A native-born playwright of considerable success both on and off Broadway, Charles Busch captured our hearts and funnybones with material that hearkened gently back to to a time when stories were told with a glamorous sheen and a heavy hand… yet their comedic appeal remain timeless. Soapy melodrama, hilariously earnest dialogue and fabulous fashions are his bread and butter, and his most famous leading lady has always been Busch himself. Now bringing a new cabaret show about growing in in 1960′s New York to town, Charles sits down with us to talk about his incredible life and career, the people and things that influenced his own work, and the queens of today whom he’s inspired.
Thotyssey: We’re so honored that you’re talking to us, Charles. Let’s get right into it! This summer at the Pines, you performed a show called Naked & Unafraid. Was that literal?
Charles Busch: Whoa!!! I was not actually “naked.” It was metaphorical in that I was performing my cabaret act NOT in drag. Of course, what I call “not in drag” would be considered “full drag” by some. That’s funny that you thought I was actually nude. People are doing that sort of thing now, and I think it’s very cool. But for me, I’m happy with myself from the neck up and the waist down. In between, I need some work.
You are known largely for writing comedic plays that pay homage to the melodrama and style of movies from the 40s through the 60s, and for starring in them as the female lead. It’s a very enjoyable experience for audiences that are fans of that era of film, but as younger generations become farther removed from that period, do they respond differently to your work in that genre?
Good question. Well, my audience has certainly aged with me, but there are SOME gay people under thirty who watch TCM and love classic film. I may be delusional, but I like to think that my plays and performances are funny in themselves and not totally reliant on a knowledge of old movies and stars. But a familiarity with that type of star certainly adds to the experience.
I’ve never actually done a parody of a specific movie. It’s always an homage to a movie genre, and usually one so obscure that it’s a given that 90 per cent of the audience has never seen any of those movies. It doesn’t seem to be a problem. Funny is funny.
I was raised on the film versions of two of your best known works where you play female characters, Psycho Beach Party and Die, Mommy, Die. Were you happy with the adaptation process in these cases?
Both films were great experiences for me, particularly Die, Mommie, Die. I loved every minute – and I mean every minute – of making that film. Every day I couldn’t believe my incredible good fortune at being able to star in my own movie and get to play all those wonderful scenes: love scenes, suspense scenes, mother love scenes. I suffered real withdrawal when the filming was over. I would lie on the sofa, replaying the entire movie in my head over and over.
Needless to say, I would kill to make another film. Both Psycho Beach Party and Die, Mommie, Die were basically handed to me and put together very quickly. Now I’m in the position of trying to get a movie made, and it’s been very frustrating. One week it sounds like we’re about to start shooting in a month, and the next week the entire movie has fallen a part.
Will we ever see a film adaptation of your first stage hit, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom?
Years ago, there was some talk that evaporated. However, these days it’s looking optimistic for movies of both The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife and The Divine Sister.
There’s a rumor that Lauren Ambrose of Six Feet Under fame may take the lead of a My Fair Lady revival! Lauren got her breakthrough as Chicklet, the heroine of the Psycho Beach Party film (a role you originated). What was it like working with Lauren during that early period of her career, and do you think she’d make a good Eliza?
I think Lauren would be a wonderful Eliza. She is a trained opera singer, and has great comic and dramatic skills. We haven’t stayed in touch. But I like her a lot, and she was a joy to work with on Psycho Beach Party. We were very, very fortunate to have found her. She carries that movie with great authority.
You’re a native New Yorker. Can you describe the NYC that you grew up in, and were exploring, during your early creative years? Were you going to the bars and clubs, off-Broadway, etc.?
Oh honey, New York in the late seventies and early eighties was so much fun. Sex in the seventies was the best sex in the history of the world. I was in my twenties, and while I was too much of a hypochondriac and broke to get into drugs or alcohol, I adored going to the baths and back room bars. Orgies! I would leave the bar with seventeen gentlemen callers. It was my only experience enjoying the physical camaraderie of men. Sex was a great sport, individual and group. We thought “what’s the worst that can happen to you?”
