Busch at the Drama League Benefit Gala in 2010
August 23, 1954 |
New York City
Charles Louis Busch (born August 23, 1954) is an American actor, screenwriter, playwright and female impersonator, known for his appearances on stage in his own camp style plays and in film and television. He wrote and starred in his early plays Off-off-Broadway beginning in 1978, generally in drag roles, and also acted in the works of other playwrights. He also wrote for television and began to act in films and on television in the late 1990s. His best known play is The Tale of the Allergist's Wife (2000), which was a success on Broadway.
Busch was born in 1954 and grew up in Hartsdale, New York. He is the Jewish son of Gertrude (née Young) and Benjamin Busch. His father wanted to be an opera singer but owned a record store. His mother died when Busch was age 7. He has two older sisters: Meg Busch, who used to be a producer of promotional spots for Showtime, and Betsy Busch, a textile designer. Busch's aunt, Lillian Blum, his mother's oldest sister and a former teacher, brought him to live in Manhattan after the death of his mother. She told an interviewer: "He was so shy it was almost pathological. ... Before he moved in with me, I would pick him up in Hartsdale on a Friday afternoon, and he would be like a zombie. But the minute we crossed the river to New York he was absolutely a new boy." Busch was intensely interested in films as a young child, especially those with female leads from the 30s and 40s. Blum insisted that Busch read the front page of the newspaper every day to help him keep at least one foot in the real world.
Busch attended the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan. He majored in drama at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and received his B.A. in 1976. While at the university, Busch had difficulty being cast in plays and began to write his own material, such as a play called Sister Act about siamese twin showgirls, which succeeded in drawing interest on campus.
Early theatre years
Busch has usually played the leading lady in drag in his plays. He has said, "Drag is being more, more than you can be. When I first started drag I wasn't this shy young man but a powerful woman. It liberated within me a whole vocabulary of expression. It was less a political statement than an aesthetic one." His camp style shows simultaneously send up and celebrate classic film genres. Busch has said, however, "I'm not sure what [campy] means, but I guess if my plays have elements of old movies and old fashioned plays, and I'm this bigger-than-life star lady, that's certainly campy. I guess what I rebelled against was the notion that campy means something is so tacky or bad that it's good, and that I just didn't relate to." Busch "toured the country in a non-drag one-man show he wrote called 'Alone With a Cast of Thousands.'" from 1978 to 1984. By 1984, Busch's performance bookings grew slim. He held various odd jobs, such as temporary office assistant, apartment cleaner, portrait artist "at bar mitzvahs", phone salesperson, shop manager, ice cream server, sports handicapper and artists' model. He thought that perhaps his last piece would be a skit put on in the Limbo Lounge, a gay bar in the East Village in Manhattan. The skit was a hit and became Busch's most famous Off-off-Broadway play, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom (1984). When it was revived the next year at the Provincetown Playhouse, The New York Times described it as having "costumes flashier than pinball machines, outrageous lines, awful puns, sinister innocence, harmless depravity. ... the female roles [Busch] creates are hilarious vamps, but also high comic characters ... the audience laughs at the first line and goes right on laughing at every line to the end". Busch stated that it was the longest-running non-musical in off-off-Broadway in history.
Busch and his collaborators soon created a series of shows, mostly at the Limbo Lounge, such as Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium (1984) and Times Square Angel (1985, Provincetown Playhouse). The company called itself "Theatre in Limbo" and attracted a loyal gay following. Other early plays include Pardon My Inquisition, or Kiss the Blood Off My Castanets (1986), in which Busch "played both Maria Garbanza, a prostitute, and her look-alike, the elegant Marquesa del Drago." and Psycho Beach Party, which ran from July 1987 to May 1988. "In his latest incarnation, Mr. Busch is a pigtailed ingenue who wants to become a surfer in Psycho Beach Party, which opened last week at the Players Theater." Other works include The Lady in Question, which ran from July to December 1989 at the Orpheum Theatre (originally produced by the WPA Theatre), and Red Scare on Sunset, which ran from June to September 1991 at the Lortel Theatre.
He rewrote the book for the musical Ankles Aweigh for an 1988 production staged by the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut. The New York Times reviewer noted that "Here and there, one sees unmistakable traces of Mr. Busch's touch. In a funny series of appearances, for example, the actor Frank Siano assumes multiple roles, among them a mugging tenor, a spaced-out priest and, in drag, the mother of the musical's leading ladies. And some silly puns and what could be called off-color sight gags bear Mr. Busch's offbeat imprint." Busch has been a member of the Writers Guild of America since 1989. His Charles Busch Revue was produced at the Ballroom Theatre in May 1993 in New York. The New York Times reviewer wrote "To the melodramatic strains of 'Town Without Pity,' Mr. Busch impersonates a slithery teen-age tramp, glued into a skin-tight red vinyl dress, who is accidentally killed while being fought over by two leather-jacketed youths. As in his plays like Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and The Lady in Question, the skit illustrates Mr. Busch's skill at taking pop kitsch and using drag to give it several extra jolts of silliness. Among New York's drag performers, he is certainly the most congenial." The reviewer concluded that "even when the material is less than scintillating, the show ... remains consistently charming and ebullient."
