Charles Busch the psycho vampire starlet nun: ‘I am really just being myself’

Charles Busch Lannies Cabaret 

It’s not all that essential to playwright, actor and drag legend Charles Busch that he make his first cabaret appearance in Denver on Saturday in drag.

But he’s come to realize that to you, perhaps, it is.

“I have a friend who told me, ‘If I went to see you perform and you were not in drag, it would be like going to Disneyland and finding out that Space Mountain is closed,’ ” said Busch, who brings his cabaret act That Girl/That Boy to Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret for two shows on Saturday night.

After 40 years of playing, impersonating and embodying women, metamorphosing from male to female requires very little transformation for Busch. Like, 20 minutes tops. There’s very little distance, he says, between Busch the shy man and Busch the powerful woman.

“It’s just like walking through a door,” he said by phone in advance of his Denver visit.

“At this point, I am almost more myself in drag than out of it onstage. I am just so comfortable. For some reason, there is very little disconnect between my stage persona and who I really am.”

Busch, 61, is the Tony Award-nominated author of Broadway’s The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife. You know, the respectable one. The one New York Times critic Ben Brantley called a “window-rattling comedy of mid-life malaise.” He is better known to die-hard cult fans for writing outrageous, subversive camp classics where he plays the lead female character – often blissfully deranged and often homages to favorite screen stars of the 1930s such as Bette Davis and Rosalind Russell.

(Photo at right of Charles Busch by Michael Wakefield.)

If you know Busch, you know the provocative titles: Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Die Mommie Die! and Psycho Beach Party, all of which were brought to delicious life in Denver stagings during the heyday of the lamented Theatre on Broadway. If you do know Busch, it might be because he got a lot of attention playing a prisoner with AIDS for two seasons on HBO’s Oz.

Vogue called Busch a “high-camp diva,” but terminology can be a tricky thing when describing the flamboyant icon who is far too often and far too inadequately summarized as a “drag queen.” Busch doesn’t like being called by that label, he said, because it can be construed as negative or dismissive.

“The words ‘drag queen’ have always kind of haunted my career,” Busch said. “If I could be 100 percent sure there were no elements of being patronizing, I’d accept it when people use it. But I’m not so sure about that. It implies that it’s my lifestyle, and not my artistic choice.” That’s why Busch, who is no less than a legend in New York City, prefers “legend” to “queen.”

In Busch’s 75-minute cabaret show, he plays a recurring character called Miriam Passman, a failed cabaret singer. (See video above.) “It’s just a 10-minute bit,” he said. Otherwise, he said, there’s no real reason for him to be in drag. (But rest assured – he is.)

That Girl/That Boy is an eclectic program of songs accompanied by Busch’s longtime musical director, Tom Judson. Expect personal reminiscences, character sketches and stories that trade on Busch’s unabashed nostalgia for old-time show business.

Reserve your seat for Charles Busch at Lannie’s

“It’s an odd act, and frankly, it makes no sense at all – but it seems to work, and I’m having a good time,” said Busch. “I am first introduced as ‘serious Charles Busch,’ but then I come out looking like a combination of Greer Garson, Susan Heyward and Ginger from Gilligan’s Island.

“But then I proceed to be myself, basically – just punched up. I entertain the audience with stories of my career and my life and the people I have known. And then I sing a collection of very beautiful songs from Sondheim to the Beatles to “The Rainbow Connection.”

Here’s more of our conversation with this seminal figure from the theatrical underground:

John Moore: First things first: You inspired one of my favorite lines I ever wrote in my review of a Denver staging of Die Mommie Die! I said: “Busch is to be commended for having written, hands-down, the finest suppository-insertion scene ever in the history of theater.”

Charles Busch: Oh God, that’s quite a legacy, isn’t it? I have to say that probably even more than drag, I certainly have quite a scatological theme in my plays. I had to come up with a way for the character to poison her husband so it was undetectable, and I thought a poisoned suppository would do the trick.

John Moore: I watch Forensic Files obsessively, but I don’t believe that murder method has come up just yet.

Charles Busch: I don’t think it would actually work. The suppository would have to be made of poison. I haven’t really gone over it too much in my mind, oddly enough.

John Moore: When did you start to reinvent yourself as a cabaret performer?

Charles Busch: I have had brief brushes with cabaret throughout my career, but it just kind of happened about four years ago.

John Moore: What’s the difference between a really effective cabaret act and, say, a night of songs?

Charles Busch: A lot of very good actors aren’t very good at doing cabaret because they don’t have an actual role to play. I think for a cabaret performer to be successful, maybe even more than having a beautiful voice is that you have to have a real sense of who you are – knowing what’s attractive and fun and interesting about your real personality, and being able to convey that in a very honest way. Because an audience gets turned off when someone seems fake. I also think you have to have a point of view. I have seen people who can’t really sing and aren’t even all that funny, but I find myself absolutely captivated and fascinated by them because there is an originality to the way they look at the world. That’s enough to keep me riveted.

John Moore: I am unaware of the origin of the term ‘drag,’ but it strikes me as so fundamentally opposite of how much fun it is.

Charles Busch: I’ve heard that the term ‘drag’ dates back to Shakespeare’s time. But it’s a complicated subject because as a term, ‘drag’ encompasses a very wide range of styles. For many, like myself, it’s a form of theatrical self-expression. It can also be a lifestyle. It can be a fetish, all sorts of things. But for me, it’s definitely, strictly a very profound part of my creativity. 

