The legendary Charles Busch is a talent like no other. He's a playwright, actor, author, screenwriter, director, drag legend, and now a cabaret star. He is the author and star of such plays as the Tony Award nominated play Tale of the Allergists Wife, Psycho Beach Party, Times Square Angel, The Lady in Question, Red Scare on Sunset, You Should Be So Lucky, Queen Amarantha and Shanghai Moon. His show Vampire Lesbians of Sodom ran five years in New York and is one of the longest running plays in Off-Broadway history.
Now Charles is gearing up for his triumphant return to 54 Below in NYC with a brand new cabaret act called Ridin' High with musical director Tom Judson. Charles and Tom will be lighting up the stage at 54 Below on October 17 & 24 and November 7 & 14 at 9:30pm. Click here for tickets!
1. You are returning to 54 Below this October and November with your new cabaret show Ridin' High. What do you enjoy most about performing at 54 Below? I get a kick out of 54 Below because it was designed by great theatre professionals, so there's a certain intimacy and elegance to it. I just love the whole venue, especially faux 20's look. I love performing at 54 Below because when the show is over, I can walk off the stage, go into the kitchen, count to 10, and walk back out and hold forth by the banquettes where I usually bump into somebody sitting there (where as in a play, after the show's over, I go into my dressing room, get changed, but by the time I am done, most of the people I want to see are gone). I then get to meet everyone who has come to the show, which I throughly enjoy. It's like the second act.
2. What do like about performing cabaret? I just love doing this cabaret work which I haven't done since the mid-90s. I used to work with a wonderful music director, Dick Gallagher, who played with so many great singers like Patti LuPone, but sadly, he died very young and after his death, I just stopped doing any sort of musical work and concentrated on my work in (with his famous Charles Busch accent) the legitimate theatre.
About a year ago, I sort of stumbled into this new chapter of my career because I suddenly got booked on an RSVP Gay cruise and had 3 weeks to get my act together. I went through some old material I had and songs I had done at recent benefits, but then I had to find a musical director. It had to be someone who would be fun to be with on a cruise. So I thought of my friend Tom Judson whom I had known for many years, not well, but I knew he was fun and I thought he played the piano [Laughs]. So, we did this cruise and we had a lot of fun and it really cemented our friendship, and it only took 30 years to do that [Laughs]. Then we started getting booked in different venues around the country for cabaret.
I'm very excited about this new act we are doing because it's truly fresh material as opposed to what I had been doing last year. I get to come to 54 Below with all new songs, new comic material, and new costumes. I'm just having a ball preparing for it.
3. How did you decide to title the show Ridin' High? [Laughs], just on whim [Laughs]. My opening song is Cole Porter's "Ridin' High," and I sing that song at the top of the show, so I made that the title of my act.
If truth be told, I don't really like to title my work, and while I'm known for having some pretty wacky titles like Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, they've always been an after thought for me. I don't think a title is necessary if you are selling yourself as a personality. People like having a title because it shows that you are presenting a new act and that's an important thing for the venue you are performing at and so audiences don't think it's the same act as the year before. I don't want people to think, "Oh I saw that old bat last year, why do I need to go see her again." [Laughs], so I put titles on my shows.
4. How do you feel your relationship with your musical director, Tom Judson, has grown since working on cabaret shows together? You know, he's proven himself, so I'm giving him more to do in the act [Laughs]. We are finding that when we sing together we sound better than when we sing separate, so we are doing two duets. We have great chemistry together and people respond well to it, so I'm developing that more. From our working together more, we really have become best friends and I'm just crazy about him.
5. What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing your cabaret show? I hope they come away feeling as though they know me better than before the show started. It's a very weird act I do. I perform my cabaret shows in drag and sometimes I wonder why I am in drag, because really, I am very much myself on stage. I get introduced as Charles Busch, then I come out looking like a very glamorous lady, but the stories that I tell are 95% true and when I sing my ballads, I try to sing as honest as possible, so it's really quite a revealing act, and yet I am in costume. I've thought about not being in drag, but there is something kind of fun about it and I think my audience enjoys me all dolled up, so I do it and it seems to work.
I do feel like cabaret is more of a feminine medium. Don't get me wrong there are some great male cabaret performers, but to me there is something about the glamorous lady nightclub star. The way my plays are able to parody a film genre at the same time as honor it, my cabaret act is similar. I'm doing this cabaret show, singing these songs, but at the same time I'm kind of commenting on the conventions of nightclub acts as well. I guess me being in costume adds to the artifice that I'm poking fun at the genre as well.
6. What have you learned about yourself and your career through cabaret as opposed to writing and starring in plays/movies? Cabaret has been very good for me. I was lucky enough to have a nice long run Off-Broadway in The Divine Sister. It seems to me, and the more I read about it, almost every actor who has a long career at somepoint develops stage fright. For me, it was about two years ago. It wasn't really stage fight as much as stage anxiety that I might possibly forget lines, which was awful to have to work through. I am not sure what it is about. So many people get it and if it phases out, you are very lucky.
