A Conversation with Charles Busch
THE DRAMATIST, JANUARY/FEBRUARY, 2001
Charles Busch is author and star of Psycho Beach Party, Times Square Angel, The Lady in Question, Red Scare on Sunset, You Should Be So Lucky, Queen Amarantha, Shanghai Moon, Flipping My Wig, and Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, which ran Off-Broadway for five years. He wrote books for The Green Heart (at Manhattan Theatre Club), Ankles Aweigh (at Goodspeed Opera), and House of Flowers (on tour with Patti LaBelle). He has appeared in the films Addams Family Values, It Could Happen to You, Trouble on the Corner, and Psycho Beach Party, which he adapted fro the screen from his play. This fall, he returned to a recurring role in HBO’s Oz and made his Broadway debut with the transfer of The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife. The following is the second part of a transcript of the Dramatists Build seminar “Tales of a Successful Comedic Dramatist” held in June.
Rich Orloff: I want to flashback to the beginning. Where were you born?
Charles Busch: Wow, really going back. I’m from New York City, I was born at Mount Sinai Hospital.
RO: When did you know you wanted a life in the theater?
CB: Before we left the hospital. [laughter] My dream was to be onstage, but as a kid, I was so bad. I was never in the school plays, because I loved theater so much that I had no poise at all. I couldn’t remember lines. Whereas, the other kids who couldn’t care less were good. It sounds so hokey, but I used to cut school and get Broadway house managers to let me go onstage to sing. I’ve played the Palace and the Winter Garden. [laughter]
RO: You then went to Northwestern University, a well-regarded theater school.
CB: Yes. Although, it wasn’t so good, when I was there, I was there during a bad period. It was definitely a very prestigious school when Alvina Krause was teaching in the Fifties and these famous people were students. Now, evidently, they’ve revamped the whole program, and it’s very good, but I went in the window of time when not much was happening.
When I got to Northwestern, I realized that a theater department at a large university is a microcosm of show business. I wanted desperately to act, but I wasn’t being cast at all. I had a pragmatic view of things, and I thought, “I guess I wouldn’t cast me either.” I didn’t seem right for any part, and I was devastated, because I thought, “There’s nothing else I want to do. Could there ever be a place for me in the theater?” For a couple of years, I stayed in the department and did nothing. They should’ve kicked me out, but they didn’t. I never got up in acting class. I never did anything. I just sat there, trembling.
When I went home on vacation, I was exposed to the more experimental theater: Charles Ludlam, The Performance Group, and Jeff Weiss. I had been brought up on strictly Broadway fare, and somehow by seeing this other stuff, I realized that a theatrical experience could be whatever I wanted it to be. It didn’t have to be what I had grown up with. Then I started writing. They didn’t have a playwriting program at Northwester, but they were good with independent studies. I could create my own class. I got credit one term for writing a play, then credit for putting on a play, and credit for discussing what went wrong.
RO: Did your first play feel like a Charles Busch play?
CB: The first play I wrote, then rewrote and rewrote, was a very naturalistic play. The next thing I wrote in college – which I directed, starred in, and did everything for – was very influenced by Charles Ludlam. I played a part in drag, and it was a very exciting moment for me. I felt “Maybe I have to write for myself. If I’m going to act, I have to create roles for myself.”
RO: Did it feel like you were at home, once you tried drag?
CB: Yes, it was interesting. I guess other actors have felt that when they’ve played a certain character role, maybe, that freed them. Somehow, by getting away from myself, I almost could be more myself. By having the trappings of drag or a female character, I suddenly had much more authority than before, but then I got away from it. After I graduated, I came back to New York and didn’t know how I was going to pursue this career. It was easiest to become a solo performer, where I didn’t have to pay other actors. For the next eight years, I was a solo performer, and it was almost like I was in vaudeville.
I did an act where I would be in a certain neutral costume and would play these different characters. I love narrative, so it wasn’t like an Eric Bogosian play where I played one character then another, it was always a whole story, almost like a screenplay, where I played all the characters. I’d spin around, and I’d be the old woman. Then I’d spin around, and I’d be the young man. I had a repertoire of pieces, and I booked myself all over the country. I was so industrious back then, I would show up in Indianapolis. I’d make an appointment with the artistic director of a nonprofit theater and do my act for him in his office. Then, I hoped, they’d book me to come back six months later. It amazes me that I did it. I had this circuit worked out, from San Francisco to Chicago and Washington, doing my act.
