Dallas — Charles Busch is a playwright, novelist, screenwriter, actor, director, singer and teacher, but with flair. He's known for performing in drag as well as works with creative titles, like his plays Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party and Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium, and his novel, Whores of Lost Atlantis. In Dallas, Uptown Players probably has staged more of Busch's works than any other theater, including Red Scare on Sunset, Die, Mommie, Die; and The Divine Sister, starring Dallas' own Charles Busch, Coy Covington, whose work is well known to Busch himself.
Busch's The Tale of the Allergist's Wife was nominated for a 2000 Tony Award for Best Play and earned an Outer Critics Circle Award, bringing Busch's quirky characters and situations out of camp and into the mainstream. Busch's impressive list of achievements includes a Drama Desk Award for Career Achievement (Performer and Playwright) and winning the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs Award twice.
Dallas audiences will get the opportunity to get to know Busch in a more intimate setting during his cabaret act with accompanist Tom Judson, A Divine Evening with Charles Busch, Oct. 29-31 at the Wyly Theatre at the AT&T Performing Arts Center as part of the Off-Broadway on Flora Series. Busch took the time to talk to TheaterJones on the phone about his Dallas show, his childhood and being in his Greenwich Village neighborhood when nationwide marriage equality became reality.
TheaterJones: Let's talk about your cabaret show first. Will there be lots of name-dropping?
Charles Busch: You know, it's an odd show in a way because, although I'm in drag, it's very much just me as myself talking about my experiences and singing a slew of beautiful songs from the Beatles and the American songbook, but yes, some of my stories have celebs in them because of my glamorous life, which is dotted with boldface names. For instance, when I sing my Beatles song, I have to talk about Sir Paul McCartney. I've met him twice, which in show biz is tantamount to being close friends. The last time I saw him, he came into my dressing room and said I had a great pair of legs. It was at the time when he was going through that awful divorce with Heather Mills, so I didn't know if I should take that as a compliment or if it was a dig at her. I chose to take it as a compliment.
Are you in drag for the entire show?
The show is only an hour long, so yeah. I never liked those things where you get in drag and then out of drag because you just can't compete with that lady. The thing I find so interesting is that I'm so comfortable in drag after 40 years, it's not this big transition for me between male and female. In my cabaret act, it's me as myself, but I just kind of dial up the flamboyance. The most important thing for me is for the audience to get to know me, like you're in my living room.
Tell us about your character showbiz wannabe, Miriam Passman. How did she come to be?
Mostly, my show is me telling anecdotes and singing, except for this one character I've done for many years. She started as a monologue and was the inspiration for the woman [Marjorie] in The Tale of the Allergist's Wife. Miriam has a much stronger ego, and like many people who have dubious accomplishments, she thinks quite highly of herself. She is a rather affluent woman who is desperately trying to find herself as a cabaret chanteuse and has the means to do so. She is quite full of herself. I like to give the audience an overview of who I am as a performer, so this character is more of a glimpse of myself as a writer.
You are so many things—writer, singer, actor, director. What do you consider yourself to be?
I'm an entertainer. That is the best overview of what I do. I derive pleasure from all of it. It's nice that after all these years, I derive great pleasure from writing. It's odd, the word "fun." I never really think of things as being fun. Writing is hard work and very disciplined work. I see on Facebook people having fun all the time and I'm just working, but then I realize I am having fun. My work is fun, stimulating, surprising. I'm lucky I'm not someone working in 9-to-5 misery. We take our lives for granted. A few months ago, I had a desire to just have fun, and I dragged a girlfriend to Coney Island and rode all the nauseating rides. That's a cure for all depression—go on all the terrifying rides.
How did you and Tom Judson come to work together?
He is a great blessing to me. It's odd because I've known him for 30 years, and he actually wrote the preshow music for Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, and yet we weren't that great of friends. We ran into each other every seven years or so for coffee. Then four years ago, I got a call out of the blue to perform on a gay cruise. I hadn't done cabaret for 20 years. Then they told me how much I would get paid and asked if I had an act, and I said, "I'll get one!" I had to think of a show and who it would be fun to work with and go on a cruise with, and he's handsome, which is always a pleasure, so we put an act together in three weeks.
How many cabarets does this make for you?
Tom and I have done maybe four completely new shows. We have quite a few things in our repertoire. We're going to be trying out some new stuff in Dallas because we have this big, new, ambitious show coming up at Lincoln Center that calls for putting together a whole new show. We're going to be trying out a beautiful Sondheim medley.
