For drag icon Charles Busch, life is a cabaret, ol’ chum (so come to his cabaret)
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
“I’m feeling very smug,” Charles Busch purrs from his New York apartment. Right before we talked, New York City was under a storm warning where city fathers and assorted fatalists encouraged residents to hunker down, stock up on canned goods and prepare for the worst.
“Whenever they think there might be some storm a-brewin’, we get notices in the lobby of my building to fill your bathtub with water. I’m running all over the city to get the last chicken legs, the last bottle of water, five cans of refried beans. They act like it’s the apocalypse. Well, for the very first time, I didn’t fall for all the emergency warnings. And it’s a beautiful day!”
That discussion leads into a thread about the zombie apocalypse, the sci-fi movies of the 1950s where Martians were stand-ins for Commies, and how in the 1980s, aliens were cute and helpful, like E.T. and those Cocoon creatures. That triggers a discussion of gauging the political tone of the nation and feelings of security based on our pop-culture consumption. And on and on and on.
Such is the rangy, engaging and sprightly experience of talking to Charles Busch.
You can expect more of that — as well as some songs and, of course, glamorous drag — when he arrives in Dallas for four shows of his one-man cabaret, A Divine Evening with Charles Busch at the City Performance Hall.
“I have survived a career in cabaret just because every 20 years I dabble in it,” he says, “but for the last three years, it has really been my career. What I love about cabaret is being intimate and unguarded and honest, as opposed to being in a play and doing a specific role in a particular situation. I like the flexibility with cabaret so I know where I’m going. I take my cues from my audience.”
“The challenge is, since I am in drag, I don’t want that to be some sort of a mask. But I have done this so many decades, it’s not much of a ‘transformation’ anymore — I’m more like an old Philco TV set: just pop up the brightness, adjust the contrast and let me go.”
He makes it sound easier than it is, of course, though a lot of talents seem to come easily to Busch. In addition to drag and cabaret, he’s a well-regarded character actor on TV (memorable as an AIDS patient on HBO’s Oz) and in movies, a playwright and screenwriter (he starred in his film adaptation of Die, Mommie! Die!, and won a Tony Award nomination for writing The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife) and is a pop-culture junkie and camp icon (among his many twisted plays are Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Psycho Beach Party). But his true calling may be something that few people know about.
“I think my greatest talent — more than acting or writing — is: I am brilliant at pitching an idea,” Busch says. “My father was a salesman, and I got the gene. Over the years, I have pitched and sold about eight different TV pilots — 100 percent — to Showtime, HBO, CBS. Every time I go in the room, I walk out with a deal.”
The one wrinkle in this skill? “Nothing’s ever been shot,” he says. “I wrote a Lifetime movie and I thought it was pretty good [but it didn’t get made]. When I saw some of the other stuff they did put on I thought, ‘Really?!? They passed on mine and took that?!’”
Over time, however, Busch has come to peace with it. “Looking back at some of the pilots, I think, eh that’s OK. After years of having a chip on my shoulder about it, I came to the brutal, cruel realization that my pitches are better than what I deliver. I don’t think my strengths are what is required in TV writing … though years ago I sold to HBO a 13-part miniseries about the mounting of a Broadway musical — there was a story within a story, and the music was going to be written by Stephen Schwartz.” It didn’t go into production, though a decade later, Smash ran for two seasons on NBC.
“Before it’s time,” Busch sighs.
Some of these hurdles have soured him a bit — one reason he’s more cabaret star now than playwright. But the frustrations come and go.
“If I had spoken to you a month ago, I would have been very melodramatic and said I had retired from the stage! But suddenly now I’m working on two plays. One thing I’m working on will be at a theater where I’ve had a relationship for nearly 40 years. I called the woman who founded it — she’s as eccentric as her theater — and said, ‘Can you get me four weeks in mid-March/April next year for a new show?’ She said yes, so now I have to write it! So don’t listen to anything I say too seriously.”
Busch’s Dallas performance will be right around Halloween, with two shows on Oct. 31. (Two is rare for him: “I’m the kind of whore who’s only good for one fuck a night — though actually, I did two shows in Philadelphia recently and the second fuck was better — I was all warmed up and lubricated,” he says.) You might think a Halloween show in drag is perfect timing. But Busch feels differently.
“I’m in drag for cabaret — there’s really no reason I should be in drag, to be quite honest, but as a friend said, ‘It’s like buying a ticket to Disneyland and finding out Space Mountain is closed,” he quips. “But it’s always been a bit of a bore doing a show on Halloween. Halloween’s always been a busman’s holiday — every day is Halloween in my world.”
What should audiences expect, then?
“I come out and I look like Ginger on Gilligan’s Island but I tell funny stories about my own experiences and sing a collection of songs ranging from the Beatles to the Great American Songbook,” he says. “I’m not the best singer, but I am a very good storyteller and I sing those songs I can tell a story about. So you come away feeling like you’re in my living room. I do want to make a success of it — I’m no Coy Covington, but still I hope people come out.”
Correction: The performance of A Divine Evening with Charles Busch takes place at the Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora St. (not next door at CHP). Oct. 29–31. ATTPAC.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 23, 2015.