For decades, Tony Award-nominated playwright/actor/drag legend Charles Busch has been playing himself by playing other characters, usually in some form of glamorous drag, in a string of campy off-Broadway hits like his Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and the The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, along with choice Hollywood roles: adaptations of his works Psycho Beach Party and Die, Mommie, Die!, TV’s Oz, and even the beloved soap One Life to Live.
Now Busch has started a new chapter as a cabaret star, and will bring his latest show, That Girl/That Boy, to Lannie’s Clocktower this Saturday, June 4. The night is filled with tales that only Busch could tell of his long career, with musical interludes aided by longtime musical director Tom Judson. We caught up with Busch in advance of his arrival in Denver to talk about his storied life off Broadway — in heels and finally on film, the medium that inspired him his whole life.
Westword: It’s a pleasure to chat with you, Charles; I’ve been an admirer of your work for years. Are you excited to come to Colorado?
Charles Busch: It was such a nice surprise to be asked to perform in Denver! It’s been very odd, this new chapter of my life for the past four years as I’ve reinvented myself as a cabaret chanteuse. It’s been so much fun! My career has mostly been performing in my own plays, and a couple of movies here and there where I play a role of some sort; it’s been so fascinating with cabaret, where you really have to be yourself, or at least a version of you. The challenge is that I’m known as a drag performer, and most drag performers have a persona, even a different name, and there’s a certain element of wearing a mask when you’re in drag — and what I’m trying to do is be naked and be myself and sing these very beautiful songs by Sondheim and the Beatles in a truthful way, but there I am, looking so glamorous. It probably shouldn’t work, but people seem to go for it — which makes me feel even more comfortable doing it.
Do you prefer to be referred to as a drag performer over drag queen? How about drag legend?
Ha! I think I confused the folks at Lannie’s a little bit by mentioning that I prefer not being referred to as a drag “queen” only because it can have a negative connotation sometimes. And yet, all these folks on RuPaul’s Drag Race embrace that title, and that’s okay! But I think I gave the impression that I was performing my show half in and half out of drag; it is called That Girl/ That Boy, after all. I am myself, Charles Busch, done up in drag for the whole show, oh, except for a brief section where I play a character of mine named Miriam Passman for a ten-minute sketch. So I can see where it’s a little dizzying.
This character, Miriam, started off when I played her as someone else I did in a solo show years ago, and then I took the basis of that character, and my play The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife was inspired by her — Linda Lavin played her on stage. And I’ve revisited the character over the years in a series of short YouTube videos, and so I’m doing it again, but only during this one ten-minute sketch in the show. It actually would be obnoxious to do her for an hour and fifteen minutes!
Is there a sizable drag community there in Denver? Is it the drag capital of the Rocky Mountains?
Well, historically it is known as the Queen City of the West, soooo.... Really, though, it’s much bigger than people think. Huge, really.
[Laughs.] Well, isn’t that fabulous!
Speaking of all this dragness, what do you think about this gay ol’ time we live in, where drag has walked more into the mainstream, where a personality like RuPaul is known by mothers and grandfathers alike? What was this world like when you first put a heel into it?
Oh, I think it’s wonderful. In New York City, where I’m from, a lot of the big battles were fought already when I started doing drag in the late ’70s. Charles Ludlam was a big influence on me; he was a brilliant actor, playwright and director who had his own theater company, and I was very inspired by him. It’s funny — you do drag once and you get labeled a drag queen; he wrote probably 36 plays, and in maybe four of them he played a female character, but he’s always been thought of as a drag queen. But anyway, I was very inspired by him and the fact that the New York Times reviewed him, so he was taken seriously. So when I came along, I didn’t have to fight that battle. Then — and it’s funny, because we’re all named Charles — there was the famous female impersonator, Charles Pierce, who’d been around since the ’50s, and he actually had to fight all of those battles even harder to be taken seriously or be reviewed or even produced so I could do what I wanted to.
