Support our business partners
Home Articles Features Charles Busch premieres play in New Brunswick ahead of Off-Broadway run 

Charles Busch premieres play in New Brunswick ahead of Off-Broadway run 

909
Charles Busch headshot with a black background
Charles Busch (Photo by Stephen Jacobs)
Support our business partners
Charles Busch is smiling and wearing a white frilly dress and Thomas Gibson is talking to him.
Ibsen’s Ghost: An Irresponsible Biographical Fantasy: Charles Busch & Thomas Gibson. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Charles Busch is a bona fide drag legend, yet to say so only scratches the surface of his considerable reach in the entertainment world and importance in our community.  

He is a Tony Award-nominated playwright, painter, novelist and renowned cabaret performer, but he is an actor first and foremost. That, he says, is what matters most of all. 

Support our business partners

The paradox is that Busch’s career is the product of such a finely honed DIY ethic that he has been able to transform himself into one of our finest leading ladies for decades. He tells the story of how it all happened (or almost didn’t happen!) with his signature incisiveness and eye for detail in his colorful new memoir Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy, released to critical praise last fall. 

There is a bit of cheekiness in the title, but certainly no irony. He is principally a male actress, with the resume to prove it. Sometimes his evocations of the likes of Joan Crawford or Gloria Swanson are so uncanny that he seems to project an even stronger sense of realism into their inimitable styles. At first, you’re startled at the pin-point accuracy, but before you know it, you’re both laughing at the winking humor and touched by the beating heart beneath it. 

Busch hit the ground running — the classic story of overnight success following years of hard work — with the surprise hit play Vampire Lesbians of Sodom back in 1984. A piece he penned quite quickly during quiet moments of one of his many survival jobs, it proved such a hit with audiences and critics alike that it soon moved from the storied Limbo Lounge in the East Village to the Provincetown Playhouse Off-Broadway, running for five years.  

Countless productions and film adaptations of his work have followed in the years since, among them the massive Broadway hit The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife. 

Busch’s versatility remains to this day. He is currently trodding the boards of New Brunswick’s George Street Playhouse in his latest original play — Ibsen’s Ghost: An Irresponsible Biographical Fantasy — through Feb. 4, 2024. A run at New York’s Primary Stages will commence March 2. He portrays the widow of the master playwright Henrik Ibsen in a lighthearted account of the aftermath of the playwright’s death where Busch takes considerable liberties with the facts and whimsy takes center stage — along with the grande dame at the center of it all, of course. 

Busch took time between performances to discuss the new play and the publication of his memoirs. 

Nice to talk to you, Charles! Thank you for taking the time to speak with me on your day off. 

Charles Busch: Sure! I assume you’re recording this? 

Yes, indeed. 

CB: Good. Don’t do what I did to Carol Burnett — she was in Hawaii, I was in New York interviewing her and taping it, and when I turned the tape over to the other side, I realized too late I never recorded the interview! 

Don’t worry, technology is on our side. I hear the run of the play is going well. Are you still tweaking it? 

CB: No, we’re just going to play [this New Jersey run]. I’ve got an idea for a tiny little change and cut that we’ll do when we go back into rehearsal after this run is finished. We’ll have two weeks off before we start again [for our next run at Primary Stages]. We’ll go into rehearsal and tech again, and I see one place where I might put a little cut, but that’s it — I think the show’s in good shape.  

One of the main reasons we wanted to do it at George Street [Playhouse]was I always like doing a full production before we face the New York critics. George Street is perfect because it’s far away from New York, and yet not that far. 

Of course, there’s always something to discover [in the process] whether it’s in rehearsal or performance, usually in the pacing. Really, most any show can be ten minutes shorter. I also love writing for specific actors and their strengths, and that’s certainly the case here. 

You have an unofficial repertory company you work with. I know you’ve worked with Carl [Andress, the play’s director] many times. Does that provide a sense of comfort, like picking up where you left off between projects? 

