If you’ve seen Psycho Beach Party — either the wild and wacky Source Theatre production of more than a decade ago or the more subdued movie version released in 2000 — then you are at least familiar with the work of Charles Busch.
What you probably don’t know about Charles Busch — who since the mid-eighties has carved a career for himself as a playwright of genre-busting, camp-riddled movie satires and as an acclaimed performer, frequently in drag, in those very works — is that in the past few months, his career has gone from a solid simmer to a full boil.
Not only is his Tony-nominated Broadway hit, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, on a national tour with Valerie Harper in the leading role, but he’s currently starring in New York opposite B.D. Wong in a limited, sold-out revival of his comedy, Shanghai Moon. And — here’s the topper — the Dramatic Jury of the Sundance Film Festival just bestowed on him an acting award for his reportedly dazzling work in the film version of his play Die Mommie Die.
“It seems like the tone of the press has been my comeback, ” says Busch, by phone from his Greenwich Village apartment, “or that I’m finally somebody worth looking at because I may not be popular much longer. Frankly, I’m beginning to feel more like the old movie actresses that I emulate. ”
Busch’s rise to fame came in 1984 with his off-off Broadway hit Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, a notorious and disposable one-act that launched his career as a man-who-played-high-camp-women as well as a playwright in the Charles Ludlam/Everett Quinton vein. The late Ludlam, whom Busch idolized, was reportedly bitter about Busch’s commercial prowess — a fiscal success that eluded the godfather of the satirical gay camp genre.
Still, Busch, who has been in the business for twenty five years, and who, in his mid-forties, is at long last seeing the kind of national success a playwright only dreams of (he’s recently been tapped by Rosie O’Donnell to rewrite the book of Boy George’s Taboo! for its Broadway run).
“I’ve got a million things going, ” he says, breathlessly.
And today, as he answers a barrage of questions for the next ninety minutes on a day following the worst snowstorm New York has seen in years, it’s a million and one.
METRO WEEKLY: How did all this begin for you?
CHARLES BUSCH: In a nutshell, I grew up in New York. My mother died when I was seven. My father was very adorable but an unreliable kind of parent and I ended up moving in with my mother’s sister, my Aunt Lillian, in Manhattan. She was a great influence on my life — she really got me. She was a woman of great insight and she didn’t try to turn me into anything that I wasn’t. Her whole thing was to try to make me the best at who I was, and it was a wonderful break for me. She drew out my whole life actually, did everything she could to clear out any debris that would interfere with my work as a creative person.
MW: Looking back, how did your mother’s death impact your creative development?
BUSCH: You know, I’ve been working lately with Rosie O’Donnell who lost her mother when she was very young and we talk about it quite a bit. You never really get over it. Mother figures have always been important to me and I think even in my plays I see essential relationships — there are always two women together, and often there’s a very nurturing female figure.
I could do all sorts of pocket analysis that maybe I’m in drag because I’m trying to recreate a certain maternal figure in myself as a comfort to me. Could be. Certainly the drag figures that I play are never villainous. I’m not a real edgy performer. The ladies I play tend to be self-invented ladies who are sort of embattled. Their values may be a little screwed up at first, but by the end of the movie or the play, they’re on the righteous path. So that could be part of it.
And in life, I’m drawn to certain kinds of strong, maternal women who I get big crushes on. I have a wonderful relationship with Lynne Meadow who directed The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife — and she fits the bill as a sort of surrogate mom.
MW: When did drag become an important vehicle for you?
BUSCH: Much later. I grew up watching old movies and, like a lot of gay children, I was a rather solitary child. I wasn’t athletic or anything. My father adored old movies and when I still lived with him when I was very young, I would stay up watching the late show with him every night. I just absorbed all that stuff and the images of those women stars. People ask me when I write a play today that’s a movie pastiche, do I do any research? Well, I’ve been researching all my life.
I took acting classes. I always wanted to be on the stage and my aunt would send me to Saturday acting classes. She took me to the theater constantly. Then I went to Northwestern University as a theater major with the hopes that I was going to be very involved in the theater department. I saw quickly that the theater department in a large university was kind of a microcosm of show business — and I wasn’t being cast. The message I was getting very clearly was that I was too gay and too thin and too offbeat. So I was pretty devastated because all I wanted to do was act.
At the same time, I was growing very comfortable at being gay at eighteen, sort of discovering myself for the first time. I was suddenly outgrowing my first image of orphan waif into this sexual being who’s young and attractive, and wanting to get laid. I was so fascinated by suddenly being me, I didn’t want to turn into anybody else — I didn’t want to play these straight characters in acting school.