As far as my creative life, I was full of hopes and dreams and gritty determination to carve out a career in the theatre. I think the older men I dated found me a bit exhausting, when they’d take me to the theatre and afterwards I’d be shaking my fist. “That oughta be me up there!!”
Did any drag queens in the city influence your look and performance style? I know that famous female impersonator Charles Pierce was an inspiration.
Charles Pierce was hysterically funny and terribly glamorous, and that certainly intrigued me. I was very influenced by the work of a brilliant actor/ playwright/ director named Charles Ludlam, who had his own theatre company, The Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Before I saw him, I had no idea that I could have a career creating my own theatrical universe. His plays employed drag and camp humor, and film and theatre history references. His plays were wildly funny but also at times poignant. He was dazzling, and changed my life forever.
One of our city’s top queens today, Paige Turner, credits working on an early production of yours as an inspiration for her own drag. She’s gonna be a reality TV star soon!
I adore Paige Turner. She is a true original. Paige in her boy alter ego has had a very full career as an actor/ singer/ dancer in plays and musicals. Many well known drag performers seem to have been in my plays early in their careers. My plays seem to be a halfway house for young actors who become drag stars.
Tale of the Allergist’s Wife was a hugely successful production that ran on Broadway in 2000, which many consider your first foray into “mainstream” playwriting. When you were writing that, were you conscious of how different it was from your previous work? Did you intend it to be different?
I had actually had something of a commercial success five years earlier with a very mainstream comedy called You Should Be So Lucky. It was conveniently forgotten when The Allergist’s Wife moved to Broadway and the narrative about me was streamlined into “East Village drag queen writes Broadway comedy.” Everyone has a publicity narrative, and the simpler the better.
I’m beginning to think that the only difference between “downtown” and “mainstream” is the size of your publicity budget. If the Broadway play A Doll’s House Part Two or even Dear Evan Hansen were done below 14th Street with very little publicity, they would be downtown. Conversely, if some very obscure avant garde piece was produced on Broadway and had subway posters and TV ads, it would be considered mainstream.
There are so many great works of yours that we can talk about (Our Leading Lady! The Third Story! The Divine Sister!), but then this would stretch into the longest interview ever. Is there any one work of yours at this point that you are the most fond of, or have the happiest memories attached to?
I’m very sentimental about a play of mine called The Lady in Question that was first done in 1989. It was the apogee of the work we were doing with my theatre company Theatre in Limbo. It was a beautiful and rather lavish production, and we all loved each other and were so proud of the work we were doing. And it was the last show we did with the original company before we lost two of our great colleagues, Bobby Carey and Meghan Robinson, to AIDS.
Do you think that Hollywood lost a little bit of its flavor when actors, writers and directors moved towards more “realistic,” grounded storytelling? It seems like even in these outlandish comic book blockbusters today, there is an attempt to tell the story like it is really happening, and that the superheroes and villains are these real, multi-layered people.
That’s a very good point. I’m often asked to compare today’s stars with the great pantheon of stars of old Hollywood. It’s not really fair, since the actual technology influenced story telling and style. The stars of the past were seen in silvery black and white, and in a highly stylized world. It’s an entirely different art form, and a different kind of actor is required.
Whose take on Joan Crawford did you enjoy more: Fay Dunaway’s in Mommie Dearest, or Jessica Lange’s in Feud?
I love both. I think Faye Dunaway’s performance defines the word “brave.” So audacious and committed. I’ve never seen any actor convey such undiluted rage. However, I also appreciated Jessica Lange’s more vulnerable Joan. You must remember that Mommie Dearest was an adaptation of Christina Crawford’s book, and Christina had a definite point of view of her mother which was definitely not sympathetic; whereas Ryan Murphy in Feud wanted the audience to see more facets of Crawford’s character, and what prompted her more outrageous behavior.
As I’m writing this, I’m watching this goofy “psychedelic” movie called The Big Cube on TCM from 1969, where this heiress and her evil boyfriend are trying to poison the heiress’ poor stepmother Lana Turner with LSD. It’s ridiculous fun, and I never heard of it before. Have you ever seen this?