CB: Absolutely. I love working with friends — talented friends! I really write plays for specific people. I’ll come up with an idea, whether it’s a movie genre I want to pay homage to, or something else such as — in this case — the world of Ibsen’s plays. Really, before there’s a story I write a list of who would be fun to hang out and work with. In this cast there’s Jennifer Van Dyck, for instance — she figured out we’ve done like eight plays through 11 productions. I love being in her presence — I just adore her. And Christopher Borg, who I’ve done a number of plays with, he’s so versatile. You could just create any character and he can embody and twist himself into it.  

Then there are new people in this show — Thomas Gibson is playing my love interest. We actually did work together many years ago on the movie version of my play Psycho Beach Party, but it was shot so quickly. Now I finally get the chance to know him. Carl and I were delighted that he was so enthusiastic and wanted to join us. And Judy Kaye is an actress I’ve always admired. I can give you a list of performances I’ve seen her give that were just indelible. As I was writing her role I thought just how perfect she would be for it, and she agreed! 

For those seeking an evening of laughter but who may not be familiar with Ibsen, will their experience of the play necessarily be any different?  

CB: I try to make sure that that the actual laughs in the script are not predicated on [the audience having] previous knowledge. I think it would be kind of obnoxious if you could only enjoy the play if you know the complete works of Ibsen or anything like that. The important thing, besides the writing, is striking the right tone. 

I do worry about the title, though — if they look at it very quickly, people might think we’re doing a production of Ibsen’s Ghosts. That’s why we refer to my play as Ibsen’s Ghost — singular. And then there’s the subtitle, An Irresponsible Biographical Fantasy, which takes me off the hook, because I do play fast and loose with the facts. [Laughs.] My play really is based on footnotes from biographies of Ibsen. [Taking liberties with characters’ relationships] makes it more theatrical.  

You’ve mentioned that when you finished the run of your last play you wondered if it might be your swan song, but here you are again. 

CB: I always say that. 

Do you? 

CB: Yes — it’s scary. As you get older, it gets scarier — there’s more to worry about. You know, can you learn this whole big role? Do you have the energy to do this thing seven or eight times a week? Plus, you know, I’m a big complainer. [Laughs.] 

With my last play, The Confessions of Lily Dare, we were fortunate in that our limited engagement ended just before COVID, a week before lockdown, so we were able to finish it as we wanted it. Plus, the theater was a six-minute walk from my house! Yet I would look out the window at five o’clock and see people coming home from work and think “Oh, gosh, I’ve got to get together now, get to the theater, be in top, peak energy, and focus…” So I thought maybe it should be farewell.  

But, you know, I get new ideas! I’ll think of something really interesting, or that would be a great part to sink my teeth into, and maybe there’s new colors and challenges in acting that I can find. So here I am again! And I’ve already had thoughts [working on the new play] that this should be the end of it, but just watch — in a couple years I’ll end up having a new idea. I hope so. 

My generation of actors often hears the advice that we should create our own work, but you’re a forerunner to that train of thought. You’ve really done that through your whole career. 

CB: It’s really a self-created career. Yeah, I’ll accept that. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I mean, it wouldn’t have happened any other way, particularly not in 1976 when I got out of college. There wasn’t dramatic literature for a somewhat androgynous gay young man — there really were no roles to play. You know, this was before Torch Song Trilogy or Angels in America. It was a very difficult period for me because I just wanted to be on stage and felt there really were no roles that were right for me, no great roles in the repertoire I wanted to play. 

Fortunately, I did know — coming from New York — a different downtown with — I don’t know what term would be best to call it — avant garde theater creators, particularly Charles Ludlam and Jeff Weiss. It made me realize the theater — the theatrical experience — doesn’t have to just be Broadway musicals and comedies and dramas like the ones I grew up seeing, that there is a different way of expressing yourself.  

And I had always been writing. I was writing full-length plays at age 11. I was fortunate that I had that talent and could write roles for myself. 