I performed in front of every audience: gay, straight. Very much like vaudeville, I’d perform in movie theaters, bathhouses, bars, nonprofit theaters, and restaurants. I learned so much as a performer and as a writer. I learned economy as a writer, because as a solo performer, with no set, nothing, I had to instantly let the audience know where I am, what the period is, who I am, everything. It was a wonderful experience, but it was a very frustrating period, too. I got to the point where I was good and could sellout on a rainy Tuesday in Santa Cruz. I was a big star in San Francisco and sold out, but I couldn’t earn a living. I couldn’t find a manager, and I couldn’t book myself very solidly. There would be four months with nothing, and so I did every awful job. I was an office temp, an ice cream scooper. For a while, I gave hot tips on the telephone on what sporting events to gamble on. I draw well, so I was a quick-sketch portrait artist on the sidewalk for about ten years, off and on.
Looking back, I think the reason my act didn’t ever take off was that I never had the a consistent style. I was learning so much that every piece I did was in a completely different style. You didn’t know what to expect from me. Anyway, in spring 1984, I reached low ebb. All the theaters that had booked me over the years had either burned down, gone broke, or didn’t want me back. I had about six months ahead of nothing, I was so grim. I was living hand to mouth. It was so humiliating. It’s a terrible thing to want something so bad and have your nose pressed against the glass, knowing you have a lot to offer.
Just at that moment, when I was literally shaking my cuffs out to see if there was any change in there, Ken Elliott and I went down to Avenue C to the Limbo Lounge. I had gone to college with Ken, and he was directing my act. He finally had decided that he was going to law school, and his family was so thrilled that he would be out of my evil clutches. [laughter] Just at that moment, we went to this strange after-hours bar/art gallery/performance space to see a friend of mine who’s a Pakistani performance artist. It was the wildest place, very punk and strange, and I was enraptured by it. It was very Berlin 1922.
Immediately, I thought, “I’ve got to do a play here.” I went to the proprietor, Michael Limbo, who was a very attractive young man, but he had the front half of his head shaved and the back dyed bright red. I used to say he looked like Daniel Day-Lewis playing Elizabeth I. [laughter] I booked us to do a play in two weeks, but there was no play. I was doing temp office work, and in between phone calls, I quickly wrote this skit, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. I thought, “What would I expect to see on Avenue C at midnight?” You’d expect something that was sexy, with a little nudity, campy, and very short.
RO: Just as with Manhattan Theatre Club, you were writing for the space.
CB: Yes, I was writing for the space, but it had to be very cheap. We had no money at all, so it couldn’t cost more than $35. [laughter] What historical period could we costume? If it were ancient Sodom, we could be in g-strings and pieces of netting. Then I went through my aunt’s closet and saw this 1930s satin dress. She said, “What do you want to do with that?” I said, “I’m going to do a play.” She said, “How big is the actress wearing it?” I said, “Um, about my size,” and I rant out, before she could say, “No.” [laughter] I called six friends of mine who couldn’t get arrested anywhere, and we had so much fun putting on this little skit. None of them knew each other, but we all hit it off. We rehearsed it about five times, and we did it. We had a ball. We each invited ten people and were sold out. [laughter]
Then we did another little skit I wrote for us, Theodora: She-Bitch of Byzantium, where I could live out my fantasy of being Sarah Bernhardt. The Limbo Lounge asked if we would be their resident theater company, which sounds rather grand. Every three weeks, we did a new play. I was zipping them out. We always played the same parts, except in different historical periods. I always was the glamorous leading lady, and Arnie [Kolodner] was the leading man. We had this little troupe.
We were exactly in the right place at the right time, because in spring 1984, for some reason there was this interest in the East Village, particularly the performance art scene. It was a very exciting period. Madonna had emerged from there, as well as Keith Haring, the artist. Magazines did stories on this supposedly decadent netherworld, and our titles were so good that we were always included. We had a picture in People magazine and New York magazine. The publicity was amazing.
RO: Did you ever come up with the title before the play?
CB: Yes, what eventually turned out to be Psycho Beach Party.
I would do a curtain speech each night to get people to sign our mailing list, and it became almost a comedy act. We used to call it “The Third Act,” where I would talk to the audience. It was part of a rather complex theatrical conceit. I wasn’t Charles Busch playing Theodora. I was Charles Busch playing this slightly faded grande dame of the theater playing Theodora with a raffish troupe that she doesn’t quite approve of. We acted in a grand manner, though we were performing for $3 in this bar. The curtain speech was part of the idea of the actress greeting her audience afterward. As a punch line, I would say, “Please sign our mailing list. We do all sorts of plays. We’re going to do Gidget Goes Psychotic.” It got a big laugh, so I kept it going.
