BWW Interview: Charles Busch Talks THAT GIRL/THAT BOY in His LA Cabaret Debut at Rockwell Table and Stage
Actor, singer, playwright and film historian Charles Busch is a multi-talented artist who has won many awards over the course of his varied career. Remembered for his plays Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party and Die, Mommie, Die!, the latter two having been translated to film, Busch never ceases to amaze with his unique style of creativity. On March 13 and 14 he is bringing his act That Girl/That Boy to Rockwell Table and Stage. In our chat, he talks about this cabaret evening along with delightful observations of the theatre and movie world.
In a nutshell, tell our readers about what you are doing in That Girl/That Boy at Rockwell on March 13/14. How is the show unlike any show you have ever done?
Actually, this show is not unlike anything I've ever done. Quite the opposite. This show is very representative of all the work my musical director/arranger Tom Judson and I have been involved in for the past four years. I come to the world of cabaret rather late and it's been fascinating and very fulfilling learning so much about music and singing and expressing myself through song. I'm an actor/playwright first and I've loved applying all of my skills and experience to this new chapter of my career. I'm really enjoying projecting a very true version of myself to the audience. It's a bit odd that I'm in drag but after so many years I'm so at one with my androgyny that it doesn't really matter what I wear, the essence of who I am is the same. In this show I'm able to entertain the audience with true stories of my life and career, most of which are humorous. I tend to view my life as a sixties sitcom. And I'm singing a collection of gorgeous songs from a wide range of music; Broadway, country western, pop. I choose the songs very carefully because they have to be a vehicle for me to treat as an individual little play. I sing quite a few dramatic songs like "Surabaya Johnny" but a friend of mine told me not to worry. He said my intros are my uptunes. I'd say my shows are sixty five per cent music, thirty five per cent comedy. And if I'm on a roll, it's sixty five per cent music and fifty five per cent comedy.
How long has it been since you did a cabaret in LA and why? Is it for lack of time or do you find LA difficult to perform in?
This will be my LA cabaret debut. It's kind of bizarre that I've performed in nearly every city, village and township in California but not LA. I'm so looking forward to it. I've appeared in two productions of my plays in LA. And I loved it. In 1990 we did a very elaborate production of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom at the Coronet and then in 1999 we actually premiered the original play of Die Mommie Die at the Coast Playhouse. This may sound very typical showbizzy of me but I really mean it. I found the LA audiences very sophisticated and hip. So many people are transplanted New Yorkers and are connected with the entertainment world. We share the same sense of humor. I hate to generalize and I don't mean to pander but honestly I found the LA audiences some of the most receptive in my career.
What do you find that you accomplish with this kind of show entertainment-wise that you do not quite do with a play or musical play?
I love the fluidity and spontaneity of performing a cabaret act. I know exactly where I'm going but sometimes I take a slightly different route and it's always interesting. It's kind of like driving to Palm Springs and taking some delightful detour but you still manage to arrive in Palm Springs on time. Actors always dream of being "in the moment", which is when your instincts take over and you're no longer intellectualizing a character in a given situation. Somehow I find it easier to be in the moment when I'm singing a song. Perhaps it's the addition of melody that transports you into a deeper place. And I'm a font of anecdotes. Sometimes I think I get myself into situations just so that I can talk about it later. It's fun sharing these tales with the audience. I've got a million of 'em.
Which of your plays is your favorite or do you have one? If not one, then mention a few you prefer. Why these choices?
Sometimes it's hard not to have your critical opinion influenced by memories of the original production. Was it a happy or awful experience? I'm very nostalgic about two plays of mine that I wrote and performed with my original company, Theatre-in- Limbo. One was an homage to anti-Nazi suspense movies of the forties called The Lady in Question. It was so much fun playing this romantic role of a glamorous concert pianist who takes on the Nazis and gets the best of everyone.The other play Red Scare on Sunset was my most political play which took place in 1950s Hollywood during the blacklist. Not an obvious source of wacky comedy and it demanded the audience have a keen sense of irony and some did not. But I loved playing it. I think it would be a very interesting play to do again.
Why do you think there have been so few of your plays turned into movies? Tale of the Allergist's Wife is certainly more mainstream than the others. Any interest in a film of this? If not, why?
Well, it ain't for lack of trying. We've been working on a movie of The Allergist's Wife for years. Every time we think we're about to start shooting, we either lose the star or the director. I really thought we were going to be making the movie this past Fall but once again it evaporated. Hope springs eternal. There are a few other of my plays that are in various stages of ... let's put it this way, discussion. This past week I've been very encouraged. Next week. Who knows?
Who is your favorite playwright? Play? Musical? Why these particular choices?
Two contemporary playwrights I admire greatly are Kenneth Lonergan and Doug Wright. Both are friends of mine. Kenny writes about people that in life I would have nothing in common with and yet I watch his plays spellbound. He has extraordinary insight into people. Particularly lost fragile souls. And Doug has such a marvelous theatrical sense. I looooved the musical Grey Gardens. I saw it five times and paid full price! I was fascinated by the choices he made in telling that odd and emotionally complex story.
Which field that you haven't chosen would you like to choose to satirize theatrically? You've done marriage, the sisterhood of nuns, what about someone in education, a teacher by day and a female impersonator by night. Someone trying desperately to dare to be different but still cautious about hiding his identity. Any thoughts on that?
I get different ideas all the time. Too many ideas. I keep a folder on my computer called "Notes" and I write every fleeting notion down. Eighty per cent never get past a few lines but then some of them just take off. I have notes on a slew of different movie parody plays. I always wanted to do a decadent 1930s mystery play Murder at the Ballet and I have many notes on a western homage. No gunslingers or dance hall girls. I'd like to do sort of a How The West Was Won where I played an Irish servant girl who goes west and drives a covered wagon and ages forty years and ends up the matriarch of a dynasty. I got a million different ideas. I wish I had a TV show where I could perform a different movie parody play each week. That would get them all out of my system.
As a film historian, how do you judge the newer crop of films coming out? I hear people complaining all the time about the lack of substance in movies, that there's too many special effects, etc. In your mind, are films as good as they used to be? If not how could they change for the better? We can't go back and recapture what once was, so what can be done to salvage the film industry?
I'm a glass half-full kind of fellow. I'm very encouraged by the success of dramatic films like Hidden Figures. Obviously there is an audience for a more adult form of movie. It won't gross as much as a special effects driven franchise but it can make money. Certainly La La Land should be encouraging to producers. And it looks like we're really in a new golden age of dramatic television. Lots of great writing and acting going on.
What's up next for you? Any projects you care to share with our readers?
I tend to think of myself as someone who spends too much time reclining on my sofa but I actually have quite a bit going on. I have a new play that I'm very excited about that's scheduled for some time in 2018/19. Seems a long time away but will be here before I know it. And I'm very excited about the recent release of my first CD "Charles Busch Live at Feinsteins/54 Below." I never thought I would be able to call myself a recording artist. I call myself that around ten times a day.
Anything you care to add?
I think that about covers the waterfront. Lovely chatting with you and I hope to see you at Rockwell Table and Stage.
Don't miss Charles Busch, the talented man with the inimitable wit on March 13 and 14 at Rockwell Table and Stage!