Charles Busch :: Ptown bound

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Thursday June 30, 2011

It's surprising to learn that Charles Busch has never played Ptown. The closest he came was onscreen when "Die Mommie Die!" was screened at a nearby drive-in as part of the Provincetown Film Festival where Busch viewed it. (John Waters, he recalled, was in an adjacent car.)

This weekend Busch returns to Provincetown, this time to make his performance debut there with Seth Rudetsky as part of that performer's Broadway at the Art House series. Not that it is going to be a conventional show; as Busch explained recently. Instead of traditional solo act, Rudetsky will host the evening from the piano and Busch will chat about his career and perform scenes from his plays and sing some of his favorite songs.

Why Busch has never made it on a stage in Ptown is that he's been too busy in New York since the early 1980s. He had his lean years. (I remember seeing Busch perform his solo show "Alone With a Cast of Thousands" with an audience of seven in a Chelsea theatre.) But his career skyrocketed (at least in the East Village) when he founded a troupe of actors and began performing late night movie parodies in an art gallery (Limbo) in bombed-out Alphabet City. One title -- "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom" -- became a sensation and moved to the West Village where it ran for five years at the Provincetown Playhouse (the theater rented by a group of artists, most prominently Eugene O'Neill, who came to New York from Provincetown after World War I).

Busch's' follow-up "Psycho Beach Party" gave proof that here was a talent, both as a performer and playwright, to watch. A star was born, so to speak, and over the next two decades he wrote and starred in such spoofs of old movies as "The Lady in Question," "Red Scare on Sunset," "Shanghai Moon" and "Die, Mommie, Die!"

He went to Hollywood to write and star in film versions of "Psycho Beach Party" (where he wrote himself the choice role of a hard-boiled police detective) and "DIe, Mommie, Die!" (where he played both the good and bad twins). On television he did a memorable cameo on HBO"s "Oz" and appeared on the daytime soap "One Life to Live." In 2001 he wrote what a more conventional comedy -- "Tales of the Allergist's Wife" for actress Linda Lavin, which landed him a Tony nomination for Best Play and ran some 777 performances on Broadway.

Two years ago he returned to performing with a limited engagement of "The Divine Sister," a parody of nun movies (such as "The Trouble with Angels"), simply for the fun of it. The run proved so successful that the play was picked up for an off-Broadway run this past season where Busch -- as writer and actor -- received some of the best notices of his career.

Ben Brantley put it this way in the New York Times: "Cue the "Hallelujah" chorus. Charles Busch has put on a nun's habit and is talking to God, from whom he has evidently received blessed counsel. "The Divine Sister," his new comedy at the SoHo Playhouse, finds Mr. Busch returned to peak form. This gleefully twisted tale of the secret lives of nuns - in which the playwright doubles as leading lady - is Mr. Busch's freshest, funniest work in years, perhaps decades."

With a career like this, it is little wonder that Busch calls himself (as he told Slant Magazine) "the Gypsy Rose Lee of female impersonation-a drag artiste with a literary pedigree."

EDGE spoke to Busch last week about his recent long run, his love of competition reality shows and what he plans on doing in Provincetown.

His upcoming Ptown debut

EDGE: Why do you want to spend the Fourth of July weekend in Provincetown?

Charles Busch: I’ve never performed there before. I’ve only been there once a few years ago at the Film Festival when they screened ’Die Mommie Die!’ But I always wanted to perform there. When I first started my career as a solo performer I would talk to Julie Wilson and Lynne Carter, the female impersonator, and they told me about performing in Ptown. It sounded like a wonderful artistic community and a place where I wanted to perform. But then I got involved with my own theater company, so it never happened.

Then in the past few years I would read about the different things going on in Ptown and get a little wistful about them. My friends Varla Jean (Merman) and Tom Judson and David Drake were down there working, so hearing that they’re doing these shows at the same time in the same place made me think it was like Vegas from the 1950s when the Rat Pack was there. I guess it sounds more glamorous hearing about it, but what I thought was there were all my friends having a drink at some bar by the sea late at night after their shows.

So when Seth Rudestky asked me to do this, I thought, why not? It’s not really an act - I hope people don’t come expecting to see me in feathers and wigs. It’s a loose-sort-of interview within that I’ll sing a couple of songs, show some videos and perform some scenes from my plays. It’s not really an act or an Evening With... It’s more in keeping with Seth’s kind of shows, like Chatterbox, the show he does in New York.

