In season four of RuPaul’s drag race when one of the contestants was eliminated, she said to RuPaul, “You have changed the world of drag forever.” I immediately thought, “No. Not really.” Why you ask? That form of drag combines heavily painted faces, extravagant costumes, wigs, and 99.9% of the time they simply lip sync to songs. Now some drag queen performers do tell jokes or do stand up in between their lip syncing numbers.
But for those in the theater world would say that it was Charles Busch who changed the world of drag into an art form that is impossible to duplicate. He blazed onto the New York theater scene in the 1970s. He does not pile on globs of makeup or wear outlandish costumes. Nor does he lip sync, he sings live. But foremost Mr. Busch is an actor. Since his childhood he fell in love with those classic films that starred such glamorous leading ladies like Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Susan Hayward, Lana Turner, and others. He strongly felt connected to those femme fatales in those black and white celluloid films.
So with that inspiration he began his journey as a playwright to create works for himself to portray these screen stars in drag. His scripts mirrored those characters that flickered across the silver screen.
His work as a playwright is staggering and broke barriers in regards to not only playwriting but men portraying roles in drag. Now we know from our theater history Shakespeare was the first to use male actors in female roles because women were forbidden to be on stage.
But here is where Busch stood out to show his acting craft. He never portrayed any of these roles campy or over the top. He transformed them into realistic women, in voice, body, and movement. Where he really excelled was his extraordinary comedic talents. So few actors can do what Busch can do in the world of comedy dressed as a woman. Using his face as a comedic palette, he painted subtle, yet hilarious expressions. One arch of his eyebrow to a comedic line or moment and he had the audience howling in laughter. His comedic timing, pace, and delivery is phenomenal. There is that golden rule that comedy cannot be taught. It is born in you. Busch was bathed in it! He would play all these grand leading ladies in his own plays, but slathered them in side splitting comedy. His make-up was exquisitely applied, never garish. His costumes reminded you of such film costume designers as Adrian, Edith Head, and Orry-Kelly.
As an actor and playwright he really started to achieve both critical and box office success in the 1980s with such comedy gems as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium, Times Square Angel, Psycho Beach Party, and The Lady In Question.
In the 1990s his winning streak as an actor and playwright continued with such mega hits as Red Scare On Sunset, Shanghai Moon, Our Leading Lady, and a revival of is his early hit, The Lady in Question.
One of his biggest hits (and this critic’s personal favorite) was Die Mommie Die! This was one of Busch’s finest comedic masterpieces. This comedy was about a former singing star named Angela Andrews, who no longer sings and is stuck in a loveless, ugly marriage to a film producer. Angela does have on the side a young lover (an out of work TV actor). She thirsts for happiness, so she plots to kill her husband and take her two children and make a new life. From there the comedy never ends from the first scene to the end. This hugely successful play was turned into an independent film that became a critical and financial hit, winning accolades on the film festival circuit. Busch won a Best Performance award at the prestigious Sundance Film festival for his work in Die Mommie Die! Another of Busch’s plays also made it to the silver screen, Psycho Beach Party (although Busch did not re-create the role he did on stage, but instead portrayed a different character for the film version).
Recent new works that Busch has both penned and starred in include The Divine Sister, which again became a hit both with the critics and the box office. His 2011 comedy Olive and the Bitter Herbs was one of the few times that Busch was not on stage, but served only as the playwright. In that play-and in many past Busch productions- starred one of Busch’s favorite co-stars, Julie Halston.
Busch has also done a couple of times for benefits a staged reading of Auntie Mame, portraying of course the lead role. His performance garnered him heaps of critical praise, so much so that many on Broadway felt he should portray the role in a revival on the Great White Way.