So, I've tried very hard to put myself in situations to work through this. I believe that if you have a problem, try to do something about it. So, that's what I did. I put up Judith of Bethulia at Theater for the New City just for fun. I purposely did not invite any critics to see the show which was very helpful, but doing this cabaret work has been great for my stage anxiety. Even though my act is very rehearsed and I know exactly what I'm going to do, there is still a looseness to it. I do a lot of story telling and while I go over the stories a lot when rehearsing, they are free enough where I can suddenly embellish them a bit further when on stage. Talking off the cuff like that makes my stage anxiety less. I'm not that musically experienced and I used to get so nervous to have to learn a song and then sing it for the first time, but I've had do that a lot lately and the more I do something, the less scary it is.
I feel cabaret is looser than a play. I can make more mistakes and be forgiven for them. I was performing a show in Michigan last year, really screwing up the lyrics to the song I was singing, and I could have just continued on, but instead, I stopped, made a joke about it, and said to the audience, "I really love this song and I want you to hear it, just not screwed up, so I'm going to start it over again." People laughed and I went on from there, starting the song over. I like that flexibility.
I'm doing a new play this winter at Primary Stages, so I'm hoping this new calmer attitude will filter through that experience as well.
In 1988, he wrote a new libretto for the 1955 musical Ankles Aweigh for Goodspeed Opera and has also adapted the book of the Truman Capote/Harold Arlen musical House of Flowers for a tour with Patti Labelle. On film, he's appeared in Addams Family Values, It Could Happen To You and Trouble on The Corner. He wrote the screenplay and starred in the film version of his play Psycho Beach Party, which is available on video and DVD. In June of 1994, Charles starred in Charles Busch's `Dressing Up', a one night sold out extravaganza at Town Hall featuring guest stars Milton Berle, Beatrice Arthur and the late Charles Pierce. In 1995, he co-authored and appeared in a critically acclaimed run in the Off-Broadway musical Swingtime Canteen. 1997 saw him performing his one man show Flipping My Wig at the WPA Theatre and writing the book for the musical The Green Heart which was produced by Manhattan Theatre Club at the Variety Arts Theatre. During this time, Charles starred as the fabulous "Mame Dennis" in a memorable staged reading of Auntie Mame at the American Place Theatre along with Marcia Lewis, Kelly Bishop, Maxwell Caulfield, Juliet Mills, Barbara Feldon, John Davidson and the late Peggy Cass recreating her original role of "Agnes Gooch." In the summer of 2004 he once again played "Mame" in a full production at Maine's Ogunquit Playhouse and at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, New York. In 2000, Manhattan Theatre Club produced his play The Tale of the Allergist's Wife starring Linda Lavin, Tony Roberts, and Michele Lee. It was nominated for a Drama Desk for best play and won Charles the Outer Critic’s Circle John Gassner Award for Playwriting. It reopened on Broadway in November, 2001, was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Play and ran 777 performances. Charles starred in the film version of his play Die Mommie Die for which he won a 2003 Sundance Film Festival award for best performance. In the winter of 2003, Charles starred in a new production of his play Shanghai Moon for which he was nominated for a Lucille Lortel award and a Drama League Award. He was also given a special award for career achievement at the 2003 Drama Desk Awards. For two seasons he appeared as "Nat Ginzburg" in the HBO series Oz. In 2004, Charles wrote the book to the Broadway musical Taboo. His first novel Whores of Lost Atlantis was published in hardcover by Hyperion Press and released as a Penguin paperback and republished in May 2005 by Caroll & Graf. In April, 2005 Charles reunited with his long-time stage partner, Julie Halston, for a Gala Benefit for the Actor's Fund of America at Broadway's Music Box theatre, entitled Charles Busch and Julie Halston, Together on Broadway. The evening featured the 20th Anniversary performance of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. Charles made his directorial debut with the film A Very Serious Person, which premiered at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival, where it won an honorable mention. He directed L.A. Theaterworks' radio production of The Tale of the Allergist's Wife starring JoBeth Williams, Richard Kind and Amy Aquino. He appeared as a guest artist in the off-Broadway play Spalding Gray Stories Left to Tell. His play Our Leading Lady was presented by Manhattan Theatre Club in 2007 and starred Kate Mulgrew as the 19th century actress "Laura Keene." He performed in a revival of his 1989 play The Lady in Question with Julie Halston at The Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor New York in August 2007. The New York stage premiere of Die Mommie Die opened at The New World Stages for a limited engagement in 2007-2008 with Charles reprising his role of "Angela Arden." His play The Third Story premiered at the LaJolla Playhouse and was later produced in New York by MCC teaming Charles with Kathleen Turner. In June, 2009, Charles played the formidable "Lady Bracknell" in The Importance of Being Earnest for LA Theatreworks. In 2010-2011, he starred in his critically acclaimed comedy The Divine Sister and his play Olive and the Bitter Herbs premiered at Primary Stages in New York. He is also the subject of the documentary film The Lady in Question is Charles Busch.