RO: Then you had to write it?
CB: Yes, eventually, Ken said, “We’ve been promoting this play for years. We should do it.” [laughter] I said, “I hate those beach party movies. I can’t sit through them. They’re awful.” Then we thought, “Why don’t we try it?” So, we did it and ended up transferring that Off-Broadway, too, changing the title to Psycho Beach Party.
RO: Did Vampire Lesbians also transfer quickly from its original production?
CB: Yes. We built this following so quickly. It was amazing. In short order, we had people lining down the block of this crack-infested, awful neighborhood to get in, sometimes waiting for an hour. It was nutty doing a play in that “drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” environment. We’d show up for our show, and there’d be a nude woman onstage, cracking eggs on her private parts. Sometimes, they would do a sound check for a band for two hours, while our audience was waiting to come in. Sometimes, they would suddenly decide to paint the walls pink, as our audience was entering the theater, paint splattering on everyone.
Anyway, our following got so big, that one particular night during Vampire Lesbians, the audience was reciting the dialogue with us, like The Rocky Horror Show. We felt like The Beatles. It was so thrilling. That night, after we all went back to the West Village and counted the money, we had over $1,000. We thought, “Maybe this is the commercial venture that has eluded us for ten years.” We decided to find a commercial producer, but nobody would touch it, so Ken said, “We should produce it ourselves.”
We figured out a budget for $55,000, but it might as well have been $55 million to us. We went on this scavenger hunt for investors with money. It was very touching to see who came through. For years, people were asking me “if there’s anyway I can help you.” I finally said, “This is it. It’s time.” I shook down my Aunt Belle for $5,000, as well as my sister, teachers, and ex-lovers. Everybody pitched in, but I don’t think anybody thought they’d see a penny from it.
RO: I’m sure they all did well, because the play ran for five years.
CB: Yes, not as well as you might think, but they got their money back and some more. It was a miracle. We opened at the Provincetown Playhouse on MacDougal Street and got this rave review in The New York Times, and the show ran for five years. As soon as we came off stage, the review was there, this rave review where everybody was mentioned. No movie could be as perfect.
After ten years of playing around the country, when that lucky moment came, I was seen as a somewhat finished performer. It was a flimsy little piece, and I was nervous about being judged for the first time by the New York critics with something that I had written in a day. This wasn’t intended to be more than for one weekend. It has been a little hard for me to accept Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, even when people said how much they liked it. Obviously, somebody liked it, because it ran so long. I was embarrassed by it, but you can’t be. I have to be eternally grateful for it, although I don’t have to do it anymore.
With the shows after that, people kept saying, “Your writing has so improved!” I’d say, “I was better before. I really was.” The solo pieces I did were very ambitious and had more profundity than Vampire Lesbians. It’s only that The Three Sisters would not have gone over well at midnight at the Limbo Lounge.
RO: The plays that you wrote after the success of Vampire Lesbians, did you strive for them to be done in mainstream theaters?
CB: The Limbo Lounge closed, and there was no environment like that to try out something. Then I began an association with the WPA. I met Kyle Renick, artistic director of the WPA, who asked us to do a show at his theater. I think he hope it would be a zany midnight thing, but we ended up doing it at eight o’clock. Since we were not gearing it for a space like Limbo Lounge, I started writing a much more complex piece. I also was growing as a writer, so The Lady in Question was more elaborate. When we got to the theater, they were doing Larry Kramer’s Just Say No, which had this fantastic Georgetown townhouse, double-decker set with a staircase. I said, “Don’t tear it down! We’ll use it!” [laughter] I rewrote the play to work in all seven doors of the set. There was a safe behind a portrait, so I worked that into the plot. Our play took place in a baron’s Bavarian schloss in 1940. Our designers just painted the set gray and added a boar’s head. When we transferred to the Orpheum, we built our own set, but the basic architecture remained the same.
RO: After a couple of plays at the WPA, you wrote You Should Be So Lucky, which many critics called a breakthrough, because you were a man.
CB: Yes, it was odd, and I’m going through that with this play. I’m ninety-nine percent thrilled by the reception of Allergist’s Wife and these reviews that are taking me a little more seriously. However, the one-percent that’s mildly insulting is the implication in “He’s come of age as a playwright.” I thought they like me before. I didn’t think I was that bad. For twenty years, I thought I was okay. I got these very good reviews from Mr. Brantley and Mr. Rich, but it was a little disconcerting, just a little bit, because I don’t intend to suddenly be a different person. I don’t intend to give up my performing career. I think I’m okay. People seem to enjoy it. My sister even said to me, “So, I guess this means you’re not going to do drag anymore?” No! I intend to create my own kind of peculiar, satisfying career as an actor/playwright.