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

John Moore: It seems to me that the drag scene is bigger than ever in Denver. We’ve seen TV shows and Broadway musicals where drag performers have been wholly embraced by mainstream middle America, and created genuine moments of understanding between actors and audiences. So how did we get to this era of inclusivity in the entertainment world, when we are still so clearly not there in places like North Carolina bathrooms?

Charles Busch By Frederic Aranda Charles Busch: It’s kooky, isn’t it? Theatre itself just seems to be the greatest way of sharing this kind of collected dream. And sharing laughter. Everyone is so angry and afraid nowadays. Laughter is the thing that draws us together. It’s funny, though. Gay rights seems to be the final bugaboo that gets people going. But I don’t want to say anything controversial.

(Photo at right of Charles Busch by Frederic Aranda.)

John Moore: So much has changed in society in the 40 years you have been performing. Can you single out a tipping point when you realized things were getting better?

Charles Busch: I think in the big scheme of things, TV shows like Will & Grace and Modern Family and Glee have done more to help people see gay people as human beings, or as their neighbors, than anything else has. Seeing these characters when they are in their living rooms – and they are in yours – I think, has changed everything. The Real O’Neals is another TV show that is pushing buttons. It’s very encouraging.

John Moore: You are well-known in New York for playing your own lead characters in your stage plays. But around the country, if theatregoers know your work, they know it from seeing other actors paying the roles you originated. What’s that like for you?

Charles Busch: Yes, and lot of times those are pretty shaky productions.

 John Moore: What’s your advice to an actor who takes on a role you originated?

Charles Busch: It’s funny because a lot of people ask for my advice – but I don’t think they ever take it. A lot of my plays are homages to old movie genres, so the most important thing is to always do your research. You have to really study those old movies and analyze the acting style and try to figure out why Bette Davis is responding the way she is. I have a theory that even if an audience doesn’t know an old movie, they can sense if something is being done accurately. The other important thing is that even though something may have elements of parody or spoof to it, that doesn’t mean that you can’t also have genuine feeling. I am something of a frustrated dramatic actor, and so even though I might do an outrageous comedy, I always put moments in the play where I can have genuine feelings and get to really act. A lot of time I fear that when people do my plays, they skirt over that. They are always so busy having a good time, they don’t want to pause and be genuinely touching or suspenseful. It can be a bit frustrating for me, to be honest with you.

John Moore: How do you feel about critical response?

Charles Busch: To a lot of local journalists, I think my name is synonymous with ‘hammy’ and ‘over the top’ and ‘low camp,’ but that’s very different from what our productions are like when we first do them. I have to try to let that go and just be thrilled that people are doing these plays.

John Moore: Are you writing any new plays?

Charles Busch: I wasn’t, but now I am. When you have a long career, your interests ebb and flow. There was a period a few years ago where I felt like I had written enough plays. I just wasn’t really seeing the point of keeping at it. And there are a lot of other things one can do to have a full creative life. I am working on a book, and I like making movies. And I paint, which gives me a lot of pleasure. And now this traveling cabaret career is fun. That’s enough for me. But suddenly, I got swept up in playwriting again this year. I started writing as a kind of therapy to help me get past my bleak mood about the theatre. So I wrote a quick and very campy version of The Life of Cleopatra, and I put it on with a group of my friends for three weeks at a little off-off-Broadway theatre. We didn’t invite any critics and we had a lot of fun and sold it out just by telling people about it on Facebook. I got to play Cleopatra. Now I am writing a new play for the Manhattan Theatre Club, so I guess I am back in the thick of it again. I said I wouldn’t do it again, but you get an idea and suddenly you get enthusiastic. Enthusiasm is a wonderful thing. You can’t fight it.

John Moore: We have a mutual friend in Mary Bacon, a Denver native who was starring in a play here at the DCPA called Just Like Us two years ago when she got the word that she would be appearing in your new play The Tribute Artist in New York.

Charles Busch: “Oh my God! She is a wonderful actress. I knew her because she is married to Andrew Leynse of Primary Stages, who has debuted many of my plays in New York over the years. So I wrote this play called The Tribute Artist, and Mary was fantastic in it. It’s a tricky role. It could have come off very obnoxious, in fact. She played sort of a sad-sack lady who hates her life. But Mary has a wonderful warmth and a vulnerability to her, and she’s so funny. She made the character very likeable, which is how I saw it, but it was a challenge, because the character is always complaining.

John Moore: So do you feel a certain sense of nostalgia now for your own younger days?

Charles Busch: I do have a million stories. I am trying to write this memoir right now and my God, I am up to Page 85 and I’m still only 14 years old. I have a lot of stories to tell, and I like sharing them. 

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

That Girl/That Boy: Ticket information

  • Cabaret act featuring playwright and drag legend Charles Busch
  • 6:30 p.m. Saturday, June 4 (doors open at 5:30 p.m.)
  • 9 p.m. Saturday, June 4  (doors open at 8:30 p.m.) At Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret, 1601 Arapahoe St. MAP IT
  • Tickets: $38
  • Ages 18+ only
  • 303-293-0075 or
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