourself as an outrageous self-creation, but I’d rather be known as a no-nonsense dependable pro.
When I chatted with you earlier this month, you said to be prepared to laugh and cry at your current show, why is that?
For the past five years, I’ve been enjoying a new chapter in my career as a cabaret entertainer. It’s been a wonderful surprise and I’ve learned so much about music and singing. I’ve been working with the marvelous musical director/arranger Tom Judson and he’s very tough on me… All those pesky details regarding tempo and pitch. Whatever happened to the concept of a “yes man?”
The thing with cabaret is to project a persona that is as close to who you are as possible. That takes a certain degree of self-awareness. In my act, I’m Charles Busch and very much as I am in life, but dialed up a notch. These days I sing mostly dramatic songs by the likes of Sondheim, Kurt Weill and Michel Legrand. I think the show is maybe 65 percent music and the other 35 percent is comic story telling. I’ve had a very full life, my dear. I’ve rarely turned down an experience and I’ve got an endless supply of anecdotes.
You pay homage to some great female performers. Why did you choose this group of ladies?
My cabaret shows are usually a potpourri of songs I like and stories about my career and youth. Last year however, Tom and I were asked to create a show for Jazz at Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series. I’ve been fortunate to have known several fascinating, show biz women in different degrees of friendship.
Our show The Lady at the Mic is about my friendships with a group of extremely talented remarkable ladies who died over the past few years; Elaine Stritch, Mary Cleere Haran, Julie Wilson, Polly Bergen and Joan Rivers. Great gals, all impossible, fascinating, generous, difficult and kind.
Can you give us a sneak peek into a new script or future project you may be working on?
For someone who spends too much time lying on a sofa, watching reality competition shows, I’ve got a lot going on! I have a new play that looks like it will open in New York in the 2018/19 season. These things take a while and a movie version of one of my plays looks to be making good progress…Well, this week at least, don’t ask me about it next week. Tom [Judson] (Busch’s long-time musical director) and I recently released our first CD, Charles Busch Live from Feinstein’s/54 Below. I never thought I’d have a record out and I’m very proud of it. It’s available on iTunes and through broadwayrecords.com.
The Lady at the Mic runs Thursday, March 9 through Saturday, March 11 at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets and more information, call 714.556.2787 or go to scfta.org.
Charles Busch will also perform a special benefit engagement of The Lady at the Mic, accompanied by Tom Judson, on Friday, March 24, at The Abbey, 2825 Fifth Avenue in San Diego. Tickets are $100 for the performance and a pre-show reception; $150 for reception, performance and a post-show meet & greet with Charles Busch. All proceeds benefit the La Jolla Playhouse’s New Play Development Programs. For tickets and more information, call 858.550.1010 or go to lajollaplayhouse.org.