When I wrote You Should Be So Lucky, I thought, “I need to express myself more than in drag. I need to be more personal in my material as a writer and an actor,” but everything you write is personal. The silliest thing is as personal as Long Day’s Journey into Night, because it comes out of the same neuroses, the same fantasies. If you wrote a TV commercial, it’s personal, because something made you write that commercial. Some people said, “Oh, that part is the closest to you, the mousy, withdrawn male character.” No. It was facile thinking. I’m more like the tough tootsies and burlesque queens in my drag pieces. I realized that I don’t have to play a part that looks like me to draw on my emotions.
It’s an ongoing artistic journey to find out who you are. Every play you write is part of a continuing exercise to define your concerns. I’ve been constantly learning what I have to offer, what is special about me, what I am really good at. When I fail, rather than taking it as complete and devastating, I’ve tried to be Pollyannaish and think, “If I fail, it illuminates what I’m really good at.” I’ve experienced in the past couple of years, trying to expand my range as an actor and writer, and some have been more successful than others. It’s been very difficult, and painful, but I keep trying. I’m gaining a greater appreciation of who I am and what’s unique about me. That’s what we all have to do. It’s so easy to slap yourself and say, “I’m bad at that. I can’t do that,” but we should think, “It’s because this is what I really am and what I have to offer.” That’s so important, because the theater can be such a narcissistic profession, for writers and particularly for actors.
RO: How critical are you when you’re writing the first draft of a piece?
CB: You can become obsessed with critics, and that’s been a real problem for me to get over. There was a point when I was so obsessed that, while I was writing the play, I was writing the review, and it was a real bad one. It was a terrible, crippling thing. As I was writing, I’d be thinking, “I can already hear what John Simon is saying about me.” [laughter] I did an exercise lat year. I wrote Shanghai Moon and did it at Theater for the New City, which is a very raffish place where you can do a play dirt cheap, and I didn’t invite any critics. Fortunately, I have something of a following and we sold out the four-week run. It was so thrilling to do a play just for the sheer joy of it. The audience loved it, and I had a great time.
Off-Broadway, because of economics, the critics come after one week. You can’t learn what a play is about, either as actor or as writer, in one week. You need time to fix it, to experiment, to learn, and to explore the comic possibilities, but critics always come so soon, because you can’t afford to keep them away. We really didn’t find the humor in Shanghai Moon until the third week. It was a little frustrating, when we finished after four weeks. I thought, “They might have liked this one,” but I held on to my goal.
RO: Will there be a future to Shanghai Moon?
CB: There very well may be. I may do it in London, and I’ve never performed in London. None of my plays have ever been there. In February, it may happen.
RO: The first movie based on a play of yours, Psycho Beach Party, is coming out this summer. How did that happen?
CB: I have a wonderful manager, Jeff Melnick. He didn’t make a dime off me for years. He really handles film and TV, and I’ve never worked in TV or film. About eight or nine years ago, he thought this old play of mine, Psycho Beach Party, would make a good movie. I said, “That’s not a very good idea. It’s just a little theater piece,” but he kept pursuing it. Every couple of years, he’d say, “Showtime passed.” But I didn’t know they were even thinking of it. Finally, a couple of years ago, he started representing this young director, Robert King, who had a short film [The Disco Years] distributed by Strand Releasing, which does a lot of foreign films. They were starting to produce their own movies and wanted to do a feature with Bob. So Jeff thought, “For his first feature, maybe Bob should do Charles’ play.” He packaged us together, and they made the movie.
RO: After all your theater experience, what was it like being a screenwriter?
