Julie Andrews Interviews Charles Busch
In 1995, Charles Busch interviewed Julie Andrews for a feature in the New York Times. It was a week prior to the Broadway opening of VICTOR/VICTORIA, in which Julie played a-man-playing-a-woman-playing-a-man, and Charles was playing the mistress of ceremonies in his musical revue SWINGTIME CANTEEN at The Blue Angel. The two shared their thoughts about "drag and other subjects" between performances. Now, for Bay Street, they continue the conversation...
Julie: Right. Let's start with the obvious. What originally drew you to this play and the role of Mame Dennis?
Charles: Well, Auntie Mame really is sort of the King Lear for older wacky comediennes. And I guess after twenty-five years of playing comic female roles, that's what I am. I'm thrilled to finally have a chance to tackle this big part.
Julie: I understand you actually had a real-life Auntie Mame...can you tell us a bit more bout her and about your relationship?
Charles: Auntie Mame has always had a great resonance for me because I was actually raised by my Aunt in Manhattan. My mother died when I was seven and my father was a very darling, fun guy but not the most reliable and my mother's sister, my Aunt Lil, swept me up and took me to live with her in New York City. Unlike Auntie Mame and Patrick, Aunt Lil didn't need to open up new worlds of fantasy for me. I was pretty far gone in that department already. She was an extraordinary, endlessly fascinating woman and I was so lucky to have been saved by her. She totally "got me" and did everything she could to allow me to pursue everything that I wanted to be.
Julie: Are there any other great roles in the theatre you covet? Eliza Doolittle for example? How do you feel about Mary Poppins?
Charles: I always wanted to play Peter Pan but I'm a bit long in the tooth for that one. I wouldn't mind taking a shot at Dolly Levi. As far as playing Eliza Doolittle or Mary Poppins, well, I'd rather listen to the original Broadway cast album of the former and watch a video of the latter. The lady who played those roles can't be topped.
Julie: Oh, that's kind! When we first chatted "journalistically" ten years ago (God! Can you believe it?!), you said it took you 20 minutes to put on your make-up, and for me it was 45. I'm now up to an hour. How about you? Any other changes since then? Do you think drag itself has changed much in the last ten years?
Charles: Well, I guess I am taking a bit longer than twenty minutes now. More like an hour. But every time I work with a new makeup artist, I learn some wonderful new trick that adds to the time. I don't think drag has changed too much during the last ten years except perhaps that Harvey Fierstein had such a triumph in Hairspray and won the Tony and that sort of acceptance is encouraging to anyone else playing a role of the opposite gender. I was so thrilled to have won the best performance award at the Sundance Film Festival for my role in the movie Die Mommie Die. It's kind of easy having a chip on your shoulder that people don't take you seriously when you're acting a drag role and getting that kind of recognition is a wonderful pat on the back.
Julie: When you perform, do you aim to be totally convincing as a woman (because you certainly convince me) or do you think there is always a level of drag "perspective," so to speak? (Hope this isn't too cheeky...)
Charles: Originally, I didn't aim to be totally convincing. In fact, for years I didn't wear any bust padding at all. I was in a sort of esoteric performance art mode. However, as my costumes became more elaborate, I noticed that a bit of padding here and there certainly made the gowns look better. And before I knew it, I ended up wearing very elaborate drag indeed. However, the most beautiful hair, makeup and costume can't make a man convincing as a woman. It has to come from a lot of observation, and I truly think, a great sympathy and understanding of women and the way they move and think and feel. And an understanding of the differences and almost more importantly the similarities between men and women.
Julie: I have to say you are still the subtlest and most brilliant of all drag artists I've ever seen. By the way, after our first interview long ago, I remember you speculated about what kind of sandwich I might have made you...Well, in case you're still interested, it would possibly have been P,B & J -- with perhaps a banana added, MAYBE a boiled potato or French fry sandwich (don't' knock it 'til you've tried it!) but for your safety, I would probably have just gone with a ready-made wrap from Zabar's!