Getting to interview drag legend and Tony nominee Charles Busch is always a joy! I have been a fan of Charles' plays and films for many years, but in recent years, I have also been captivated by his cabaret shows.
Charles has a real knack for cabaret. He's a fantastic storyteller which is key in cabaret. The stories are the set-up to each song as well as keeping the show moving forward. Charles is never short of an entertaining story, no matter how funny or heartbreaking it is. His delivery is always spot on. All those years of play/film writing and acting have really paid off! Let's not forget about his voice. Prior to Charles diving back into cabaret four years ago on a regular basis, I was always entertained by his singing, but now I'm in awe of it. I hope one day to have a cabaret show half as good as Charles'.
I'm so excited to share this new interview with Charles as we talk about his debut CD from Broadway Records, Live at Feinstein's/54 Below. From self-confidence to great to sex to his Aunt Lillian, Charles discusses it all!
1. You just released your debut CD, as part of the Live at Feinstein's/54 Below series. You've been doing cabaret shows for several years now, what made 2016 the right time to record one of your shows? A few years ago, I recorded some of my shows at Feinstein's/54 Below and I wasn't pleased with my performance. I still had a lot to learn. Last June Tom Judson, my musical director, and I decided to again record two of our shows at Feinstein's/54 Below. I was still very dubious. I wasn't sure if just hearing me was enough. I do a lot with the face, dear. I gave the rough tracks to several very critical friends, who basically don't have a good word to say about anyone or anything. Well, they were very enthusiastic. So I though "Okay, I guess I'm ready."
2. What did you like about the recording process? How was this process similar and different for you from writing a play? The CD was recorded live. My fantasy was always to do a studio album where I could nitpick and go over phrase by phrase a million times. It would be very expensive and have had to be self-produced and P.S. there are other ways I'd prefer to go broke. So frankly, I couldn't tell you about the recording process. I was just doing my act as good as I can and tried to forget that we were recording it.
3. The CD was released on the Broadway Records label. Why did you choose to go with them? Broadway Records seems to be the premiere label for Broadway shows these days. And they have a relationship with Feinstein's/54 Below. They've produced many live albums there and very good ones.
4. What do you want people to come away with after listening to this CD? Now that I've gotten more used to listening to myself, I'd say it's an excellent and accurate representation of the work Tom and I have been doing for the past four years. I'd like the listener to feel as though we're doing the show in their living room but they don't have to feed us afterwards.
5. I actually was at this show that was recorded. I just love the way you infuse your stories with the songs you sing. My favorite story during this show was the one about your Aunt Lilian. If she were alive today, what do you think her reaction would be to the stories you tell of her? Do you think she would have you tell some others? My Aunt Lillian was such an extraordinary figure in my life. She saved me when I was at a terrible, frightening crossroads at thirteen years old. I owe everything to her. I really do. She died in 2000. I have this great need to make her known to the world. She was an extremely private person and yet I think she'd be very pleased that I've shared my stories of her. I talk about her a lot on Facebook and I get a real kick that all those people feel like they know her. She was a great storyteller and I think she'd be very pleased at the stories I tell. I tell them very much like she would. My narrative style is very influenced by her; self-deprecating but enthusiastic.
6. One of my all-time favorite songs you perform on this CD is "Those Were The Days." What is something you used to do that you would just long for to do again? I wish I had some of the great sex I had in my youth. Sex in the 1970's and early 80's was fabulous. Those were the days, indeed. I'm first generation post-Stonewall and we sure knew how to make the most of it. Little did we know of the great shadow that was going to engulf us.
7. Another aspect of your cabaret shows I love is when you bring "Miriam Passman" to the stage, the character who inspired your Tony Nominated play The Tales of the Allergist's Wife. What was it like to revisit her? How do you relate to her today as opposed to when you first created her? Every time I sit down to write a new "Miriam Passman" monologue, I think I've played it out. What more can I say? But then I just start to channel her. I find this embattled, narcissistic, modestly talented, minimally successful cabaret performer oddly noble. She really believes she is contributing to the preservation of the American Songbook. The more I play her the more I feel for her desperate need to be taken seriously.
8. One other song you perform on Live at 54 Below is "Taking A Chance on Love." What was it like when you took a chance on love and it stuck? When I was in my early twenties, I met an older man (gasp. He was thirty-five). He was the first person to really think I was talented and had something to offer. He paid for a famous photographer to take my picture and for posters for my early shows. He was very dashing, drank and smoked too much, was a bit dangerous. But he believed in me and I was so dazzled by him. He then told me he had a lover my own age, also an aspiring performer. I had to make a decision and I chose to continue my big romance. I also managed to become good friends with his lover. We had so much in common. But we never spoke of the true nature of my relationship to the man we shared. We were an odd trio. Eventually, I had enough and broke off with him, but I remember that romance with great nostalgia.
9. Two final songs you sing are "Sail Away" and "The Rainbow Connection." If you could "Sail Away" to anywhere, where would you go? If you could use the Rainbow to connect anything together, what would you merge? I've been checking out real estate in Sitges, Spain and Merida, Mexico. They look like very nice places to flee to. So I might be sailing away to either of them. But I'm not ready to give up yet. We're living in dynamic times. The song "The Rainbow Connection" is about hope and when things look very grim, we have to somehow dredge up that vulnerable thing called hope and then connect it to action.
10. You've been performing your various cabaret shows for a few years now, which you used to do more of in the 1990s. What is something you've learned from going back to cabaret that you didn't know beforehand? I performed in cabaret in the early nineties and then not again until about four years ago. The biggest difference is that I used to think my audience was there to see me be funny and campy and that maybe, maybe, they would tolerate me singing one or two ballads. In my latest career as a cabaret performer, I've found that the audience really enjoys the sad songs. I come to cabaret as an actor and a playwright and I love taking a song and turning it into a dramatic monologue. I recently asked someone in the audience after the show if he felt that we did too many ballads. He replied "Don't worry. Your intros are the up tunes." He was right. I do a lot of talking in my shows. I'd say the act is 60% music, 40% comedy. I'm so delighted that it comes off so well on this recording.
The inimitable Charles Busch, two-time MAC Award winner, Tony nominee, and drag legend, brings his unique blend of songs both contemporary and from the past in the latest release in the "Live at Feinstein’s/54 Below" series. The New York Times critic Stephen Holden raved, "He has the gift of comic gab like few other entertainers. Innately funny, endearing and acutely intelligent, he also has claws. For an audience, the possibility of being scratched, although remote, lends his humor a bracing edge." Accompanied by his dashing longtime musical director, Tom Judson, Charles combines hilarious personal reminiscence, character sketches and superb storytelling through song into one glittering and glamorous album.