CB: The more money that’s involved, the less control a writer has. On this low-budget movie it wasn’t so bad. However, there was a certain point when all the producers and their wives were giving suggestions. [laughter]
Bob is a writer-director, and he was very helpful, because I had never written a screenplay. We changed the play quite bit. There needed to be more to the plot. It was a very short, little theater piece. They also wanted me to be in the movie, but I had done the main character, the Gidget character, twelve years ago, and even then, it was a stretch. [laughter] We didn’t want it to be that stylized a movie. We wanted a young girl in the part, and we got this talented 21-year-old actress, Lauren Ambrose, but they wanted me to be in the movie. Since the film is much more of a thriller, and there’s a killer knocking off all these kids on Malibu Beach in 1962, you have to have a sleuth. I play the very glamorous, though briskly efficient, chief of police Captain Monica Stark, LAPD. [laughter] It’s Susan Hayward as police chief. I’m in a police uniform by Chanel. [laughter]
I get to play this big love scene with Thomas Gibson. I always used to wonder what it’s like to play a big love scene, so I wrote one. Thomas Gibson and I are in a car and have sex, but I wasn’t even there. I had a body double. You see my face, and just as things get hot, you cut to this woman with beautiful boobs and ass. It’s very funny. It’s so clearly not me. In fact, it wasn’t Thomas Gibson either, because he had to leave at midnight. The director’s boyfriend happened to be standing around, and the next thing he knew, he was in the car with my body double. [laughter]
RO: Besides plays and movies, you’ve also had a few adventures writing musicals.
CB: Yes, but they weren’t very fun. The book-writer is low man on the totem pole. It’s about the music and the dancing, at least the musicals I’ve been involved in. You get very little time devoted to the book, but it is fun not being so responsible for the whole play. I like giving up responsibility to the composer and lyricist. The more they want to tell in song is fine with me.
RO: Not only have you done new musicals, but you’ve also worked on new books for old musicals like Ankles Aweigh.
CB: Yes. It was at Goodspeed Opera. Ankles Aweigh has a very fun score by Sammy Fain, but the book was written as a vehicle for the Kean sisters. It was like a nightclub act, and there were places in the script for Betty Kean to do her Marlon Brando or her Zsa Zsa [impersonation]. It needed a new book, and I wrote a brand new one, but I wanted to keep the spirit of the original. It was a girlie show, and that’s what we wanted it to be. You don’t see that type of show anymore. I made it a Gentlemen Prefer Blondes type of show, and I thought it was very cute, but the critics in Connecticut didn’t go for it. They found it vulgar, but that’s what it was supposed to be. It was a burlesque show. I thought it was a rather stylish piece. It was too bad.
A couple of years later, I worked on House of Flowers, which has music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Truman Capote. It’s a glorious score. “A Sleepin’ Bee,” “Don’t Like Good-byes,” all these great songs are in it. It was a great disappointment when it first opened in 1954, yet it had wonderful people involved. Peter Brook was the director. Oliver Messel was the designer. Pearl Bailey was the start. Diahann Carroll was in it. Geoffrey Holder was one of the dancers. It was an amazing group of talent. There are many theories of why it didn’t run, but the cast album has never been out of print.
Anyway, a couple of years ago, a producer decided to revive it with Patti LaBelle and hired me to doctor the book. It was very interesting. They always blamed Pearl Bailey for wrecking it, saying that she was so strong that she was taking the songs away from the ingénue, but as a diva myself, I saw her point. There’s an intrinsic problem with the script. You don’t know who the main character is. There’s the madam of the brothel, who is certainly the most interesting persons, because she’s a woman of a certain age, she has experience, and she has glamour. That’s the Pearl Bailey role. Then there’s the ingénue, a young prostitute in the house who has all the beautiful songs but is not that interesting a character. She’s just an ingénue, but she sings all the great songs. That’s a problem. You can see why Pearl Bailey would give them such hell. She totally disappears by the end of the show. There’s no conclusion to her story.
With Patti LaBelle, we had an additional problem, because she’s a famous singer. We distorted the show to have her reprise everybody else’s song at least once, but what else could you do? It was all screwed up. Then about a year or two ago, Ken Elliott and I took an other pass at it and rewrote it, just to see if we could do a good job on it. We did a little workshop, which went quite well, but nothing’s really happened since. I don’t think it could ever be a great show. Harold Arlen, as genius as he was, seemed to have his great successes in film and supper-club revues. He never had a successful book musical. All the songs, as beautiful as they are, could be put anywhere in the show. They never really come out of the action. We were always switching things around, trying “Two Ladies in de Shade of de Banana Tree” as the opening number, then the opening of act two, then the closing number. It’s such a great score. You almost just want to hear a concert of it with wonderful singers.
RO: Do you have any final words for writers who are still struggling and haven’t had your level of success yet?
CB: I was never too proud to put on a play anywhere. Working at the Limbo Lounge was very primitive, and I’ve romanticized it a bit. I wrote a whole novel, in fact, romanticizing that golden period of my life, when the reality of it was very gritty. I wasn’t waiting for Broadway. That’s one word of advice. Another is to keep learning who you are, through everything you write. Don’t beat yourself up too much. Think about what’s great about you and not what everybody says is bad about you. That’s all my advice. [applause]
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