Busch has had his work represented on Broadway twice. In 2000 his play The Tale of the Allergist's Wife opened at the Barrymore Theater, where it was given a sea of critical praise and became a box office smash. It ran for 777 performances and earned three Tony nominations, including one for Busch’s script. His second Broadway venture became infamous, but it had nothing to do with Busch. Rosie O’Donnell brought across the waters from England the Boy George musical Taboo. She bought the rights, became the producer and planted the show at the Plymouth Theater. She brought in Busch to rework and retool the script. But the musical was plagued with so much gossip and rumors of the battles between O’Donnell and Boy George. New York Post Columnist Michael Reidel fed on those stories like a zombie from The Walking Dead. He published so many articles about the “drama” backstage, and the show was still in previews! Sadly the musical flopped and closed after only a 100 performances.
But Busch does not only do drag roles. His fans were shocked when he appeared in a reoccurring role in the HBO dramatic hit series OZ. In the series he portrayed a death row inmate. Busch showed a completely different side of his acting talents on the series that were astounding.
In 2006 he co-wrote with his close friend Carl Andress the film A Very Serious Person, which Busch also directed and starred in. His co-star was the late great actress Polly Bergen. The film was part of the USA Film Festival here in Dallas. Full disclosure: I was personally asked by the organizers and producers of the festival if I would serve as mediator for the Q&A session that was to be held after the screening with Busch. I immediately agreed!
Busch is also famous for his cabaret acts. New York audiences have stormed into venues and stuffed themselves like sardines to catch one of Busch’s critically acclaimed one woman/man shows. The New York critics lavished Busch’s cabaret shows with glorious praise.
Now Dallas/Fort Worth audiences have the VERY rare opportunity of seeing this legend of theater live and in person as he has brought his new cabaret show titled A Divine Evening with Charles Busch to the Wyle Theatre.
To kick off the concert, conductor/arranger/pianist Tom Judson glided over the piano keys and sang in a beautiful tenor voice the opening song that served as the intro for the Grande dame La Busch. Judson has a background in theater as well. He has appeared on Broadway in the Roundabout Theater production of Cabaret. He was also in the national tours of Cabaret and 42nd Street. He has composed the score to Whit Stillman’s indie film classic Metropolitan and has written songs for Sesame Street, Ann Magnuson, Lisa Kron and many others.
Busch came into the spotlight dressed in a soft, black pantsuit, a billowing shawl with fringe that was adorned with sequined appliqués. To complete the look was this massive, bejeweled necklace made of sparkling copper hued gems. His make-up perfectly applied and a copper wig coiffed to perfection.
As the music transposed from Judson’s solo to Busch’s first number, three very familiar notes pinged from the grand piano. Musical theater addicts such as myself immediately knew, “That’s from Dreamgirls. He’s going to do ‘And I Am Telling you’”, and he does! But with side splitting results. He stops midway and tells the audience he is not a soul singer, but a chanteuse. And then went into a comical first number.
Busch possesses a rich, buttery, baritone voice with a grounded vibrato. His vocal belting was right on the money all evening long.
He informed the audience that this show was a mixture of old material, new material, and stolen material!
Busch’s music repertoire really displayed his knowledge, history, and love for music. He did songs from Sondheim, Kern, and even Paul McCartney! But here is where the cabaret had a more emotional connection from material to singer. Each song had a story pertaining to Busch’s life. From his difficult childhood to where he is today. There were songs for hearty laughs, but also touching ballads that clinched your heart.
There were many stand out numbers, but here are a couple that really stayed with me. He sang two haunting Sondheim ballads which Busch said came from an album by his close friend Julie Wilson. Ms. Wilson was one of the greatest cabaret singers who earned a Tony nomination for the musical Legs Diamond. She passed away in April of this year. Busch’s lower register within his voice achieved deeply moving emotion that flowed within the lyrics.
