BWW Interview: Charles Busch Always Rejuvenating DIE, MOMMIE, DIE! & His Other Ingenious Projects
Multi-faceted, creative hyphenate Charles Busch will be appearing in his latest reincarnation of his 1999 classic cult-fav DIE, MOMMIE, DIE! for four performances May 17 through May 19, 2019 for L.A. Theatre Works. Dazzlingly filling out the crazy cast of characters of DIE, MOMMIE, DIE! - Mark Capri, Willie Garson, Ellis Greer, Jeffrey Self and Ruth Williamson. LATW will be recording all performances for their future radio broadcasts, digital downloads and online streaming. I had the wonderful chance to revisit Charles' gracious wit after almost two decades previous.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Charles. The last time I had the pleasure of interviewing you was in 2000 when you had THE TALES OF THE ALLERGIST's WIFE opening on Broadway. And the last time I saw you perform was in 2017 at Rockwell Table & Stage in THAT GIRL/THAT BOY.
DIE, MOMMIE, DIE! was first performed at the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood in July 1999. Was that script set in stone? Or have there been tweaks to it in subsequent productions, specifically this LATW production?
DIE, MOMMIE, DIE! has been rewritten and edited more often than HAMLET. It's never been the same way twice. First, it was written for the stage production in L.A., then I adapted it for the movie version, then I took elements of the movie and put them into the play for an Actors' Fund benefit, then rewrote it again for the Off-Broadway production. And now I've adapted it for the radio. After I finish my initial eye-rolling and groaning, I always enjoy revisiting the story and coming up with new comic lines. There is some juicy new dialogue for this version that I wish I had thought of before.
With this audio-only format of LATW, how would you suggest listeners envision your always over-the-top couture?
I'm going to have to summon up every bit of decadent glamour through the power of the human voice. Sincerely, that is the fun challenge of radio acting.
Do you remember what your original two-line pitch of DIE, MOMMIE, DIE! was?
In researching your many, many credits; I found one source that lists your occupations as "actor, screenwriter, playwright and female impersonator." Which of these did the young you aspire to first?
Actor. That was the dream. Mind you, I was writing full-length plays at the age of eleven. I don't why it took me to the advanced age of nineteen to figure out I could write starring vehicles for myself.
Which of these was the first to provide you a living wage?
I struggled to earn a living in the theater until I was thirty-one. I toiled at many dreary jobs: apartment cleaner, jeans salesman, male stripper, receptionist in a zipper factory, selling hot typewriter ribbons on the phone, writing movie and TV sitcom synopses for an ill-fated rip-off of TV Guide and, mostly, as a quick sketch pastel portrait artist. After the Off-Broadway opening night of VAMPIRE LESBIANS OF SODOM in July of 1985, I was able to earn my living as an actor/playwright. Thankfully, I've never had to do anything else.
Your own website currently lists you as "Actor, playwright, cabaret performer, drag legend." I've seen photos of your mixed media art pieces. Where does 'artist' fit in, in your hyphenate talents?
I've sold my drawings and paintings, but I still consider myself something of a gifted amateur. I'm rather fearless when it comes to acting and writing. I'll try anything, but with fine art, I tend to shy away from any subject matter that really challenges me. Perhaps that's the difference between professional and amateur.
I had a great time. It was only two performances. Fundraisers for a lovely theater in Catskill, New York called the Bridge Street Theater. The play is about Lucy's last years. I did my homework and really studied her later TV interviews. I wanted to be vocally accurate and not resort to some sort of generalized gravel-voiced, older woman. The important thing is then to go beyond impersonation and try to be psychologically and emotionally insightful. It went very well.
Out of all your drag personae, can you pick out your favorite lady?
I love playing Angela Arden in DIE, MOMMIE, DIE! In how many plays do you get to kill your husband with a poisoned suppository?
Naturally, we would all tell our younger selves, "Don't despair. It will work out. You are right to pursue this dream." However, in college when I was despairing that my androgynous nature and appearance would make me unemployable, I came across a quote by the French poet/artist/filmmaker Jean Cocteau: "Whatever it is about you that disturbs people, cultivate that, because that is who you truly are." It led me to consider not what was wrong with me, but what did I have to offer.
You started performing in the performance space Limbo Lounge in Manhattan's East Village in the 1980s. I know that Limbo Lounge in that incarnation is no longer, but what advancements of performance spaces/theatre stages are you most glad to see today?
Since the 1980s, there are wonderful new theater organizations that have been developing edgy, innovative work (such as Ars Nova and HERE), and the regular non-profit theaters are more open to new voices. However, it is difficult for unknown, unrepresented young artists to get into those places. They schedule years in advance and it's highly competitive. A venue like the Limbo Lounge was so loose, that they would book anyone. Much of the work was awful, but there was no bureaucracy at all. Theater for the New City on the Lower East Side has retained some of that easy-going freedom.
Any aspects of the 1980's scene you miss?
I was never part of the "club scene." Even when we were doing shows at the Limbo Lounge on Avenue C, we'd scoot right back to the West Village and have a hamburger at McBell's. The perception of the cast of VAMPIRE LESBIANS OF SODOM was that we were a wild decadent group, but we saw ourselves as something out of the 1930s like the Theater Guild.
What's next on the always full plate of Charles Busch?
I'm always touring with my cabaret act. In June, I'll be performing in London at a very stylish cabaret room called Crazy Coqs, and, in January, I'll be acting in my new play THE CONFESSION OF LILY DARE with Primary Stages Theater Company at the Cherry Lane Theater. We tried it out last April, and I can't wait to do it again. I know it sounds kinda sappy, but other than Angela Arden, Lily Dare is my favorite role.
Thank you again, Charles. I do look forward to experiencing your Ms. Arden again.
Thank you, Gil.
For ticket availability for Charles' four shows May 17 through May 19, 2019; log onto www.latw.org