EDGE: How long have you known Seth?

Charles Busch: I couldn’t really tell ya. This past decade we’ve done a couple things together. And my partner Eric is his literary agent. It’s been very, very incestuous. I’ve performed at his Broadway 101 show, and we’ve done benefits together. And I’ve done his radio show and his Chatterbox show. This is the closest we’ve come to doing an act together.

An exhausting long run

EDGE: Congratulations on your long run with "The Divine Sister." The play marked your return to acting after quite some time. What was that like?

Charles Busch: Yes. We ran nine months. I hadn’t really acted for such a long stretch since "Psycho Beach Party" in 1987 and it takes a lot of you. It really was exhausting. Acting in a wimple is harder than you think - it’s very hot and uncomfortable. I thought mistakenly that the show would be a piece of cake because we didn’t change costumes, we could just go from scene to scene in a very cinematic way; but once it got started, it didn’t stop for the 90 minutes. And it was exhausting. On the other hand I lost a lot of weight and am now truly thin, so I am trying desperately to maintain it. Where a wimple and run around the stage for 90 minutes - the "Divine Sister" diet.

EDGE: And you got the best reviews of your career...

Charles Busch: They were - there wasn’t one dissenting opinion. Usually someone wants to tie a tin can to the end of the kite. I don’t believe when actors say they never read their reviews, what’s nice is my partner Eric cuts out all the bad reviews and only sends me the good reviews, so that’s what I read. But in this case he could send me everything - and that was great experience. It was like when "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom" opened in 1985, but that show we just threw it together as something fun to do.

That was our approach with "The Divine Sister" as well. When we did a year ago last winter at an avant-garde space called Theater for a New City for 24 performances and didn’t invite the critics, no one believed we had a pure motive and that it wasn’t a workshop. It was an end it itself. I just thought it was fun for Julie and I to play nuns and raise some money, and we sold it out on Facebook and I got it out of my system. Then Daryl Roth, who has produced just about everything I’ve done for the past decade, wanted to produce it commercially, but that wasn’t my intention when I wrote it. That’s a long way of saying that it was a great surprise and it was done for the fun of it.

EDGE: Is it fair to say that you have pretty much done what you have wanted to do your entire career?

Charles Busch: Uh-huh. I have tried for the most part to involve myself in things I really want to do. Occasionally I’ve had to prostitute myself, but it was usually with something that was cool about it and challenging.

EDGE:Did you prostitute yourself with "Taboo?"

Editor’s note: "Taboo" was the 2002 Broadway musical that told the tale of the counter-culture scene in London in the early 1980s when Boy George was coming to fame. Rosie O’Donnell saw its first incarnation in London and decided to produce it on Broadway. She hired Busch to rework the book.)

Charles Busch: It started out well, but it ended up an ogre. It went the full cycle. Rosie approached me about writing a new book and story for this show she saw in London. At first I said no, because I didn’t want to be just a hired hand. I didn’t know Rosie, but she’s a force to be reckoned with. Next thing I know I was flying to London on the Concorde to see the show and meet Boy George. I jumped at the chance just for the anecdote value -- so when I got back I could tell Julie Halston all about it.

Then when I got there, I really liked Rosie. We had a lot in common; then when I saw the show, it reminded me of the East Village performance art scene in the 1980s, so I thought I was a good fit. It became the opposite of "The Divine Sister" - it got slammed. We didn’t solve all the issues, but there were some marvelous things in it. And the press, they just went after Rosie. She was lucky she wasn’t put in the stocks and flogged in Duffey Square. I don’t know what awful things she had done to merit such vicious things from the critics. And in the end, there were people that really loved it. I’m somewhere in between - there were things that were screwed up, but we had a very talented cast and many of them have gone onto to do some great things.

Editor’s note: amongst the partisans for "Taboo" was Stephen Sondheim, who said: "I thought it was inventive, and I was touched by it, and I thought it looked good. All the way through I had a good time. And a few of the songs really moved me. I got involved in it--and it’s not my kind of music."

Busch on television?

EDGE: You wrote a very engaging novel - "Whores of Lost Atlantis" -- about your early career in the East Village when Theatre in Limbo was happening. Has there been any interest in developing it for the movies?