I always think, “What do I have to offer?” For instance, as a cabaret entertainer — am I the world’s greatest singer? No. There are plenty of people with much more technically beautiful voices than I have. But I think my greatest gift is that I am a storyteller, and that speaks to [my work in general] whether I’m singing, literally writing an anecdote on Facebook, writing a play or [creating] visual art. I can use that same facility to make a song come alive, or in my work as a pastel artist. I think I bring a narrative quality to that work, too. 

Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy cover art
Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy

You discuss in your memoir — in delightful detail, I might add — how much of your talent emerged organically, with rich opportunities you seized that allowed you to nurture it. 

CB: Oh, well, I was so fortunate to be raised by my aunt Aunt Lillian — that’s what got it all started. She was all about encouragement. She could be tough with me in some ways, and I needed that. At 14 I was so lost in my imagination, and she [helped me to face] the real world while still absolutely encouraging my talent in any way she could, trying to help me bring things to life. She had a gift for seeing the possibilities in what she was given. Really, I think had I been obsessed with science or sports she would have thrown herself into that, but she kind of lucked out that my interests — my cultural interests — were aligned to something she could truly get excited about. 

She’s so vivid as a character in the book. 

CB: She’s kind of the lady of the leading lady of the title in some ways.  

I do think there are probably many parents who have a fantasy going into child-rearing, a fantasy of who they want that kid to be, and then when that kid is not that person, there’s conflict. And some parents, I guess, just can’t make that shift. They have a gay kid, and that wasn’t [their] fantasy. They were counting on a heterosexual child who’s going to give them grandchildren and be very butch, and the father can do sports with them and all those things. When they get a kid who’s the opposite, I guess in some cases it’s a brutal disappointment, and they can’t reverse it.  

I was lucky that with Aunt Lillian her thought was, “How do I let this kid grow, given the gifts that he has?” That helped me to find my way. 

And yet you reveal there were also some difficulties between you both as you came of age, like how she couldn’t bring herself to come see you perform in drag. 

CB: Oh, of course — there were a few ways she could disappoint me. Remember, this is a woman who was born in 1909.  

She confronted me with being gay when I was in college — it didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure it out! And it was terrible. I was so disappointed with some of her conventional, wrongheaded notions. But after the tears were shed, we never discussed it at all, she wished me well, and I went to live my very, very gay life. A couple of times I would bring a boyfriend over and she was always lovely to them. 

[You have to remember] her generation had such a distorted view of homosexuality. It made her fear that I was going to be in danger, or not loved. Like, how can you give up marriage, children, and respectability to be a pariah in society? You’re going to give up all that to have sex? That’s really how her generation thought. 

There is so much to process when it comes to parents who can’t understand us, which is so intertwined with the LGBTQ experience. 

CB: I think a part of real maturity involves not necessarily forgiving a parent’s failings but understanding them — trying to picture where they were coming from.  

After my mother died when I was eight, my aunt spent several years trying to kind of protect my sister and I from knowing just how completely irresponsible my father was. And she thought it was important that we have a strong male figure, even though he was a constant disappointment. But he was a lot of fun to be with, that was the thing, you know? But at a certain point, she found that his negligence and carelessness was actually a real danger, was jeopardizing our security, so she just suddenly dropped the mask [and let us know what she really thought of him]. It was terrible for us, but she was doing her best. 

She was also quite remarkable [in that if] she would take me to a Broadway show, where I’d love to see the big stars of the show up close — and she was a rather shy person, not a big, brassy lady — she’d get us to the stage door and talk to the stage door man and say that this young man would love to meet Vivien Leigh or Julie Harris, and the stage door man would then usher me in, but Aunt Lillian didn’t follow. She stayed outside. She didn’t push herself in, like, “oh, together we’re both going to meet this person.” She’d wait for me.  

That’s wonderful! Her courage probably paved the way for you to have the savvy to deal with all different kinds of people in the business from a very young age. The stories in the book of the luminaries you met and worked with — Claudette Colbert, Elaine Stritch, Angela Lansbury… The piece about Charles Pierce with Milton Berle and Bea Arthur is both hilarious and heartbreaking. There are so many great stories here. 