It’s one of the great truly bad movies. Lana Turner’s array of blonde wiglets alone makes it a camp semi-classic. It was actually one of the many movies that I was evoking in Die, Mommie, Die. It was very interesting in the sixties and early seventies, when Hollywood was taking the old genres and trying to be more hip and putting in references to LSD and sexual promiscuity, but they couldn’t really pull it off without looking silly and exploitative.
This is a good segue to discuss My Kinda 60’s, your new cabaret revue that’s coming to Feinstein’s for four nights starting Tuesday, October 17th! You’ll be telling stories about growing up in the 1960s, plus covering songs from the stage and the pop charts of that decade. What inspired you to do this?
I love the intimate quality of cabaret. My act is a combination of music and true stories of my life in a very conversational way. I love the music of the sixties. It’s the decade in which I grew up. This show is all about my childhood and coming of age in the sixties, when I was raised by my indomitable Aunt Lillian in Manhattan against the background of that fascinating decade. All of my shows are personal, but this one is very much a dual portrait of my Aunt and I. My musical director/ arranger Tom Judson and I have put together a very eclectic and fun collection of songs.
What’s your favorite song to do in this show?
We loved singing duets, and we’re doing a very cool arrangement of the Henry Mancini film theme song Two for the Road.
Also oddly enough, the Glenn Campbell song By the Time I Get to Phoenix. Every performer hopefully brings something unique to a song. And for me singing it, it can be read as a gay man who has led an inauthentic life and finally has left his girlfriend to become his true self, and how painful that decision is for both of them. I haven’t changed a single word. It’s just interpretation and the audience creating their own subtext.
Are you mad at hippies for not fulfilling their promise of creating world peace and harmony, or is that an unfair expectation of anyone?
That would expecting far too much. The hippies made their mark. They did influence the gay rights movement. They did influence the civil rights movement and the women’s movement. Let’s not discount the influence of the counter culture.
What’s something about 1960’s pop culture that should inspire younger people today?
Well, it was the beginning of every movement that we’re still fighting for today; gender and racial equality. A relaxation of gender roles. Rebellion against government authority. These song,s and hopefully my personal stories, should not seem like something redolent of the past and sweetly nostalgic. These are cool, tough songs that could be written today.
Would a Melania Trump-inspired character in a future, theoretical Charles Busch production be a villain or a tragic heroine?
Well, you’re talking to someone who has always felt great sympathy for Marie Antoinette. She does seem like someone who signed on for one thing and got in
way over her head. I would not like to be Melania.
Piggybacking from that – you’re famous for writing about nostalgic eras, but do you ever want to tackle the gritty reality of times like this in a play, script, etc.?
I have written contemporary plays, ya know! Not all of my plays are based on classic film. Some of my more recent plays, Olive and the Bitter Herbs and The Tribute Artist, were very much about life in NYC today, and how real estate forces so many life choices onto people. I’m not a didactic or issues-oriented political writer. If I attempted something like that, it would come off fake and pretentious. A creative artist has to have the insight to know what they personally have to offer.
So, what else is coming up for you?
I’ve written a new play that we’ll be doing for a very limited run this spring called The Confession of Lily Dare where I age from a sixteen year-old convent girl to an old crone. Gotta get it done now, while I can still put off the sixteen part. No wisecracks, please.
In closing: OMG. when will we be seeing you judging on RuPaul’s Drag Race!? These queens out there need to go through the Charles Busch musical theater challenge!
Start the whispering campaign. Start it now! I would love to appear as a judge, It’s such a fun show, and RuPaul deserves all of those Emmys. World of Wonder, sign me up! I think I have something to offer those girls. I would be encouraging, loving but tough.
Thanks so much Charles, and have a great show!
Charles Busch’s stage show “My Kinda 60′s” runs from October 17th through the 21st at Feinstein’s. Check Thotyssey’s calendar for other scheduled appearances, and follow Charles on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and his website.