Post-Irma Note: This has been rescheduled to Saturday, January 13, 2018.
By Bill Hirschman
If you’re coming to see Charles Busch camping it up in high drag at Palm Beach Dramaworks’ inaugural event in its OutStage@pbd series on Sept. 16, you’ll be disappointed.
But if you’re intrigued by a theatrical meld of song and story revealing the universal resonances inside a gay icon of modern times, Busch is betting audiences of all sexualities will enjoy his one-night stand, An Evening With Charles Busch.
“I’m not going to be in drag. Well, not exactly,” teased Busch in a gentle but wry voice in a telephone interview from his New York apartment. “I’m just coming as an old-fashioned entertainer, being real honest talking about my experiences and telling funny stories and poignant stories about my life.”
Between the dishing, he and musical director Tom Judson will perform songs that resonate with the autobiographical stories, many of them riffing off his love of theater such as Kurt Weill’s “Surabaya Johnny” from Happy End to Stephen Sondheim’s “With So Little To Be Sure Of” from Anyone Can Whistle. But there will likely be numbers from the collected works of Burt Bacharach and The Beatles. “I tend to sing a lot of songs from the 60s because that’s the decade I grew up in.”
Indeed, in appearances over the past five years, the renowned playwright, screenwriter and actor has been evolving this piece that owes much to his days as a drag cabaret performer but is meant more as a theatrical event.
“I love playing in theaters; I’m really a theater person,” he said. “I’m not the world’s greatest singer. If you want Adele, get Adele. But I’ve always been a storyteller; I can tell a good story. And as actor you can take a song and turn it into a dramatic monologue.” He laughed and added, “And I took the radical move last year of, dare I say it, taking a few singing lessons.”
It helps that Judson has been an acquaintance for 35 years. “He’s very tough on me, those pesky little details like tempo and pitch. Whatever happened to the concept of a yes man?”
Now a youthful-looking 63 years old, he has been performing in solo drag shows since the 1970s. But when audience interest temporarily flagged, he began writing plays and skits with himself often appearing as the leading lady. His first big “hit” was the lampoon Vampire Lesbians of Sodom in 1984, the first of several broad satirical pieces such as The Lady In Question. One description of Sodom suggests, “series of vignettes that deals with the lives of two eponymous immortal vampire lesbians, a creature known as The Succubus who is also known as La Condessa or Magda Legerdemaine, and the virgin-turned-vampire who becomes known as Madelaine Astarte and Madelaine Andrews.”
Much of his work played off-Broadway, but mainstream audiences finally embraced his work in 2000 in The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, which was Tony-nominated and ran 777 performances when it moved from the Manhattan theatre Club to Broadway with Linda Lavin.
Since then he has been perpetually busy with multiple projects, from writing the book for the musical Taboo about Boy George to his second and third run at playing the titular Auntie Mame.
His success has allowed him to take risks, although he says with self-effacing good humor that those risks haven’t always paid off. In 1997, “I had fantasized that I want to be do some big female role that wasn’t a spoof. So a philanthropist gave me a big chunk of money and there was a theater non-profit I had a good relationship with and so we did this play Queen Amarantha. I played this fictional queen of the kingdom sort of like (Greta Garbo’s film) Queen Christina. She dressed like a man and it was rather humorless… Nobody liked it, but it wasn’t the last play I ever did. What I learned from it was very important: that I could have my cake and eat it too.”
Often these new performance dates are slated nine months in advance. But this one popped up about six weeks ago when Busch’s friend David Cohen, a Dramaworks and OutStage supporter, suggested the visit. “He’s just determined for me to get down there. I think he just wants me to see his house.” He’s never been to Palm Beach County, but he has played across the region from Coral Springs to South Beach.
He keeps looking forward to a full slate of projects, but he acknowledges a touch of anxiety as he gets older. Asked whether drag queens have a tougher time getting hired as they age, as any diva does, he said he has seen that in drag opera companies and drag ballet companies. “It is interesting that that as a female impersonator ages, he has the same issues as the women he impersonates.”
There are similar issues akin to having the “fear of hitting those high notes, the fear of the grand jeté. But I written my own plays myself over the years and you know sometimes (the roles he has written for himself) are women who have grown children.”
He cites Sarah Bernhardt who toured late into old age. Once when she was playing Joan of Arc, the inquisitor asked how old she was. She turned to the audience and stated fearlessly, “19. The audience applauded her audacity.”
He teaches occasionally, trying to instill his love of classic Hollywood films in a new generation that seems to have dismissed them. But in coaching students in the acting style he mastered decades ago, he warns, “It’s the kind of comedy that has to have a backbone to it, an emotional truth. Otherwise it’s just a lot of screaming and silliness.”
Indeed, his years on stage have given him a technician’s facility at manipulating the audience with different line readings. He is quietly confident of his hard-won skill set.
And if the audience doesn’t react as he hopes? He answers with an audible twinkle in his voice, “There’s no intermission so they can’t walk out.”
OutStage is a new initiative designed by Dramaworks to continue expanding its reach into the entire community, in this case hosting events designed to attract LGBTQ patrons.
“There is a dynamic LGBTQ community in Palm Beach County, and we’d like to see those who love theatre become part of the PBD family,” said Gary Cadwallader, director of education and community engagement. “OutStage@PBD is part of our vigorous effort to reach new audiences in ways that not only entertain them, but engage and inspire and connect with them. And what better way to launch this series than with Charles Busch, who is not only a brilliant artist but a gay icon.”
But Busch jocularly notes that he erroneously keeps expecting these shows to bring in “his audience,” meaning gay men over 50 years old. “And then I look out into the audience and wonder where they are. It’s often a lot of women.”
The second OutStage@PBD event will be the December 15 performance of Terry Teachout’s world premiere play, Billy and Me, about the fraught relationship between gay playwrights William Inge and Tennessee Williams. The evening will begin with a pre-show dinner, continue with a post-performance talkback with Teachout and director William Hayes, and conclude with a post-show reception.
An Evening with Charles Busch will be at 8 p.m. Sept. 16 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis Street, West Palm Beach. Tickets are $75. Call (561) 514-4042, ext. 2 or visit palmbeachdramaworks.org. A reception with Busch follows.