Charles Busch: HBO developed it as a series. I got the deal, then I wrote the pilot - then like a lot of things, the day came that I got the phone call - we like it, but not enough. And Showtime had turned it down earlier. I guess because I am actor, I’m a good salesman - I’m good at the pitch. My first stop was Showtime and I took the first date available. It was a disastrous meeting, but when I had the chance to pitch the show at HBO, I was right on point and got the deal before I left the room.

And I got very worked up - my fantasy got worked up about it as a series and finding the actor to play me at 30. But then you get that phone call from the head of comedy development who says that they liked it, but not enough. There’s not much you can say about that, is it? I have such a weird career in television - it’s really remarkable because I don’t do it that much, and yet I have a 100% track record that I get a deal every time I pitch something; I also have a 100% that nothing has ever been shot. Nothing. So it’s a little disturbing because I go to my computer and see it littered with ten television corpses. But I do recycle some funny lines now and then.

EDGE: Are you taking some time off after your long run?

Charles Busch: No. I go into rehearsal around the time I go to Provincetown with a new play, but this time I won’t be performing. It’s called called "Olive and the Bitter Herbs." It was commissioned by a wonderful theater company in New York called Primary Stages. It’s kind of in the vein of "The Allergist’s Wife" - it is not a genre parody, it’s more a naturalistic comedy about a group of New Yorkers. We have a wonderful cast - Julie Halston, my muse, Dan Butler from "Frazier," Richard Mazer - a bunch of wonderful people.

EDGE: You’ve parodied so many different genres, are there any you feel you haven’t done or would like to revisit?

Charles Busch: I get a different idea for one every day. By now I have a million of them. For someone who spends most of his time lying down in front of television, it is amazing how many ideas I get. But I write most of them down, then forget about them. I would love to do the Biblical epic.

It’s funny you could say that my drag career -- and I haven’t intended it this way -- has this trajectory that parallels that careers of any number of classic Hollywood actresses. I did the pre-Code-styled film, early 1930s melodrama "Shanghai Moon;" then I did the "The Lady in Question," an anti-Nazi movie from the 1940s that’s a lush, MGM star vehicle; then with "Red Scare on Sunset" I’ve moved to Republic Pictures in the early 1950s because things haven’t gone so well; then in the 1960s, I did "Die Mommie Die!," which was my cover on "Baby Jane." And "The Divine Sister," where I played a Mother Superior, which is the end of the road. If I keep going on this trajectory, the only thing left for me is "Dynasty" or "The Love Boat." So, I think I need to go backward now if people would buy me in a younger role, I should do a Cecil B. DeMille picture. Or I think I would like to an American historical panorama - play this spunky Irish working girl who goes out West and gets older and older and ends up the old grande dame on the prairie. Kind of like "How the West Was Won."

A new movie?

EDGE:What about another movie?

Charles Busch: Making movies is the most fun thing in the world. The happiest moments of my life was when I was making "Die Mommie Die!" My last picture "A Very Serious Person," which very few people saw because it went straight to video. I both starred and directed in it, and I’m still learning how to do it. But it is thrilling. I have an idea for a movie, but they’re hard to get going. I’ve learned that if you keep the budget really miniscule, you can do it.

EDGE: What is your writing process?

Charles Busch: I write fast. I’m very disciplined when I get going. When I write for non-profit theaters, I am under deadline. It’s funny: I think of myself as a slacker because I watch so much reality television; but people think I’ve got something going. And I guess I do. And I’ve realized that I’m really happiest when I’m writing. It’s taken me a lifetime to come to the place where I can say I’m more happy when I’m writing than acting. I never thought I’d say that. When I’m in the midst of writing a play, going back into it a dozen times a day, I just love it. My favorite part of writing is editing. I just love cutting. How can make this one page shorter. Cut that line. Shorten that speech.