Your list of plays, screenplays and roles is so prolific and impressive, it's a little overwhelming! Out of all those works, what is your personal favorite?
It's a lot! I just went through my stuff recently to put together a book of monologues. It's wild going through all that—like an archeological dig. There were some good surprises and some disappointments. Often you tend to pick things out of sentimentality. It's hard to separate the quality of work with the personal experience you were having at the time. I'm a pretty tough critic of myself. In most of the things I've written, I find good things and things I could have done better. I would have to say my favorite is Red Scare on Sunset from 1991. It's an interesting, complex portrayal of the McCarthy era in Hollywood. The Divine Sister is an awfully funny play, and actually the last play I did in New York, The Tribute Artist. At any age, you want to keep growing and experimenting, and sometimes it's successful and sometimes it's disappointing. I'm not some elitist playwright writing some obscure thing. I like to please an audience, but at the same time, I like to challenge myself.
Is there a time you foresee hanging up your drag persona?
First of all, I never use the term "drag queen." I'm from an older generation, pre-RuPaul's Drag Race. In my day, we bristled at the term "drag queen." It implied you weren't professional. But younger drag performers have embraced it. I see myself first as an actor and a writer, but that's a little disingenuous of me since my whole career has been seen through a female performer. With this cabaret act, in a way, there is almost no reason I should be in drag at all. I'm Charles Busch. I don't have a drag persona I go by. I considered not even being in drag, but a friend said, "If I came to see you and you weren't in drag, it would be like going to Disneyland and finding out Space Mountain was closed." I'm more confident in drag; I have more of a swagger. Plus I think cabaret is a bit of a more feminine forum. I feel a great link to renowned ladies who sang in front of a microphone, like Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Elaine Stritch. We talked about calling the show at Lincoln Center "The Lady at the Mic." I just seems natural to me.
What was your childhood like? When did you know you wanted to perform?
I have been working on a memoir about my youth, and I've had to really delve into it. I originally thought that it was Dickensian, but then I realized it was actually mild. I was indulged and encouraged, praised for my work, never censored, never given the message "What will people think?" On the other hand, my mother died when I was 7, and when you lose a mother at an early age, you are kind of marked forever. My father was not a terribly responsible parent and eventually moved out, and I was allowed to drift. By the time I was 13, I was in a bad state and flunking out of school. But my mother's older sister, Lillian, adopted me, moved me to New York City and completely devoted herself to me. Anything I've accomplished, I owe to her. She died in 1999 at a nice, late age. She was very unsentimental about death and willed her body to medical school. She wanted no memorial service and cared nothing about what to do with her ashes. I live in Greenwich in the most beautiful little neighborhood with the most charming park outside my window, and they maintain it so beautifully. I just bought a bench and had a plaque made in memory of my aunt and had it installed last week. Part of me wonders if she would approve, and I think she would.
At 61, you're from a generation when being gay was a taboo subject. What was your coming out like?
I was never in! I didn't have to come out! I grew up in New York City, and my aunt made every right choice for me. I never liked sports and was artistic and sensitive, so she always sent me to theater camps, and I was always around gay people. At maybe 15 or something, one day I was an orphan waif, and the next, I was a cute teenager! I was unhappy in my childhood and lonely and depressed, and it was something I needed to endure. When it ended, the world turned to Technicolor! My aunt confronted me about it and asked, "Are you gay?" When I said yes, she kind of went hysterical for a week or so. Her only images for gay life were movies like Midnight Cowboy. She did know this one very sophisticated gay man who had told her horrible stories, so she was terrified for me and worried for me, but she got over it.
Where were you when gay marriage was legalized?
I was right here at home, and I ran outside. I live right here in the village, and I walked over to the Stonewall Bar, and the streets were just filled with people, very young people. I was very moved and glad to be among them. Seeing all the young people who never really knew the world I grew up in and the AIDS crisis as we knew it. Those of us who survived that sort of feel like the greatest generation who got through World War II. It was very moving.
The perception of you is campy and outrageous. How do you perceive yourself?
It is so not true. Oddly enough, it's not even true of me as a performer. It's so funny when your name is synonymous with hambone and excess, but I've actually become more minimalist and more real. It's always a surprise when people see me live. I surround myself with people who are more flamboyant than I am. I tend to work in a much more quiet vein, and subsequently, my cabaret act is much more subtle. I'm not really the outrageous performer that people imagine. I like to give the audience what they came to see and what they didn't know they wanted. One of my strong points is telling a story, as a playwright or a performer. And being real.