So because I felt alienated from the acting school, I was able to float around and create my own kind of program. I started writing at that point. I used to entertain my best friend Ed all the time in the dorm, not doing imitations necessarily of famous actresses, but just improvising movie situations in the style of those actresses — encouraged me. He was like, “This is who you are. ” And when I’d come home from school to New York, I’d see more experimental theater in the early seventies — particularly Charles Ludlam. The first time I went to see him perform, it was a revelation that the various things that interested me — old movies and nineteenth century theater and opera — were his concerns as well, and he was actually doing this on stage, creating his own world apart from this Broadway theater that I’d grown up on.
MW: So Ludlam had a direct impact on you.
BUSCH: Enormous. Certainly I owe him a great stylistic debt.
MW: Did you perform with his company at any point?
BUSCH: Tangentially. I idolized him at that point. And when I first came back to New York after school, my first career was as a solo performer — not in drag, I would just be wearing sort of a neutral shirt and pants, doing these very complicated solo performances without any props or costumes or anything else. It was almost like a screenplay where I play all the characters and do a dialog back and forth. They were very complex narratives, they weren’t just character sketches, there would be like a 45 minute piece where it would be almost a contemporary film noir. My first solo show was called Hollywood Confidential and I just really wanted Ludlam to see me perform. I don’t really know what I wanted from him, I didn’t really want to be part of his company. I guess I just wanted him to think I was talented.
So I sort of stalked him. And he finally buckled and came to see me perform in this tacky little cabaret room that would book anybody. We chatted and he asked me what I was going to be doing after that and I said, no plans at all, and he said, “Well, why don’t you do your show at my theater as a late night show on weekends? ” I couldn’t believe it. So for about three months I performed on Friday and Saturday nights at midnight at his theatre. And while I was there, because I was around, at one point a girl who was playing a small part in his play Bluebeard, suddenly left and they called me and said, “Can you go on tonight? ” I learned the couple lines and threw together a costume of my own, and suddenly next thing I knew I was onstage with my idol and playing the Goddess of Hell. I did it and got it out of my system. But I didn’t want to be a cog in that wheel.
MW: Which is interesting, because your style, your leanings at the time, would have seemed a natural fit for the Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Could we argue that your own inner ambition kept you from joining?
BUSCH: Yeah, my fantasy was really to be the diva and to create my own opportunities, so I didn’t really see a place for me in their company. That was a real dictatorship. Ludlam ran that theater. There’s this new biography of him out right now, and I was looking through it and it reinforced my own feelings at the time. I didn’t know him that well, but the brief time I was in his orbit, it seemed like a rather dark place to be hanging around.
MW: Sometime later, you were pretty much cast by them as a competitor, as someone who encroached upon their company.
BUSCH: That was a little weird, to tell you the truth. Ludlam was so encouraging and so nice to me when I was starting out. Years later — it wasn’t until like 1984 that I started my company — we did Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and it became this sort of overnight success. He came to Vampire Lesbians, came backstage and was awfully nice to us all and it meant a lot to us. But then I read in the book that just came out, it say Charles went to see Vampire Lesbians and was just furious that he’d been ripped off. And I thought, “Wow, he sure was a good actor. ”
Vampire Lesbians was a lighter version of Ludlam, but it was also a commercial success — and he’d never had that because he was a nonprofit theater. So maybe that rubbed him the wrong way. And in truth, it took me a while to break free of the Ludlam mold — I’d say my earliest stuff was very Ludlam influenced and eventually I just found my own voice. It took a little while, but even to this day, plays like Shanghai Moon have strong ties to a style used by Ludlam.
MW: I remember when Vampire Lesbians came out. It was quite the underground cult sensation. Great title.
BUSCH: It is a great title. I just wish I had a full length play that I was very proud of that had that title. It’s a very slight little one act, often paired with another piece, like Sleeping Beauty or Coma. It used to annoy me that years later, when I would do other plays, people would say, oh you’ve really grown since Vampire Lesbians, and I thought, Honey, I was better before that. The solo pieces I did were much more complex and weighted than Vampire Lesbians.
MW: How did Vampire Lesbians come into being?