To be honest, I don’t think things have changed all that much until recently. In my time of playing female characters — we’ll say it was 1985 when we did Vampire Lesbians, that’s when I really turned it on as a drag diva — from 1985 to RuPaul’s Drag Race, there wasn’t too much of a change in things. Well, there was Harvey Fierstein playing in Hairspray and winning a Tony playing a female character, or the success of La Cage Aux Folles; those were big high points in mainstream drag performance. I think really, though, Drag Race and the fact that it’s on television, that’s what seems to make things even more mainstream, but with cable and alllll of those channels nowadays and the Internet, does that word "mainstream" even mean anything anymore?I think that RuPaul has done a good thing introducing drag to a lot of people who would have never known about it, but being a competition show, there are still restrictions to showing it all — having to lip-sync to contemporary songs and all that — there are restrictions to what those girls can do on television, whereas drag is a form of self-expression with a million different variations. I’m not very contemporary. I mean, I identify a bit with the performers on Drag Race, but at the same time, I couldn’t be more different.
Did you start as an actor who began using drag in his performance, or did you start drag and then became an actor?
You know, I think it was always an acting thing. I knew that I always had an androgynous nature and a great gift for mimicry; I have a good ear, so I could always imitate famous actresses from an early age. But it was never clear how you would do that on stage unless you were just going to be an impressionist, and my initial dream was to be an actor. I have a very pragmatic nature, and growing up in New York City and going to Broadway shows steered that in a direction. I’ve always been a no-nonsense person, and I was raised in a way to look at things square and play yourself as honestly as you can.
I saw very early on, when I got to Northwestern University as a theater major, that I was not going to be cast in most things, I wasn’t right for any role that was out there, and there weren’t really gay plays back then — and that didn’t really interest me that much, anyway. But I began seeing more experimental theater and the work of Charles Ludlam, and it really inspired me to write; I’d been writing plays since I was twelve, but I don’t know why I didn’t take it that seriously. To be on stage was the great obsession, so I had that realization that if I was ever going to have a career on stage, I was going to have to write roles for myself, and whatever it was that made me unemployable and uncastable was what was going to be the very thing that made me original. I have to say, I was a pretty special nineteen-year-old to have figured that out so soon.
So drag really was, from the very beginning, a theatrical form of self-expression and not a social or party thing for me. It’s really always been that way, and the few times that I’d get dressed up for Halloween and go to a party and envision a fabulous costume, I’d have a great time getting it all together, but then I’d get to the party and realize that I was so bored. I needed lines to say, I needed a plot! Getting in costume wasn’t enough, and it left me frustrated. Just standing around having a cocktail with someone in an uncomfortable getup doesn’t do much for me. It’s the character and the play and performing that is the great joy in the end. I’m not completely sure why my creativity is funneled so often through a female persona; I mean, I could make all sorts of pop-psychology guesses about it, but it’s obviously something rather profound in my nature and my imagination.
Would you say it’s just the way your wiring is?
Yeah. I mean, I don’t know, I have all of these different stories I came up with, but it’s all rather pat. I grew up watching all of these old movies and loving Bette Davis and Ida Lupino and Norma Shearer and Susan Hayward, and I grew up with fascinating women in my family who were just like those characters in those movies — rather noble and embattled and elegant and self-invented. So much of that imagery inspired me, but you know, you’re right, it probably is just my wiring!
How did your love of Hollywood and movies blossom to you writing and acting in your first stage plays?
Well, I grew up watching movies and absorbing all of that stuff; I did all of my research before the age of twelve, I really did. But when I got to college, I was a theater major, but I didn’t really participate at all, I found it too frustrating, and I was working on scenes for roles like the son in Death of a Salesman, which I would never play and was totally wrong for, and I could never make the leap to wrap my head around that type of acting. But in my senior year, I wrote a play and figured out a way to put it on at school. In this play — I wrote it, directed it, starred in it, swept the stage, found the financing for it — my roommate and I played Siamese-twin showgirls, and I remember just feeling like, “This is right for me, this is what I want to do.”