Also in 1993, he performed in a revival of Jean Genet's The Maids at the Off-Broadway Classic Stage Company in the role of Solange. In 1993, he wrote a novel, Whores of Lost Atlantis, a fictionalized re-telling of the creation of Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. The Green Heart was adapted by Busch from a short story by Jack Ritchie into a musical which was produced by the Manhattan Theater Club at the Variety Arts Theatre in New York City, opening in April 1997. The New York Times review by Ben Brantley noted "This patchy contemporary fable of greed and romance, with a book by Charles Busch and songs by Rusty Magee, almost never takes off except when its villainesses take over. ...while Mr. Busch's book is plump with funny lines, Mr. Magee's lyrics are often flat or laborious. The concepts behind the songs are often inspired."
He took the male lead in his comedy, You Should Be So Lucky which opened at Primary Stages Company, New York City, in November 1994. Ben Brantley, in his review in The New York Times, wrote "Christopher is portrayed by the play's author, Charles Busch, a fabled drag performer who has hitherto seldom set foot on a New York stage without a glitzy dress and heels high enough to induce vertigo. Here, wearing pants, a mandarin-collar shirt and no discernible mascara or lipstick, Mr. Busch does indeed seem incomplete. He walks with a sad-sack slump, and when he talks, in a small, self-conscious voice, he ducks his head. Christopher is clearly an unfinished soul who hasn't yet found his part in life, and, as he observes forlornly, 'I'm not unique: there are thousands of us living in peculiar circumstances all over the Village.'... 'You Should Be So Lucky'...is a very funny, exceptionally generous-spirited work that's all about dotting the "i" in personality."
Other works of the 1990s include Swingtime Canteen, produced at the Blue Angel, New York City, in August 1995. The New York Times reviewer wrote that "As the moment demands, Mr. Busch as the grande dame preens, minces, sashays, bats eyes, tosses off the most winningly treacly of smiles, and with reckless abandon drops names of dear, dear friends (Joan Crawford, Loretta Young, Jeanette MacDonald, Cole Porter). He has a way with songs like 'You'll Never Know' and lines like 'We're in a war, ladies, and we've got to win.' " His one-man show, Flipping My Wig ran at the WPA Theater, New York City, starting in December 1996. Ben Brantley, in his review for The New York Times, wrote that the story is "the sordid but uplifting personal history of a not-so-very-wicked stepmother who only wanted to do right by her family and get a little glamour out of life. ...Many professional drag queens are, however, only impersonators. Mr. Busch is indeed an illusionist and of a particularly affecting stripe. Here, in his assorted incarnations -- from a tough but good-hearted nightclub chanteuse of the Prohibition era to a suburban housewife who becomes Edith Piaf for an evening -- he provides a living bridge between manufactured images of womanhood and the fantasies they inspire. Mr. Busch, a popular crossover cross-dresser since his first hit spoof, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, a decade ago, holds a special place in the world of drag. Walking a delicate line between adulation and ridicule, he avoids both the polemics and the pathos of most men who play women."
He wrote Queen Amarantha, which played at the WPA Theatre, starting in October 1997; Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote that it examined "sexual identity to new levels of intricacy and earnestness." His play Die, Mommie, Die! was first performed in Los Angeles, opening in July 1999 at the Coast Playhouse. The Variety reviewer wrote that "Die! Mommy! Die!" is Charles Busch's funniest, most accomplished and, without question, raunchiest work... And, as always, he wears a parade of wigs and pumps with considerable grace and understatement." and was made into the 2003 feature film of the same name. According to the New York Times reviewer, "The candy-hued camp comedy Die Mommie Die! presents the latest variation of the playwright and drag performer Charles Busch's long-running and very funny alter ego, a swiveling red-haired diva whose exaggerated graciousness and noblesse oblige embody the ne plus ultra of Great Hollywood Ladies....The film, directed by Mark Rucker from a screenplay by Mr. Busch, is at once all plot and no plot at all.Although the supporting performances are carefully shaded caricatures, Die Mommie Die! is really Mr. Busch's show. Within the cramped limitations of drag, he exudes a genuine screen charisma. That star quality as much anything should earn the film a niche in camp heaven."