CB: [Laughs.] Again, it goes back to storytelling. While I’m experiencing it, I’m already shaping it in my head. And so sometimes I do wonder, am I, because of that, affecting the story, the actual direction of the story while I’m living it? 

I want to pay you one compliment — you dish in a sense on other celebrities like Liza [Minnelli] and Patrick Swayze in an entertaining way that reminded me a bit of Frank Langella’s memoir, but whereas his book could often be catty, yours brings us right there with your eye for detail without that kind of bluntly sharp edge.  

CB: Thank you! Yeah, I loved his book, but I know what you mean. 

It’s tricky with a memoir, because you want to be really honest. I have, thankfully, had good advice [to edit things down] because it’s easy for the teller to sound obnoxious compared to the people they’re bitching about. [Laughs.] It’s a tricky see-saw, and I just didn’t want to hurt anybody, whether it was anybody in my family or a colleague. Why would I want to do that? There are enough dishy stories to tell that are fun. And I think in my Liza experience that she comes off as sort of outrageous, but also smart and wise. Anyone [can simply add in] details to make someone appear more pathetic. 

And the world does that enough alone on its own without us having to add to that.  

CB: Right. 

The story about the YMCA, where you initially had no interest in swimming lessons, is just hilarious, as well as touching in its own way. 

CB: Oh, yes! My aunt was kind of obsessed with me learning how to swim. She was always worried that I was sort of fragile. It was a big, big thing with her — after all, my mom had died at 41. So she got me a membership to go to the Y on 63rd Street, and [I thought it would be] horrible — I could barely swim. Then I got there and discovered it was the gay, gay, gay club! [Laughs.] It’s the YMCA!

I was the only teenager there surrounded by all these very sophisticated theater queens talking about Lauren Bacall in Applause! Just who I’d want to be around and learn from. It was fabulous — the best thing that could have happened to me. I went in as this rather bloodless, anemic, fragile Oliver Twist and suddenly I was this sexy teenage boy getting [all this attention]. Suddenly I was a human being of flesh and blood 

Your coming of age. 

CB: Aunt Lil had no idea what was going on, only that I was going four days a week. She said “Well, this is a great success!” 

One thing emphatically not a success was the musical Taboo, which you worked on extensively. It’s still one of the most infamous Broadway flops in recent memory. 

CB: I was recently talking to Rosie O’Donnell about this, actually. She was the show’s sole producer and investor. And I don’t think people really, really understand her. There were [slanted] stories that turned her into clickbait when she’s so much more than that. She’s a great, great person. She really is. 

And we really were like two war veterans coming back, talking about the old days. Because a Broadway musical — the creation of a Broadway musical is like a war. 

That show was quite an ordeal for everybody involved. I learned that I will never, ever again come closer to a Broadway musical than Mezzanine Row A. You have to be a very, very strong person, health-wise and emotionally and all that. I thought I was going to have a stroke — that’s how bad it got.  

[There are other opportunities I had] to work on Broadway, where the big money is, but I thought of my health and decided not to after dealing with that. I thought, you know what? I’m fine! I like my apartment! [Laughs.

Sondheim said that the theater in general is “too insular to age well” about ten years ago, and so much has changed since then that makes me wonder if he’s right, but I’d bet anything you have a more optimistic viewpoint than that, even today. 

CB: That’s an interesting word — insular. In the sense of Broadway experiences at least, I’ve only had two — one good, one bad. But I do think that somehow we’ve all marginalized it. It used to be Broadway, you know, when I was growing up — it was a major deal nationally, with people’s dreams of being a Broadway star and what Broadway means. And, you know, I’m sort of surprised in a way that anybody watches the Tony Awards, because most times you’ve never heard of anybody who’s nominated. Sometimes it feels like the Long Island Gay Bartender’s Awards at Cherry Grove — I don’t know who any of these people are, at least not yet.   