EDGE: So is this best part over for your new play. Is working on the production the hard part? Charles Busch: Yes and no. I’ve had very good relationships with all my directors. I’ve only worked with four my entire career and have had long relationships with them. And each is a great dramaturge and has helped me shape my plays. What I don’t like is when you start getting notes from different producers and dramaturges. That’s no fun and is frustrating. But I enjoy the collaborative process with just the director. And actors, I haven’t had much of a problem with them. They like what I throw at them. But I do write for specific actors, which I really like doing. - like back at Theater in Limbo it was like an old movie studio with contract players. I had these players who were such types with such eccentric personalities. It was fun to come up with the challenge of writing a story with eight people an allow them to do what they do that makes them special and extend their talent. I wrote "The Allergist’s Wife" for Linda Lavin; and "The Divine Sister" I wrote the roles for all the people who played them. And Julie Halston? I think this new play is the tenth role I’ve written for her. We should be in the Guinness Book of World Records. Whose Guinness and how do I get to know him? If you know Guinness, tell him that we should be in his new book.

EDGE: Your plays are produced pretty frequently around the country. Do you ever go and see them?

Charles Busch: I use to - when it first started happening, it was a fascinating novelty. I started writing to provide myself with acting opportunities. They were vehicles to give me the opportunity to act. Then I got into the writing itself, which I now say I prefer to acting. I never expected anyone to play my roles. I thought of my plays as stuff as special material. When they first started getting produced, I thought it was cool and I went. But then I stopped because I was so wrapped in the productions that I was performing in to get any distance from them. There was such nostalgia for those early plays because I bring such baggage with me. I can’t appreciate what’s there. I’m available on line to directors if they want my big fat opinion, which I give, but I not sure if they take me very seriously.

Obsessed with ’Survivor’

EDGE: You’ve mentioned watching reality television. Do you watch a lot of it and what do you like?

Charles Busch: I have trouble watching scripted TV because in my head I can hear the executive giving notes, like a commentary track; so it’s very creepy. And the reality shows I watch is very narrow. I only watch competition shows. I don’t watch the "Housewives" or "Jersey Shore." I am obsessed with "Survivor." My partner and I haven’t missed an episode in 22 years. I hope that you don’t think less of me. Some couples stay together because of golf. We’ve got "Survivor." And I feel as if I’m in graduate school - I’ve learned so much about fashion from "Project Runway" and cooking from "Top Chef" and dance from "So You Think You Can Dance" and pop music from "Idol." I have big fat opinions about a lot of things from just watching these reality shows. And "Survivor" is a very fascinating show psychologically - it can be seen as a metaphor for any group interaction. When we were doing "Taboo," Rosie and I would joke that we were in ’Survivo’ going to tribal council facing elimination. It’s really fascinating. It’s really interesting when there’s two gay people on the show that you would think would bond together, and they don’t - they bond with people of their own age or class. It’s fascinating.

EDGE: Do you watch "RuPaul’s Drag Race?"

Charles Busch: I love that. It’s a very narrow view of drag, which I guess it would have to be because it would be hard to judge drag performers that run the entire gamut of drag performers. So it’s this narrow lipsynching, glamour drag thing. That said, they do a great job. Reality show is all about the casting - who are good television characters and they do a very good job of that. If RuPaul reads this, I would love to be a judge. That would be fun .I only have met Ru a couple of times, but I think he’s fabulous.

EDGE: You mentioned Varla Jean Merman earlier. She’s an iconic Provincetown personality...

Charles Busch: You know, I’m so out of it. When anyone asks me who is the up-and-coming drag performers, but I don’t know of any. I’m too busy watching Top Chef Dancers. But I always think of Varla when asked that question. Not that she’s up-and-coming. She’s been around as long as Joan Crawford. And she’s got that same hard core. He’s a wonderful actor. I’ve seen Varla do ’Irma Vep.’ There’s never a dull moment in any of her shows. But, you know, whenever I see pictures of Adelle, I think of Varla. They look alike. Varla should do her...

EDGE: Are you going to spend much time in Provincetown>

Charles Busch: It’s the first week of rehearsal for my new play and it’s the only time they want me around. After that, it’s get lost. So I arrive on Friday, stay Saturday and Sunday and go back Monday. I’d love to stay longer and see some shows. I’ve recently met Ryan Landry and I would love to see one of his plays, and my friend Tom Judson is there, so I hope to see him. But don’t expect me to be busking on the street -- I’m too old for that.

Charles Busch will be appearing with Seth Rudetsky as part of Rudetsky’s Broadway at the Art House series on July 2 at 9pm and July 3 at 7:30 pm. The Art House is located at 214 Commercial Street, Provincetown, MA. For more information visit the Art House website.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].