Shes been called irrepressible, outrageous, fascinating, and extraordinary. Shes been the subject of two novels, a nonfiction book, a play, a musical, and two movies. Shes been played by Rosalind Russell, Angela Lansbury, Lucille Ball, Greer Garson, Ginger Rogers, Ann Miller, Eve Arden, Elaine Stritch, Susan Hayward, and yes, even Morgan Brittany. Shes Mame, of course, the worlds favorite aunt. And on August 1 die-hard Mame lovers will have a tough choice to make. On the East Coast, at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, N.Y., playwright and gender-bending actor Charles Busch will be playing his closing night performance in Lawrence and Lees Auntie Mame after a summer mini-tour. Meanwhile, across the country, at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, Michele Lee will be tooting Mames trumpet in Jerry Herman's musical of the play. Now, before one begins to imagine the catfight that would ensue if these two Mames were locked in a room together, it bears noting that Busch and Lee adore each other. They became close during Lees long run (both on Broadway and in Los Angeles) in Buschs play The Tale of the Allergists Wife. That being the case, both were willing to spend some time talking to Out about playing Mame. Busch had just opened in Ogunquit, Maine. Lee, on the other hand, had just started rehearsals.
Out: Charles, have you been having fun doing the show?
Busch: Fun? Its already turned into anecdotes. Im sure it will be fun in retrospect, but it hasnt been even slightly fun. Its been very Noises Off. We had, like, two days to put it all together up here [after rehearsals in New York], and the truck with the scenery broke down, so we lost a day. The crew is all teenage girls. So its been nutty. We never got through the whole show as far as a tech rehearsal, so we were just kinda winging it on opening night. The girls just sort of got the set in place, but they forgot to put the props on stage. Classic summer theater. Thank God theres not a pill in the group, because it would have been just hideous if anyone started acting up.
Out: Wow. What about you, Michele? You must be excited. This is your first book musical since Seesaw [in 1973], isnt it?
Lee: Oh, God. I guess I dont think of it that way. Thats so funny. When I do songs from a musical [out of context], which I have been doing for the last three or four years, the way that I present my quote-unquote pieces is as an actor. I sing the play, if you will. And so my hesitance to your question was like, Well, I just did this or that, but then I realize that I only did two or three songs! So, yeah, its been since Seesaw.
Busch: Boy, I wish I could see that. Shes gonna sing the hell out of it. I am so thrilled for her. I Just love her. Her voice is in remarkable shape! It may be the fact that she has hardly sung at all for the past 30 years, so she hasnt strained it. Her voice is an amazing Broadway sound, which no one is capable of doing anymore. Its frustrating for those of us who admire her; we all want to hear her do a big Broadway show and belt out one number after another. The score is just perfect for her voice. And shell look fabulous!
Lee: Well, I know that Charles will be much more the lady than me!
Out: Michele, a lot of people dont even realize that before Knots Landing, you came from musical theater.
Lee: A lot of people watched Knots Landing and were too young to know the musical theater. And there are all of these young people who come up to me now and have just started getting hooked on the show from SoapNet. But they dont know the musicals. And not just the musical theater; I did so many television specials, and I recorded with so many people.
Out: I actually remember seeing you sing on a whole lot of TV specials in the 80s. I particularly remember Night of 100 Stars, where you did that song with Pam Dawber, Gavin MacLeod, Nancy Dussault, Hal Linden, and John Schneider, who you get to work with again now in Mame.
Lee: Yeah! I had forgotten we had done that! I havent worked with him [on this] yet. He doesnt come in until tomorrow.
Out: You have some other great people too. Christine Ebersole as Vera is an inspired choice.
Lee: I love her. Shes very sweet. Its been really fun. And Allyce Beasley as Gooch! Wait until you see her. She is Gooch. She is amazing. What a lady. Its an incredible cast. Were going to have a lot of fun.
Out: And Charles, your Vera is no slouch either.
Busch: Penny Fuller! Were actually sharing dressing rooms. Shes such a worldly woman. I just adore her. I find her endlessly fascinating. Ive always been a frustrated interviewer, so pity the poor actress who shares a dressing room with me! Shes been asked about every man shes ever been to bed with. And stories about Applause [in which Fuller played Eve Harrington opposite Lauren Bacall], those alone!
Out: Lets talk about the role of Mame. Michele, I know youve only been in rehearsals for a little while, but so far, whats your take?