After that, I graduated and stayed in Chicago as an actor — being from New York City I couldn’t go home and just be there thinking, “Now what am I going to do?” — because I needed time to figure out exactly how I was going to pursue this career and what I was good at and if this drag performance/playwright idea was going to work. I needed time to work that out before I came back to New York and said, “Ta-da! I’m here!” So I dived in in Chicago — that was the ’70s — putting on plays any way I could. In bars and movie theaters after the final screening — any way I could.
I had a pretty long apprenticeship in this world, and it seemed endless at the time, but when I talk to young friends of mine who are struggling to find a place in theater today, I realize my struggles weren’t that hard at all comparatively. But it took until I was 31 to earn my living as an actor/writer, and that wasn’t until we opened Vampire Lesbians of Sodom off-Broadway. That was my big break, because the day before I was an office temp, and the day after I was an actor/writer who could finally earn his living. For that whole decade of my twenties, I was a solo performer and I was not in drag.
I had done some drag work in Chicago writing some campy parody plays, but when I finally came back to New York in ‘78 at the age of 24, I started doing this performance art where I was dressed as myself in pants and a shirt and I would do these solo plays where I played a dozen characters in a narrative and just switched voices without any costumes or props — but that was all me, and that was the illusion I wanted the audience to experience. I did that for the greater part of the decade. I could never find any management, so I booked myself into dozens of small nonprofit theaters in cities all over the country, and it was an incredible education. I was learning and growing and getting better and better, and I would get really great reviews in important papers like the Washington Post or the San Francisco Chronicle, and I even developed a following, but even with that success, I couldn’t find an agent or management — and that meant I couldn’t book myself enough to survive. It was a very rough decade, but I had a deranged belief in myself, and I never doubted for a second; it never even occurred to me to wonder, “What if this doesn’t work out, what can I fall back on?” I didn’t even articulate that, I was so convinced that if I pursued this crazy career without any deviation and got growing and learning and getting better, it was always going to work out.I didn’t really have the “big dream"; my dream was always the next thing. My dream was how was I going to do my solo show in San Francisco, and then I would accomplish that goal and move on to the next one. But I never thought in terms of someday I’d be on Broadway or have my own television sitcom. I don’t know why I never had those dreams, but maybe it was because I just never thought they would happen.
Speaking of big dreams, what was it like seeing one of your plays, like Psycho Beach Party, get turned into a big movie?
That was exciting, but the one that was really exciting was Die, Mommie, Die! being turned into a film. With Psycho Beach Party, I was only in a couple of scenes and wasn’t that involved in the final production, but when Die came around — and it was quickly — it was the most exciting thing. We shot it in 21 days with a tiny budget, but I was beside myself with the joy of it all. So often in life, I protect myself from getting too excited, because I had a lot of disappointments early on, so I have a default mode of not getting too worked up. I wish I wasn’t that way, because it frustrates me that I don’t jump up and down with joy at a good review or opportunity, but I tend to think about what does this really mean to the box office, and this is going to be hard, we’ll have to do this eight times a week — and in all of that I usually go to the negative instead of jumping up and down screaming. The point being, making Die Mommy Die! I was absolutely aware of how happy I was. It was one of the few times in my life I could acknowledge that: I was in a state of rapture every one of those days of filming. I couldn’t believe it! I get to play this love scene! And now it’s a scene with all of these extras, and now I’m in a big party scene! And now I get to sing a song…
And you get costumes, and beauty lighting!
And now I’m playing twins in this scene! It really was the most extraordinary opportunity for me. Director Mark Rucker did such a phenomenal job. We had such a wonderful time doing that, and I’ve been so lucky, and Psycho Beach Party was a lot of fun, too. You know, I’m desperate to make another movie, and I think it might happen soon.