BUSCH: I’d been doing my one man show from ’78 to ’84 — I played venues around the country, San Francisco, L.A., Chicago, the Source Theatre in Washington. I had no manager, I would just book myself into these small nonprofit theatres. I’d get raves in major newspapers, and it would sell out. I was certainly encouraged to go on, but I couldn’t actually earn a living. I didn’t work enough. I was always filling in with temp work or, since I draw well, as a Quick Portrait artist. It was a very difficult period to have any sense of who you are when people treat you according to what you do. It was very painful to be so poor. And to be patronized. Even your good friends, they’re being nice but when they continue to pick up the tab at dinner, you start to feel like a loser.
But everybody was just waiting to see if I would ever get somewhere. It was frustrating for all of us to not know when I would take the next step, but I didn’t know what the next step was. I didn’t have a long-term plan. I guess my dream was to do my one man show off-Broadway — it was kind of a vague notion.
My lucky break came in 1984, just as things were at their most grim. My relationships with these nonprofit theaters were falling apart — either a theater would close down or I had trouble with getting paid. Just at that moment, I went with my friend Ken Elliott, who had been directing my act, to see a friend perform in the depths of the East Village, a little place called the Limbo Lounge. I’d never really been to any place like it, sort of like an art gallery, after-hours bar performance space. It was right out of Berlin in the ’20s. It had kind of a gay punk aesthetic. I immediately thought, I want to perform here and do something really decadent and outrageous. I knew I didn’t want to just do my old act, this minimalist performance art thing. I wanted to be in drag, to be this glamorous lady vampire. I was working as an office temp, so at work, I typed out this little sketch, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. I asked several friends of mine to be in it. We put the show on for no money, and we decided to do another weekend and then another weekend. It kind of grew from there.
The Limbo Lounge asked us if we would be their resident theater company. We said, “Yeah, sure. ” We had to do a different play every three weeks. So I was churning out these hour long pieces for us to do, and each time the audience would come back we’d be sort of the same characters in a certain sense but in different historical periods. We got this enormous cult following very quickly with almost no press at all — we weren’t reviewed except in the gay press. And suddenly there I was, this sort of drag diva. It wasn’t intentional, in fact the first weekend that we did Vampire Lesbians, I thought, “Well this is just sort of fun to dress up, but it’s not like I’m going to be doing this for a career. ” Little did I know.
MW: Was the gay press more supportive back then than it is now?
BUSCH: Oh, they were wonderful. The New York Native would actually would review every little play we did. So we were reviewed every couple of weeks and I was written about as if I were this kind of Sarah Bernhardt diva as well. It was, like, “Charles was never lovelier in his so-and-so gown, ” or whatever. So the gay press really, in the beginning of my career, sort of created me. I guess it’s not like that anymore. But back then, they created stars in the gay circuit. They were wonderfully supportive. I could see there were a number of performers back then or gay musical performers or comedians, we would always get these rather rapturous write ups. It was lovely.
MW: How has the gay press changed?
BUSCH: They’re a little bitchier today. They’ll review you. If they don’t like you, they’ll tear you up. Back then, I think there was more fawning, more of a “Let’s support them because they’re gay ” feeling. I think today the gay press is a little more straightforward.
MW: You really have come a long way from Vampire Lesbians. Psycho Beach Party, the first play of yours that I’d ever seen here at Source, was terrific. However, I strongly believe that for one of your plays to work, it requires a strong, talented cast, and very streamlined direction.
BUSCH: My movie pastiche type plays are often done around the country in a much broader way than we did them — and I’m not as broad a performer as people might think. I play it more for real, actually. But I think that it’s such a relief for gay performers and gay directors when they take on one of my plays because they cut loose and they can express their own camp — it tends to be a sort of a free for all. There’s a lot of screaming and running around with wire hangers. Suddenly, people are doing impersonations of actresses that have nothing to do with the genre they’re spoofing.
My genre parodies are very close to the films that I’m spoofing. And my particular sense of humor is that I like when it’s so close to the source material that it at times actually achieves some of the same goals that the source material does. And so, I like to think that at my best, in the productions that I’m involved in, we’re satirizing the film genre, and at the same time it is genuinely suspenseful and touching and moving.
MW: Not just a flagrant display of camp.
BUSCH: Yes. And I’ve had trouble when I’ve seen other productions of my plays when the whole thing is just done on a broad clown-like level. You feel like they haven’t done their research, the actors don’t really know what that style of acting is. Well honey, nobody would ever act like that in an old movie. And personally, I think the funnier stuff is even funnier when you give the characters a little bit of emotional mattress to lie on.
MW: Personally, I didn’t think Psycho Beach translated to film as well as it could have.
BUSCH: I have very mixed feelings about that movie.
