For almost 40 years, Charles Busch has been performing in his own plays, usually campy comedies based on vintage movies, with such provocative titles as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party and Die Mommie Die. More often than not, he writes himself in as the central female character, playing in drag with winking homage to Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Kate Hepburn and other iconic stars of the silver screen.
In his own inimitable way, Busch too has become an icon — of the gay community. So it is entirely fitting that he comes to Palm Beach Dramaworks on Saturday, Sept. 16, with his one-man – and occasionally woman – cabaret, kicking off the theater’s OutStage series, designed to reach out to area LGBTQ theatergoers.
Busch, now 63, the Tony Award-nominated playwright of 2000’s The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife and recipient of a Drama Desk Award for career achievement, began his upward climb by spinning gay-centric monologues on tiny regional stages across the country.
“The weird thing is that I’ve kind of come full circle, starting my life again, in a way. Traveling about, performing at non-profit theaters. After all these years, I’m kind of back to square one a bit,” he says by phone from his New York apartment. “What makes a big difference is I play nicer venues and now I travel with Tom Judson, my musical director/accompanist/singing partner.”
Encouraged by the careers of such drag performers as Charles Pierce and Charles Ludlum, Busch set his sights on making a living with his wit and talent. And he never gave up that dream.
“I had an insane kind of confidence in myself. I never questioned ever that I would have a career. And yet, it was very odd, I never really thought of the big picture,” he says. “Yes, I had incredible drive, and luck factors in. I do think that you have to be in a position where somehow luck can find you.”
For Busch, that lucky place was the Limbo Lounge, an unassuming bar in an undesirable corner of Manhattan’s East Village.
“The big turning point for me – something I never expected – was when in 1984, (I wrote) this play ‘Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,’” an outrageous satire of Biblical silent movies crossed with Sapphic bloodsuckers. “What was supposed to be just for one weekend in this strange East Village bar/art gallery ended up running for five years. And that established me as a writer-actor, but it was just kind of a lark,” says Busch. “Within six months, there was a lot of interest in that neighborhood and the art scene there, and I kind of defined it.”
Busch credits much of his success to his Aunt Lillian, an Auntie Mame-like bohemian who rescued him from a dreary suburban life and encouraged his flamboyant urge to perform. He also credits her with teaching him never to worry about the reaction of others.
“Well, y’know, one of the great things that my aunt gave me – or maybe it was in my genetic makeup – the concept of ‘What will people think?’ has just never been part of my consciousness. Which is a great thing. I think ‘What will people think?’ has stopped more people from having fun or creative excitement,” says Busch. “To me, it all seemed kind of outrageous and fun, the idea of putting on a play.”
The show he will be bringing to Palm Beach Dramaworks, called simply An Evening with Charles Busch, is a cabaret act of songs, monologues and personal confessions.
“It’s just a look at the last five years or so, the latest chapter of my life,” he says modestly. “It’s just something I sort of stumbled into. I hadn’t done any kind of cabaret work since the early ’90s, and at that time I was under the impression that my audience was there strictly to see me be outrageous and campy and funny. Maybe I could get away with one ballad, and then there was all sorts of special material.
“Then about five years ago, out of the blue, I received an offer to appear on a cruise ship to do an act. They wanted a full act, they wanted me in drag and they offered a lot of money. It was very short notice. Clearly somebody must have canceled. So I thought, ‘OK, I’ll throw something together.’ It wasn’t a long-term plan that suddenly I was going to be a cabaret performer, but it’s kind of turned into my career.
“I’ve always sung a bit in different shows, but not so concentrated as this.” says Busch. “And the more you do something, the more confident you get, the better you get. I even took the radical step of taking some singing lessons, which were very helpful. And Tom (Judson) keeps challenging me with more complicated material. We’re singing Sondheim and Kurt Weill, not easy stuff.”
He chooses musical material for its personal resonance. “Yeah, it should be something that connects to me emotionally through a narrative. Often I tell a personal anecdote that then can lead into a song. If I talk about my childhood with my aunt, how when I first came to live with her I was so confused and blocked up. She used to grow African violet plants and she insisted that I water these plants to get me out of my neurotic self-absorption. So that story kind of leads me into this lovely, touching Leslie Bricusse song called ‘What a Lot of Flowers,’” from the movie musical remake of Goodbye, Mr. Chips.
Asked if he has a signature song, Busch responds, “Tom suggested a while back that we do ‘Rainbow Connection.’ At first I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a silly Muppet song,’ but it’s a very beautiful song. It’s so much about hope and the need to dredge up hope within yourself. It certainly seems important to have that nowadays. Yeah, that’s turned into a bit of a signature song for me.”
By now, Busch has performed his cabaret act in 25 cities and four different countries. But he insists this unexpected side career has not taken away from his playwriting.
“I have two plays at the moment that I’m working on. There’s a play that’s kind of in the ‘Allergist’s Wife’ mold, called ‘Visitors in the Dark.’ We had a very starry reading of it with Linda Lavin, Rosie O’Donnell and Andrea Martin. We’ll see what happens with that.
“Then I have a new little vehicle that we’re going to do in the spring. It sounds kind of dotty, but I can write these pastiche pieces so quickly,” he concedes. “I’m sort of two different playwrights in a way. There’s one career of plays like ‘The Allergist’s Wife’ that I don’t appear in that are more naturalistic. And then there are the vehicles that I write for myself that are movie-inspired.”
If all goes well, Visitors in the Dark could return Busch back to Broadway. “I’m hopin’, honey, I’m hopin’. Light a candle. I’ve been trying to get back on Broadway. It ain’t easy, kid. The last time I was there was writing the book to that notorious flop musical, ‘Taboo,’” a 2003 stage biography of British rocker Boy George. “But I’ve had a number of plays that I’ve really thought were Pulitzer Prize-worthy. Baby, this is it! But it turned out that they just weren’t good enough.”
Still, Busch is too busy to let a few setbacks bother him. He has been writing his memoirs and working on adapting a couple of his plays into movies. “One week one project is sort of dead and the other one is moving fast. Then they keep changing.” As he adds, “I would say my happiest and most exciting creative experiences have been making the few movies that I’ve made.
“You’re lucky, you’re talking to me on a good day,” notes Busch. “I’m in a very good, creative place these days, a place of enthusiasm.”
An Evening With Charles Busch, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Saturday, Sept. 16, at 8 p.m. $75. 561-514-4042.