Charles Busch in ‘The Confession of Lily Dare.’ (Photo: Michael Wakefield)
By Ryan Leeds
Charles Busch had some words of wisdom at the start of our phone conversation late last week: “Never put on a hat in the dark.” He was referencing his performance the night before at Theater for a New City, The Confession of Lily Dare, which tells the rocky story of a convent girl turned cabaret star turned Madame. “It was a good show last night,” Busch said. His titular character used to enter wearing a hat that he would haphazardly place on his head during a quick backstage costume change. The “cunning little thing” wasn’t adjusted properly and attempted to fall off his head. “It was driving me so crazy, so I just cut it!” Last Thursday night, he performed his entrance completely without the headpiece. “Consequently, I sailed through the next few scenes.”
Busch’s 40-year career includes countless hits featuring his hilarious brand of film noir and camp comedy. Often seen in female regalia, the stage professional recently started a new chapter in life: that of a legitimate, un-costumed cabaret singer.
The Tony-nominated star spoke to the Broadway Blog about his career, his views of contemporary drag, and the hardest part about being a female impersonator. He also talked fondly about his father and their affinity for classic movies.
BB: You tend to return often to Theater for the New City. What is it about the space that is so special?
CB: Total freedom, along with my history there. Unlike other theaters where they workshop and dramaturg your play, it’s just easy to work there. I’ll call Crystal Field, the founder and artistic director of TNC, and ask her for a theater space and then I write a play. Plus, my career took off in the East Village so it makes sense to go back.
BB: Wait. You book the space and then write the play? That’s awfully audacious!
CB: (laughs) I have a million notes for possible plays. It definitely is a little dotty, but I’m able to create a fantasy of who I’d like to be based on an old movie. I’ve always wanted to do a role where the character ages throughout, like Lily Dare. Then I make a list of actors I’d like to hang out with for six weeks and create roles for them. My goal for this play was that I wanted it to be funny, but to also be an homage to these classic films. I don’t see why something can’t have camp elements, but also genuine feeling as well.
BB: What was the inspiration for The Confession of Lily Dare?
CB: It’s inspired by a lot of films, actually. I tend to find inspiration in movies that most people have never heard of, but I like to think that there isn’t any single laugh that is predicated on knowing a specific movie reference. If you have a fondness from classic film, you’ll gain more from the experience. But you don’t need to know any specific references. It’s really a great joy in life to expose people to what your great passion is. I love sharing these movies with people.
BB: We have vast DVDs and streaming availability for movies now, but how did you get your hands on these classic films when you were growing up? They weren’t as readily available.
CB: Well, they were and they weren’t. I grew up in the 60s, so there were a lot of movies on television. Every day, there was the 4:30 movie that you’d watch after school. They were cut up with commercials, but we didn’t know any better. In the New York area, there was Million Dollar Movie when, every night at 8 p.m., they’d show a movie, followed by the late show at 11:30.
I grew up with a completely permissive childhood. When my mother died, my father would come home late at night after a date with a stewardess or brittle divorcee. We’d watch the late shows together. He loved classic films and it was a wonderful way for me to be with my father and share that with him. It was our great time together.
BB: Did your dad have the opportunity to see you perform?
CB: Yes. And he totally got it. My father’s dream was to be an opera singer. He had a fine voice, but it never happened. He loved seeing my name on the marquee. It was very sweet.
BB: You often work with the same people and I’m wondering if there is a way to teach the camp/noir style or do you believe that these actors just naturally have it and sync so well with you?
CB: Jennifer Van Dyck, who stars in Lily Dare, is a classically trained actress. She started at Trinity Rep and has done a lot of Shakespeare. She doesn’t have a camp bone in her body, but she’s an actress who is very familiar with playing style. She’s taken to it in a remarkable way. I’d say that you definitely need a sense of style. What you can’t teach someone is a frame of reference. That’s just in your bones. I just like being surrounded by actors who have a great facility with language and can be bigger than life.
BB: You mentioned in a New York Times article that when you began doing drag in 1984, a lot of gay people were embarrassed by drag shows, but that when AIDS hit, it started to be an alternative gathering place from the bathhouses. What changes have you noticed regarding the demographics and their reactions to your shows—especially with the millennial crowd?
CB: I don’t think I’m getting the millennial crowd (laughs). My audiences just keep getting older and older! I’m always delighted when, after one of my shows, a young person approaches me and tells me that they’ve been following my work. I just assume that the audience is made up of my contemporaries. The movies (Die, Mommie, Die! and Psycho Beach Party) have helped bring notoriety and my plays are done across the country too.
BB: Do you worry about the future of female impersonation when you watch RuPaul’s Drag Race and other packaged shows in the sense that you’ve worked so hard to get where you are and now, drag stars are instantly made?
CB: No. I don’t look at it that way at all. I think we’re in a drag boom because of television. I think it’s all marvelous. There are so many talented people out there with great elegance and creativity. It’s interesting how powerful the medium of television is, though. But it wouldn’t occur to me to say (in old man voice), “In my day, we came up through Vaudeville.” (Laughs) But now, I’m moving away from drag in my cabaret act.
BB: Talk about that. I understand that you’ll be doing multiple cabaret acts with your pianist, Tom Judson.
CB: Yes. I’ll be at Barrington Stage in the Berkshires on June 24 and June 25 and many other places after that. I’ve known Tom for so many years. We’ve put together a show called My Kinda Sixties. It’s about growing up in the sixties in Manhattan, being raised by my Aunt Lil. Joni Mitchell, Stephen Sondheim, and Burt Bacharach songs are all included. When I first started doing cabaret, I was insecure about my singing but felt that I had good interpretative skills. The more you do something, though, the more confidence you get. The more confidence you get, the better you sound. I even took the radical move of taking singing lessons.
BB: I applaud you for going beyond your comfort zone because so many just stay with what they’re used to.
CB: Well, I think that if you’re going to have a long creative life, constant reinvention is important.
BB: I understand that your hit play, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife will be adapted for film?
CB: It’s been alive and dead for 15 years. At the moment, it seems to be quite alive. Bette Midler and Sharon Stone are attached to it with Alan Fickman directing.
CB: In your forty plus years, what is the hardest part of female impersonation?
CB: Oh gosh. As I get older, I’d say the shoes!
The Confession of Lily Dare
Theater for the New City
155 First Avenue NYC
Through April 29
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him Twitter @Ry_Runner, Facebook, or Instagram.