Ooh, would you finally bring Vampire Lesbians of Sodom to the big screen?
Not that one, though I thought about that for a while. A few years ago, I did my wacky version of the life of Cleopatra for the stage that was a lot of fun, and I’ve got this new scheme of trying to make a very low-budget film version of that with the original cast and finding some way to stream it or whatever they do nowadays. I’ve always got some kind of scheme cooking. Plotting, scheming — always something going on!
By the way, I think you are totally underplaying how important your performance of Captain Monica Stark in Psycho Beach Party is in making that movie so awesome.
Oh, thank you! I loved playing it, that’s for sure! Originally in the play I played Chicklet, the lead, and Monica Stark didn’t even exist in the play. But when the producers got the film together so many years later, they really wanted me in the movie — but they didn’t want the movie to be that stylized in order to allow a forty-year-old man playing a teenage girl — so we talked about who I could play, and they suggested the mother role, but that’s not what I do. I’m pretty specific about which parts I write that I want having cross-gender casting in, and that’s not how I wrote the mom; normally when the play gets put on, they cast a man as the Joan Crawford mother, and I actually wrote it for a very beautiful actress who had a somewhat androgynous quality, but there was something kind of marvelous about her playing this bigger-than-life part but really being a woman. Anyway, director Bob King helped me a lot in adapting the script, and he came up with this idea to add this ’70s slasher-movie subplot and that there should actually be a killer in the film. In the play there was no killer at all, it was a bit lighter, but if there was to be a killer, I thought, “Oooh, there should be a detective, and oooh, I can play this Susan Hayward-style chief of police, and, man, was that a lot of fun to do. Funnily enough, when they released the film overseas, they cut my whole part out of the movie!
I never got a straight answer on that one, but apparently something to do with foreign distribution. f you saw the movie in England, I’m not in it at all!
And then you have future Academy Award-nominated actress Amy Adams in one of her first roles in that film.
Yes!! I had nothing to do with the casting, but they found this young actress to play Marvel Ann, and I have to say that when I first saw her on the set, she was really good and very focused and very skilled; in fact, she was kind of too skilled. In that movie — and she comes from musical theater and can really sing and dance — there’s a big luau scene, and it becomes a dance-off between her character and the fictional movie star Bettina Barnes, but the problem was that the Australian actress who played Bettina could barely move and Amy Adams was a real singer/dancer, and there had to be a lot of editing going on (and not terribly successful) in hiding the fact that Amy ended up being the winner of that contest, even though her character wasn’t supposed to! I hardly got to meet her — I maybe said two words to her the whole time we made the movie — but I was real impressed. Anyone could see on that set that she was very special and very skilled.
Did you know that Amy is from Colorado?
Totally — and it’s funny, I was running an old movie house here in Denver when Psycho Beach Party came out, and her whole family came to see it on opening day, and they were so adorable. They were asking if we had extra posters or anything with Amy on it. Who'da thunk she would go from that role to everything else!
[Laughs.] A number of people I’ve worked with have gone on to huge things. There have only been a couple of times that I’ve been in a play I didn’t write, and 25 years ago or something, I was out doing one of those in Birmingham, Michigan, and in the chorus behind me was this little blonde girl who could belt, she could sing, she could tap, she had one line of dialogue and got a laugh on it every time, and her name was Kristin Chenoweth! I actually have a video of a dress rehearsal with me center stage doing a big number, and behind me is that little Chenoweth, just watching! Oh, and then Lauren Ambrose in Beach Party has done some wonderful things.
And Natasha Lyonne played with you in Die, Mommie, Die! She’s one of my favorites.
Yes! You know, she had kind of a rough period there for a little while, but she’s come out of it and gotten to reinvent herself on Orange Is the New Black. She’s a good girl; I’m very fond of her. Very talented.
Why don’t you tell us about That Girl/That Boy. What can Denver audiences expect from an evening with you?