Lee: Oh, gosh, its a wonderful role for me. There are a few roles that I think the meshing of what I bring, of my own persona, and the character that the playwright envisioned, is perfect. [Rose in] Gypsy is another one. [Gittel in] Seesaw, major. The roles are different in some ways, but there is a thread of a hidden vulnerability. With Mame, the character herself is very out there. You know who she is. She opens her mouth and tells you what she thinks. You look at the other two ladies and they do the same thing. That is the element that links them together. The Mame that Im trying to find is more vulnerable than some people have played her. I believe that under her skin there have to be the remnants of whatever happened to her in her family and why she is the black sheep, why she lives her life the way she does, enjoying every minute and screw you if you dont like it. Thats basically it. Shes at all times a lady and certainly speaks her mind. A feminist, if you will, long before her time. She didnt live by convention. She just did what she thought was right. Although she could be caustic at times, there was a real warmth to her and a real likability.
Out: What about you, Charles? Obviously youve had a little more time with the role.
Busch: I think that Auntie Mame really is the King Lear for wacky, aging comedians! Its Mount Everest. It doesnt get better than this. Ive been flirting with the part for years, and Ive done a series of elaborately staged readings for AIDS charities. But I never did a full production. We would just do one night, holding the books. I always wanted to do a full production and get it out of my system. Well, Ill be getting it out after this!
Out: And Michele, you only get one night!
Lee: I know! On Broadway you have a whole slew of previews before opening night, but here, this is it!
Out: Would you want to do an extended run if you could?
Lee: Oh, I would love to do this role. Its very wonderful for me. And vice versa, I think. So Id love to do a long run. I love the theater, and I love New York. I have an apartment there, and I live there probably one third of the time. Im actually moving from the east side to the west. Im moving into Lucie Arnazs building.
Out: Charles, didnt Lucie Arnaz play Sally Cato in one of your Auntie Mame staged readings?
Busch: She was really great and so good-natured. I walked up to her on the first day of rehearsal and said, I would have thought that Mame was a dirty word in your family!
Out: Yeah, it wasnt Lucille Balls best role. Since you've been playing Mame for a while now, do you have any advice for Michele?
Busch: Watch out for your Patrick! The child! I dont know what happened. I mean, he was talented in rehearsal, but suddenly [now that there's an audience] hes giving a performance. Penny Fuller may have played Eve Harrington, but I think the child is Eve Harrington. God, I never saw so many teeth and eyes flashing! At one point he wipes the stage with me!
Out: Somehow I think you hold your own.
Busch: [Laughing] I dont know, he was doing all sorts of things. Someones got to tie a tin can to that broads tail.
Out: Any other wisdom for Michele?
Busch: Well, the challenges I faced wont be challenges shell face. I dont think shell be as obsessed with Rosalind Russells performance as I have been. She wont have that problem. Michele, like me, loves going to that serious place. I just love the dramatic moments of everything that I do. All my shows have moments of genuine feeling. I love getting serious, and I know that she loves moments of deep feelings too.
Lee: I like to explore. Sometimes these threads and through-lines in a musical are very thin. And so I feel its one of my duties to find it and explore.
Out: Rosalind Russell said about Mame, Like all great characters in comic literature, she has declared open war on sham and pretense. She has a needle to prick every stuffed shirt and lay bare the hypocrisies of the right and the snobbish, the privileged and the prejudiced of this world.
Lee: Thats it. I think that it touches on what I brought up about her original family and growing up the black sheep. Theres where it starts. The part of her that rebels against pretense and ultimately injustice is what makes this play today as relevant as it was when it was originally done.
Busch: Starring in a big musical like Mame must really be something. They did a masterful job of editing the book down to make room for the score. I miss a lot of stuff from the play. But there are a lot of times in the play where it feels so natural to break into song!
Lee: The music, I dont have to say, its just one hit after the other, and its so nice to do a musical where everything is just so wonderfully woven into the story. The music is very difficult. Much more difficult than one would think.
Out: And its a marathon. There are, like, 11 songs for her!
Lee: I met with Jerry Herman before I started rehearsals. I wanted to get into his brain in terms of what he was thinking and what the character was thinking in each of the songs. It was really very gratifying for me as an actor to listen to the man who invented all that music.
Out: And its no easier for you, Charles. Mame is in every scene.
Busch: You know, whenever I worry about having the stamina to pull the thing off, I think of all of the postmenopausal, chain-smoking dames who played this part over the past 50 years, who in those days didnt have one bit of bone density left or a single hormone in them. And they somehow got through it!