Film and television
Busch's early film appearances include Ms. Ellen, a fortune teller in drag in Trouble on the Corner (1997). Busch has twice appeared in film versions of his own plays: Die, Mommie, Die! (1999) and the comedy horror Psycho Beach Party (2000, as Capt. Monica Stark, a policewoman trying to solve the mystery). He co-wrote, starred in and directed the film A Very Serious Person (2006), which starred Polly Bergen and received an honorable mention at the Tribeca Film Festival. He is also the subject of the documentary The Lady in Question is Charles Busch (2006).
Busch had a recurring role in the HBO series Oz from 1999–2000 (the third and fourth seasons) as Nat Ginzburg, an "effeminate but makeup-free inmate on death row, certainly a departure from his usual glamour girl roles." He also wrote television sitcom pilots and movie treatments as a source of extra income while he was a cult performer. He sold three pilots to CBS that were not produced.
Stage work, 2000s
Busch's work debuted on Broadway in October 2000, when The Tale of the Allergist's Wife opened, following an Off-Broadway run in February through April 2000. The play, his first in which he did not star, and the first created for a mainstream audience, was written for actress Linda Lavin, who played opposite Michele Lee and Tony Roberts. Allergist's Wife received a 2001 nomination for Tony Award for Best Play and ran for 777 performances. His other Broadway work was rewriting the book for Boy George's short-lived autobiographical musical Taboo. Since 2000, Busch has performed an annual one-night staged reading of his 1984 Christmas play Times Square Angel. In January 2003, he headlined a revival of his 1999 play Shanghai Moon, costarring B. D. Wong at the Drama Dept, Greenwich House Theatre, New York City.
He has taken the eponymous lead in three productions of Auntie Mame: a staged reading in 1998 and a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS in 2003 and one a small scale summer touring production (2004).
Our Leading Lady, Busch's play about Laura Keene, was produced by the Manhattan Theater Club at the City Center Stage II Theatre, in 2007, and starred Kate Mulgrew. His play, The Third Story, premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in September 2008 with Mary Beth Peil as Peg, and was then produced in New York by MCC Theatre at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, starring Busch and Kathleen Turner (Peg), opening in February 2009. Busch wrote and starred in a play, The Divine Sister, a satirical take on Hollywood films about religion, including Doubt and the Sound of Music. It ran at the SoHo Playhouse in New York City, opening in September 2010.
Performance style and influences
Busch's style is based on movie star acting rather than naturalistic femininity. Busch later said that he was described as "too thin, too light, which is the euphemism for gay. I was never cast at Northwestern for basically these reasons, and finally, I thought maybe what's most disturbing about me is what is most unique: my theatrical sense, my androgyny, even identifying with old movie actresses". He specializes in femmes fatales. "I'm an actor playing a role, but it's drag. A lot of drag can be very offensive, but I like to think that in some crazy way the women I play are feminist heroines."
Busch said, "I've always played a duality. I guess I've always felt a duality in myself: elegance and vulgarity. There's humor in that. I've always found that fun on stage, as well. It's not enough for me to be the whore. I have to be the whore with pretensions or the great lady with a vulgar streak. It's the duality that I find interesting." Busch generally writes without a political agenda, and he predominantly portrays characters who are white, middle class, gay, and between 20 and 40 years old.
Busch was inspired by Charles Ludlam, a drag artist who founded The Ridiculous Theatrical Company in 1967 and wrote, directed, and acted in the company's exaggerated, absurdist camp productions. Busch presented his one-man show Hollywood Confidential in a theater owned by The Ridiculous Theatrical Company in July 1978 at One Sheridan Square, New York. He also appeared for several performances in the company's production of Bluebeard as Hecate, also in July 1978. Busch said of this experience: "If I had ever entertained a fantasy of working with the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, doing Hecate got it out of my system." Busch has said that he was also inspired by seeing Joan Sutherland and Zoe Caldwell perform when he was a child. Busch recalled: "When I was about 13 years old, around 1968 or '69, I went to see Zoe Caldwell in 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.' I was so dazzled that I don't think I've ever recovered." In 1991, Busch was performing in his play Red Scare on Sunset. He said that he had difficulty connecting with the audience at one of the performances. Caldwell went backstage after the performance to give him some advice: "You are so beautiful. But you were pushing too hard. You're much better than that. ...It's the best lesson I've learned from a famous person." During his run in The Tribute Artist, Busch revealed that he also found inspiration in drag performers Charles Pierce and Mr. Lynne Carter. 
Awards and nominations
Busch received the Charlie Local and National Comedy Award from the Association of Comedy Artists in 1985 for "special contributions to the art of comedy." He also received the Manhattan Academy of Cabaret Award in 1985 and 1993.
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