It was announced this week which stars would be part of Lincoln Center’s Story Songbook series. These are concerts by some of the best Broadway stars and performers. Busch was announced as one of the headliners! His concert will be on February 26. Last night he performed for the FIRST time ever two numbers that Tom Judson specifically composed for the Lincoln concert. And we lucky audience members last evening got to hear them first. One was a fantastic up-tempo number titled “Lady at the Mic” which was peppered with jovial lyrics. The second was a melodic ballad that Busch had only rehearsed for the first time that very afternoon! But as he told the audience, he wanted to try it out now. It was a resounding success! He also did a marvelous vocal job on a Paul McCartney song that you could literally feel the audience being so moved by it.
From his treasure chest of songs, he chose some very hilarious songs that were winning numbers all evening long.
But personally my favorite number was his version of the Oscar nominated song “A Rainbow Connection” from The Muppet Movie. He sat next to Judson on the piano bench and with his emotional approach to the lyrics; he transformed the song into a heart tugging ballad. His subtext and interpretation of the lyrics just moved you to tears. Judson added at the very end of the song a small, faint hint of Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow” as Busch sustained the final note. Truly a magical moment.
Judson and Busch had several duets that they knocked out of the park. Their harmonies melted deliciously like buttah! Their chemistry was another major highlight of the evening. They played off each other like a solid comedic duo. Kudos to Judson as well on how connected he was to Busch. He followed him musically with sublime results. He instinctively knew where to pause or move the tempos by the emotion that Busch displayed within the song. That’s a rare gift in cabaret acts. Bravo Mr. Judson!
Busch did not just “sing” the songs, he buried himself emotionally within the lyrics of every song, be they up-tempo or ballads. He keenly understood the subtext of the lyrics. So each song (especially in the ballads) he carved deep into the subtext to bring out raw, honest emotion. When the song had a musical break and only the piano played, Busch stayed in the moment, walking back to the piano, reflecting to the lyrics and music. That is a master at work!
Within the musical numbers Busch had the audience bending over in laughter with his stories. These stories were rich with comedy. Not to give it away, but his stories about meeting his younger self, the internet, and Paul McCartney were hysterical! He had fun with the audience and would react or comment right there in the moment for laughter. He pointed out to three men sitting on far stage right and said they looked like a table of Bernie Sanders look-a-likes!
Busch also brought into his act one of his most famous and legendary characters that fans adore, Miriam Passman! As Miriam he told a story of her master class-I’ll leave it at that. Let’s just say he had the audience rolling in the aisles in laughter.
Here is a great example of Busch’s comedic talents. After a song, he mistakenly skipped over something. Now we the audience would have never known that. Mr. Judson whispered to Busch, who went to the piano. Busch returned to the mic and said, “Oh I skipped a part”. From there he went into a dead on Carol Channing impersonation about forgetting where she was within in the show. I died (along with the audience) in laughter!
This is by far your typical, paint by number, seen to death, same ole cabaret acts. It has a true arc, a story full of laughter with moments of dramatic honesty. It has an artist that clearly understands what a lyric means emotionally, whether for laughs or tears. Not very many artists get invited to do a concert at Lincoln Center, but Busch was and will in February! This cabaret show has one of the greatest treasures of the American Theater giving his gifts live and in person. If you work in theater or just enjoy attending it, then you must see Busch live and in concert. New Yorkers get to enjoy Busch’s talents throughout the year. How rare it is for audiences to get that chance to see one of the most beloved, respected, artists that actually changed the art of theater performing live right here in Dallas?! Now is your chance! Because if you miss it, your only other way to see Busch live in concert is to see him in New York, but good luck in trying to get a ticket cause his cabaret shows are always sold out!
A DIVINE EVENING WITH CHARLES BUSCH
AT&T Performing Arts Center at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre
Friday, October 30 - 8pm, Saturday, October 31 – 7pm & 10pm. Tickets range from $65 to $45 and may be purchased at www.attpac.org by telephone at 214-880-0202 or in person at the AT&T Performing Arts Center Information Center at 2353 Flora Street (Monday 10am–6pm; Tuesday thru Saturday 10am– 9pm; Sunday 10am–6pm). Note: May contain adult language.