[The producers] didn’t want it to be quite so stylized. I guess they were hoping for it to be a little more mainstream. My problem with that movie is mainly with tone. There’s sort of a muted, deadpan quality to a lot of that movie — and my humor’s not a deadpan humor. Everything I write, the stakes are very high, the emotion is very high and intense, and the challenge to put it on film is to not make it look like we’re playing to the last row in the balcony.
MW: Still, I know a lot of people who love the film version of Psycho Beach.
BUSCH: A strange alchemy occurred with that film. It was distributed quite badly so it was in the theaters for about two minutes and then vanished. But it’s been shown on cable eight times a week for a year now and it’s developed a cult following. I keep hearing from people have seen it twelve times. I run into people on the street who should know better, but who really like the movie. And I think that by some strange alchemy on television, I think it works better. The muted deadpan quality that bugged me on the big screen on TV has a Twin Peaks kind of feeling to it. And then of course, Lauren Ambrose is wonderful in the movie — she’s become sort of a cult figure now because of [her role in] Six Feet Under.
MW: I still would have liked to see you play the role on film, but Ambrose was terrific.
BUSCH: Well my new picture, Die Mommie Die! — I’m very proud of it — is the first time I’ve ever actually played a lead in a movie. I’m on camera probably ninety-eight percent of the movie and I felt we captured the feeling of my style.
MW: Tell me about Shanghai Moon.
BUSCH: The funny thing is Shanghai Moon is performed in this tiny little space. And it’s just been odd that this play that I’m only doing for a limited run until March 9 has been treated with such respect. It’s a lovely surprise.
MW: Do you think that the mainstream success of The Allergist’s Wife helped that?
BUSCH: Sure. I guess when you’re around for a long time — and I’ve been doing this for twenty five years now — at a certain point it’s clear you ain’t going anywhere. You just keep reinventing yourself. With The Allergist’s Wife, I wasn’t trying to go mainstream. I’d done a solo show around ’97 called Flipping My Wig, where I played different women. One of them was a monologue of this raging Upper West Side Jewish woman, and it was a very detailed six minute piece and it really captured the Upper West Side milieu. I got such a great response that I thought, “I’d really like to write a play about that kind of lady. ” But it was hard coming up with a storyline to support her. Then a couple years later, I wrote the book to a musical called The Green Heart that Manhattan Theater Club produced, and I started my relationship there. Lynne Meadow, the artistic director, said to me that she would like Manhattan Theatre Club to be my artistic home and she would like to direct my next play, whatever it was.
I thought, well, maybe this is a good opportunity to write a play about that Upper West Side lady. Manhattan Theater Club has a more conservative, older subscriber base. Maybe it’s better if I don’t challenge Lynne with one of my more outrÃ© efforts. So I felt it was a good opportunity to write this play. And I’d been reading these interviews with older actresses who were complaining that there were so few roles for them. We ended up with Linda Lavin, and later Valerie Harper, who will be in the same production that will be seen in the Washington. Santo Loquasto did the set, Anne Roth did the costumes — these are Oscar winners and Tony Winners. It was a thrilling, wonderful experience.
When it transferred to Broadway, it was just incredible. The day the marquee was going up at the Barrymore theater, it was pouring torrential rain. I went up there and stood in the rain and looked at the marquee from the front, went down the east end of 47th street, looked at it from that angle, went to the west end, and looked at it from that angle.
MW: The Allergist’s Wife is the first play you wrote in which you didn’t involve yourself as an actor.
BUSCH: It took me a while to get used to that. When the play opened, I had ambivalent feelings. But then, I’m sort of ambivalent about what I eat for breakfast. I was certainly thrilled, but it was also a little odd that I served no function anymore in the show, that there was no reason for me to ever be there.
The character Valerie plays is the character that I had actually been in my solo show, but what I’ve learned over the past two or three decades is that my particular province as a performer is not just playing a realistic woman. I play a character that has a psychological truth, but at the same time I’m commenting on the history of star acting. It’s a very fine tightrope I’m walking. That’s what I do best. In Allergist’s Wife, you don’t want that comment, you just want a very detailed, realistic portrayal of this lady. My presence would make the play seem like, “Is he saying something about gender role playing here? ” It would complicate it.
MW: Shanghai Moon is a better vehicle for you.
BUSCH: That’s what I think. In a certain sense, I need to have two careers. As an actor, I have my limitations — I know what I’m best at, and I’m best when I write my own material. So for me to continue my career on stage or film, I have to provide myself a certain kind of vehicle that supports the kind of performance I’m doing. However, there are limitations. And if I want to continue writing without any limitations, then I should write for other people.
