The Cabaret South Beach is proud to present, direct from New York City, drag legend and acclaimed Tony-nominated writer and Drama Desk Award winner Charles Busch, with Tom Judson on piano, in his new cabaret show “A Divine Evening with Charles Busch” on Sunday, May 31st at 8 p.m. In the mid-’90s, when I came out, Charles Busch was already iconic in the theater world, and starred in such plays as The Divine Sister, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, and the movie versions of his plays Psycho Beach Party and Die, Mommie Die and many more, so it was a pleasure to sit down with him for this exclusive Hotspots interview.
What came first, the writing or the acting bug, and when did it happen?
I was born in New York City and have always lived here. It was a great place to grow up if you were stage struck. I don’t remember when I didn’t want to perform. I was writing plays at 12 years old. I never thought about being a playwright as a kid; my obsession was to be on stage. I went to Northwestern University and I was a theater major. However, I was never cast in a play, because I was too gay and androgynous and weird and really didn’t fit any role.
When I came back to New York on school break, I saw Charles Ludlam’s work. He was a revolutionary downtown artist who had his own theatre and employed elements of drag and movie and theatrical parody in his plays. This awakened in me the possibilities of creating my own theatrical universe. I began writing plays to provide myself with opportunities to be on stage. The very qualities that seemed to make me unsuitable for a traditional theatre career, turned out to be what has defined me as writer/performer.
What was your first professional role?
My senior year in college, I wrote a campy one-act play and produced, directed and starred in it along with my best friend. We played Siamese twin showgirls. I’m not sure how good it was but it made me feel that this was the path I had to take. Charles Ludlam once wrote “If the doors are closed to you, build your own door and walk through it.”
You have very specific ideas about drag. What is your personal approach to drag?
I am from the old school. I’ve become one of the elderly grande dames of Drag, and in my day, performers like myself and Lypsinka didn’t like to be called drag queens because it implied that we were not professionals. We went out of our way to make sure the word “drag queen” did not define us. I wanted to be thought of as an actor and playwright. There’s part of me that thinks being so touchy about words is a bit pretentious but if I have to be labeled, I’d prefer to be called a drag star or drag performer. Nowadays, it’s very different. The new breed of performer is very proud of being called a “drag queen.” They embrace it in a very wonderful way.
Is it easier or more difficult to write plays in which you’ll be performing?
Easier in every way. Easier in acting it, writing it and producing it. When we put on a play with me in the lead, we can move very fast.
Much of your work pays homage to classic movie stars. How did this come about?
I play different characters in each of my plays, so I’m not sure if I really have a drag “persona.” However, in my plays and in my cabaret act, you’ll see elements of Bette Davis, Greer Garson, Rosalind Russell and other great cinematic icons. I grew up watching these iconic stars. My father was a very heterosexual man, but who had a gay aesthetic. He loved old movies and opera. After my mother died when I was seven, there were a few years when I shared a room with my father. For one thing he was out most of the time working or dating. But when he’d come home late at night we would watch old movies together. I was supposed to be asleep but who could sleep when Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were on the TV. This was my great time to be with my father. I absorbed all those actresses, and since I have a gift for impersonation, it was easy for me to recreate their voices and facial expressions.
Do you have a favorite role?
I’ve loved all of them, but I did a play in 1989 called The Lady in Question; an homage to 1940’s anti-Nazi war melodramas, which I’ve revived several times. It was very romantic and has a genuinely suspenseful plot. I also really loved playing Angela Arden in Die, Mommie, Die. Making that movie was one of the great experiences in my life.
What do you like about performing cabaret?
I’ve taken a break from the theater for a while and I’m enjoying exploring other ways of being creative. I’m painting, working on a book. This new career as a cabaret artist was kind of thrown in my lap a couple years ago after not doing it since the early 1990s. I had been working with a wonderful musical director, Dick Gallagher. When he died, that seemed to end that period of my life, up until three years ago when I was asked to perform on an RSVP cruise. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse but I didn’t have an act. I had to find a musical director and someone who would be fun to hang out together on a cruise. I thought of my friend Tom Judson, who I have known for 30 years. We got our act together remarkably quickly, had a lot of fun, became closer friends than we ever were and now we travel all over the country and recently to London and Paris.
What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing your cabaret show?
I like people to feel that they are in my living room and having fun being with me for an hour or so. Even though I’m in drag, I’m very much myself and I enjoy sharing my anecdotes about my life and career. I also play a few characters so the audience can get a sense of me as a playwright and actor. Some of the songs I sing are very touching. I think that I’m a good storyteller, and I approach the songs as little dramas. I try to be spontaneous and “in the moment” and allow the emotions of the song to play through me so the audience can really feel them.
Did you learn anything new about yourself doing cabaret?
I have learned a lot about singing and I have gotten a lot more confidence in my ability to sing. The more you do something, the more confident you get and the more confident you get, the better you sound. I ain’t Celine Dion but I’m kind of liking the way I’m singing these days. I’m very grateful that people across the country who have come to see me have reacted so positively towards this new chapter of my career.
Tell me something people would be surprised to know about you.
I think I am an open book. I have no secrets. When you see my act, it’s all me up there.
Do you have any new work coming up?
It’s looking very good that I’ll be making another movie soon. These projects are so up and down. This week it looks good. I don’t know what next week will bring. Everything I’m working on takes time. I just have to stay focused and fortunately, I’m happiest when I have a writing project. I get a lot done. For now, I really am loving working with Tom and traveling with our act.
What’s the ultimate role you want to play?
Since I write ‘em, I have played everything I dreamed of. However, I am currently toying with the idea of playing Cleopatra. I mean, everyone has to play Cleopatra once. Don’t they?
Don’t forget to see Charles Busch when he performs for one night only, May 31st, at the Cabaret South Beach. The performance starts at 8 p.m. with doors opening at 6:30 p.m. For more information go to TheCabaretSouthBeach.com. To purchase tickets go to BrownPaperTickets.com/event/1470968.