And I wonder in a way that with all the years of gay people making all the jokes that that has helped Broadway be seen as gay, gay, gay. I think in a way that’s kind of hurt [an entry point for] the average folk, even before considering the cost of a ticket. I find it hard to believe that any theatrical experience is worth $400. 

Also — I must say — it bugs me in a way when all these people say  “I was a theater nerd” or “a theater geek.” 

I hate that, too! 

Christopher Borg is wearing a grey suit and is talking to Charles Busch who is wearing a long victorian style black dress.
Ibsen’s Ghost: An Irresponsible Biographical Fantasy: Christopher Borg & Charles Busch. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

CB: It makes it all seem like what we’re doing is just very marginalized and for our own satisfaction. And that mindset makes inroads after a while, after constant years of that.  

I mean, I think to be a theater major is cool! And daring! The idea that you’re somehow lesser for having that great interest [promotes the thought] that we’re this very marginalized group, that the only people who really can appreciate theater are gay kids and nerdy outsiders.  

However, I also think it’s wonderful that there is more diverse theater and that we have Broadway musicals now where we’re seeing transgender people winning awards and giving brilliant performances, so that part of what’s going on now is heartening, that they’re part of the fabric of Broadway. I think that’s fantastic and so important.  

Before I let you go, I wanted to hear your thoughts on the current state of drag, which is now entrenched in the mainstream. You’re a forerunner to the likes of Coco Peru, and she herself is a legend. Then there are newer drag stars who can fill huge concert halls like Jinkx Monsoon, and she always sings your praises as well. You can credibly be seen as more of an actress than a drag queen, yet it can’t be denied that you’re integral to the shaping of the drag world as we now know it. 

CB: I’m touched and very, very pleased when I see interviews like one where Bianca Del Rio talked about me — I think I read somewhere that the first play or the first time she ever did drag was a production of Psycho Beach Party.  

Wow! There you go! I love that. 

CB: I love being part of that, playing some part in their memory. 

You know, with drag there are so many tributaries, so many means of expression. For me, my career has really been in the theater, with my cabaret stuff as sort of an adjunct part of my life where I’m known as an actor/playwright — that’s really what I do. I’ve never done a lip-sync thing in a club, but really, we’re all part of the same tapestry of drag. And I love being accepted by both worlds, by the theater community and the drag community.  

It’s funny — when I’m not mentioned in some overview of drag, my feelings are hurt, and at the same time, I don’t really like to be called a drag queen — it somehow doesn’t [encapsulate all I do]. There used to be this sense that it was dismissing you a bit, although not as much today. 

And we see drag queens who are like Coco Peru, who wouldn’t really fit the mold of [RuPaul’s] Drag Race, the mold of that world. I can’t think of any of the really great drag personalities of my generation or the next one, like Coco’s, who would do well on drag competitions at all. You know, I sure wouldn’t want to see Coco Peru trying to do a death drop. 

I don’t think she’d like to do it, either.  

CB: Yeah, we’d all be kicked off in the first week.  

And what a mistake that would be!  

CB: But I get it. The thing is, with a competition, you have to have parameters — otherwise, what basis do you have to judge? You’ve got to sort of figure out what you’re all competing to do. 

I certainly wouldn’t win a lip-sync for your life! I am the worst lip-syncer in the world! The only time I had to do it was when I was looping dialogue for my movie Die, Mommy, Die! It amuses me when sometimes people say, “Oh, it’s so brilliant how when you lip-synced there you were just slightly off! That must have been hard to do!” I just go “Oh, yeah, I intended that completely…” [Laughs.] 

Well, fortunately, you’re one hundred percent live in your new play — no lip-syncing necessary. Thank you for your time, and break legs both here in New Jersey — and in New York! 

CB: I had a wonderful time! Thank you. 

Read Allen Neuner’s review of the world premier production of Ibsen’s Ghost at George Street Playhouse.

Support our business partners