As I said, I’m Charles Busch, but I come out looking rather more like Ginger on Gilligan’s Island, and I share a lot of funny stories with the audiences about all of my experiences in my career and traveling on the road, and I have a very handsome musical director, Tom Judson, and we sing some great duets together, I don’t know if I’m the world’s greatest singer, but I’m very expressive, and I love telling a story, and it’s a way for my playwriting skills to come out through these different composers. I try to approach it like each song is a little play, and I really enjoy that. There are many kinds of cabaret acts; the kind I like and try to pull off is one where there’s an intimacy and natural quality that gives the illusion that we’re in my living room and we’re entertaining you, and there’s a spontaneity to it. Yet there I am in drag, and I’m trying to be real!
You know, we were performing in London two years ago, and Ian McKellen came back after the show and we were chatting, and he’s such a nice man, and he said, “It’s just so fascinating that you never broke character once, you were always that woman the whole show” — and I just thought, “Because I AM that character. I’m just being myself,” but I didn’t want to disappoint him, so I just said, “Oh, yes. It’s all a VERY focused characterization.” [Laughs.] Basically in the show, I’m myself, but I just dial it up. I’m like an old Philco TV; It’s me, but I just dial up the brightness and the contrast. It’s all essences; that’s who I really am.
In an effort to be more real, have you thought of doing half the show out of drag?
Oh, no, the show is only an hour and fifteen minutes! My drag is funny; it’s very natural. I’m kind of lucky that I don’t have to do a lot of complicated makeup to look like a pretty lady. I have rather delicate features already, and don’t have to do a lot of contouring and heavy beard cover-up and blocking out my eyebrows and all that. I do my makeup in about twenty minutes total — I know some gals take two hours — but I don’t even wear falsies! I did it for years with elaborate padding and waist cinching — for some reason something about this cabaret work is almost symbolic of something I don’t even fully understand — but I’m trying to be true to myself and reveal myself and be very honest and vulnerable. There’s something about having padding on that just symbolically feels like armor. That may be pretentious and kind of nutty to say, but that’s a feeling I have. I’m going for an illusion of glamour, but it’s kind of best if you don’t put your eyedrops in. [Laughs.] Keep your contacts out and I look very beautiful!
Your musical director has been with you for years; how long have you been working together, and what does it feel like to have a great collaborator by your side?
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Oh, it’s wonderful! I’ve known Tom for over thirty years, and we’ve always been friends, but not like great, great friends — there might be seven years where I didn’t see him but then we’d run into each other on the street and go have coffee. Then about four years ag,o out of the blue I got a call to go do a cabaret act on a gay cruise, and I said, “I haven’t done an act in over twenty years, I don’t even have a musical director,” and they told me how much they were going to pay me, and I said, “I’ll get my act together!” So I had to think about who would be fun to be on this boat with, and Tom is fun and a wonderful musician — and he’s pretty great-looking, as well — and I asked him, and he jumped aboard. We just threw together a 45-minute act for this cruise and had a ball!
Then I started getting other offers for us both to appear in places like Three Oaks, Michigan, and before I knew it, I had a cabaret career with Tom, and he started challenging me with more complicated material and I started taking singing lessons — because that’s a smart idea — and everything we started doing became more complex. I’ve learned so much over the last four years with him, and it just snowballed. It has been such a lovely new chapter, and being with Tom, you know, it only took us thirty years to become deep friends, traveling around all over together. It’s just been wonderful; he's wonderful. We learned how to work well together so we can each be ourselves even when we have to spend weeks together going all over the place.
It’s been a wonderful break for me, this new chapter. I’ve just loved it.
Charles Busch performs That Girl/That Boy at Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret, 1601 Arapahoe Street, at 6:30 and 9 p.m. on Saturday, June 4. The show is 18+ and tickets are $38, get yours at lannies.com. You can go even further down memory lane with Charles at his website charlesbusch.com.