MW: Do you think your gay fanbase is surprised by Allergist’s Wife?
BUSCH: Well there’s kind of a gay aspect to the play.
MW: What is it?
BUSCH: I can’t really talk about it because it’s the twist in the play. But this play is not a spoof of any kind of movie genre, it’s just a contemporary comedy. Still, it’s very much a play that I’ve written. It’s in a different style somewhat, but the concerns are the same, the flamboyant ladies are there, and it features a relationship between two women and characters who reinvent themselves.
MW: You just won a major acting award at Sundance for Die Mommie Die!
BUSCH: That meant so much to me. I couldn’t believe it because I’d always had a chip on my shoulder thinking nobody gets past the joke of drag, that maybe I’m actually giving a performance, maybe I’m actually doing a little acting here. But this very estimable jury did go beyond the drag and thought I gave a worthwhile performance.
MW: So the award has helped to validate your acting career.
BUSCH: Yeah, it really did. I think it’s a complex thing I’m doing and but the fact that I’m in drag, I think people don’t want to look closer, they don’t want to examine it. I hate coming off like sour grapes because I’ve been very fortunate.
MW: But it begs the question of the difference between a drag queen and somebody who’s performing in drag as a character. Do you view yourself as a drag queen or an actor?
BUSCH: I don’t know. Drag performer, drag actor. The semantics of that become a little silly when you start going on public record about things. But I guess drag queen has rubbed me the wrong way, it’s such a blanket name for anyone running around in the street in drag as well as somebody who’s just performing it on stage. Maybe we all are drag queens and I should just not be pretentious about it, but I know that a number of drag performers, Lypsinka and such, have always kind of bristled a little about being lumped in with every other man in a dress. I like to be thought of as an actor. I take it seriously.
MW: Well, I must add that you make a very fetching woman.
BUSCH: And that complicates things. I look very good in drag and I do realistic makeup and wigs and my costumes aren’t that outrageous. They look like a slight theatrical exaggeration of what an old movie star would wear. But I’ve never really enjoyed just dressing up. Just being in drag doesn’t do it for me. Playing a character in the context of a play — to me, that’s what’s interesting.
MW: Is there an actress that you prefer to typify on stage?
BUSCH: I have a persona that’s developed over the years and she’s sort of one part Greer Garson, one part Susan Hayward, one part Rosalind Russell. Just little elements. In Shanghai Moon, because it’s an early thirties piece, I’m sort of a mÃ©lange of Jean Harlow, early [Barbara] Stanwick and Mae West.
MW: How would you describe your life as it’s been so far.
BUSCH: It’s really wonderful. It really is. It’s funny, too, because I can get worked up over any little thing that bugs me and then I look at the big picture and I really have a wonderful life. Once I was talking to my friend and carrying on about whether I should do the bridal number at the end of the show, or if maybe there are too many finales. And then I’m like, “Listen to me! That’s my problem? Wow. ” I’m doing what I love, people want to work with me, I get to live out various fantasies of mine on stage and make movies and it’s wonderful. I have a lover of thirteen years who adores me and who I’m crazy about, family I’m close to, friends who love me. I have a wonderful life.
MW: What’s the one thing that could make it a perfect life?
BUSCH: That’s an interesting question that I can’t answer. I guess more of everything that you’ve got. This sounds really saccharine, but I’m freaked out by the world ending tomorrow like everyone else, all these assholes in the world, don’t seem to know what they’re doing. That scares me the most. All these wonderful plans and opportunities that I’m having, what does it all ultimately mean if there’s biological warfare tomorrow? What does Die Mommie Die! mean? I could be working really hard on my plans, but if some terrorist decides to spray chemicals all over Greenwich Village tomorrow, my plans aren’t that important. So I guess things would be perfect if everyone could love each other.
MW: How do you reconcile your own fears of a possible terrorist attack?
BUSCH: Well, I’m the first one to roll my eyes at everyone buying duct tape — and then I’m right there buying it. I bought seventy dollars worth of canned goods the other day. In the event of a catastrophe, I’ve got enough canned yams and artichoke hearts to last a decade.
Charles Busch’s The Tales of the Allergist’s Wife opens at the National Theatre on March 4 and runs through March 23. For ticket information, call 800-447-7400 or visit www.telecharge.com. For more information on the works of Charles Busch, visit www.charlesbusch.com.