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Charles Busch on Whether Madonna Might Be the New Joan Crawford

Charles Busch Live at Feinstein's/54 Below

If anyone embodies a positive definition of the word “diva,” it’s Charles Busch. From his divinely campy Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, the avant-garde 1984 play he starred in, to his crackling, funny Broadway writing debut, the neurotic fest Tale of the Allergist’s Wife in 2000, the actor/author/cabaret performer has helped legitimize grand gestures, witty utterances and deadpan comebacks. Other credits include Psycho Beach Party, rewriting Taboo, the story of Boy George, and The Divine Sister. 

Now, he just happens to be a recording star on top of all of that, so Ariana Grande had better keep her pony tight. Charles Busch LIVE at Feinstein’s/54 Below has been released, and the diva’s fans can catch his witty whimsy in a whole new arena. I talked to Busch on the phone about his fancy new status.

Hello, dahling.

Hello. I’m channeling [late, great actress] Marian Seldes and am talking very quietly. Like many people with encounters with the celebrated, I saved their messages on my voicemail. She spoke in lethal, sepulchral tones.  

Marian once told me she wanted to reach inside my head. There was certainly plenty of room there.

I have one from Barbara Cook, where every other word is “fuck,” and one from Joan Rivers,  real sweet. 

Speaking of immortal recordings, so you’re a recording star now, right?

I’m the latest artist on the Broadway Records label. I signed with great fanfare. My first CD dropped this month. I keep waiting for them to announce which song will be the 45. I want a 45 with an A and a B side. I want to be on jukeboxes around the country. I like to keep up with the latest technology trends.

Is the CD based on a compilation of performances?

We recorded two live performances last June. I thought it very Streisand-like in taking a phrase from this night and a phrase from that night, but it was very clear the first night was the best, though there was one place where I told some inane shaggy dog tale from the first night that we cut out. I was dubious, skeptical about doing a record at all, and I was afraid that just hearing me may not be what one would want on a long car ride. I was thinking not to do it, but then I had played the tracks to a number of friends who are severe critics who don’t have much good to say about anybody. I felt, “My instinct is not to do it, so you’re not hurting my feelings,” but they were really encouraging. And the more I listen to it, the more I like it. The last five years began this latest incarnation as an international chanteuse. I come to these songs as an actor, and I think it really comes off on the CD.

Do you long to be so famous that the Internet crashes with your every red carpet appearance?

I just keep waiting and waiting to hear if the record’s gone platinum. I would be very pleased if we sold five more CDs than the others at the Leather Man on Christopher Street. Where do they sell cabaret CDs these days? Don’t they have a stack at the Leather Man? Me and Christine Ebersole, we’re neck and neck.

At Pleasure Chest too, in the back. When you do your cabaret act, what is your personal relationship with drag?

It’s a weird fucking act. My act is odd because I don’t really have a drag persona except when I’m in a play or a movie and playing a character. In cabaret, it’s odd because they introduce me as Charles Busch, and I come onstage looking like a rather weathered Tina Louise and I proceed to tell true stories about my experiences and sing Sondheim and Jerome Kern.

Does drag help you tap into your humor?

No, it really doesn’t. I could do the exact same show out of drag, and I’m thinking it might be interesting to de-drag in my act and see how it makes me feel. When I appear at benefits and sing one song, or recently, on a Playbill theater cruise to Sicily, I performed as myself, and it felt great. I never talk about drag or that I’m in drag. Without really trying, my act sort of evokes the tradition of what I call the lady of the mic—Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Dolores Gray--the idea of the glamorous nightclub singer. It would be a little challenging if I indeed take the drag out.

I like the way you’re thinking through your future career directions aloud. Who, as women, have inspired you as an artist? God, I hate that word. Not “women,” but “artist.”

In my plays, I’ve been very influenced by the great icons of the ‘30s and ‘40s. There are elements of Roz Russell, Bette Davis, Norma Shearer, Greer Garson. I always tend to be kind of a great lady. Often in my plays, I’ve played a dame who has a shady past and has elevated herself to being a great lady. In Shanghai Moon, I played a carnie girl who’s an assistant to a geek in a side show. When you see her, she’s married to a British nobleman. There’s usually a key point where I stand slightly left of center and start a monologue saying, “Let me tell you a little story.” That’s usually around Act One, scene three.

I still say you’d be great in a stage adaptation of The Naked Kiss, Samuel Fuller’s 1960s’s noir about a bald prostie on the lam working as a musical nurse for children.

I’ll see if I can option it. I’m sure Cate Blanchett has got her nails into it.

Ideas I offer performers don’t always work out, though, so be warned.

I’m often stopped on the street and people suggest movies I should spoof. I’ve never really done, in all the many genre parodies, a specific movie--it’s always a genre or even sub genre. Old hag suspense movies from the ‘60s. Oriental pre-code melodramas. Anti Nazi movies from the ‘40s. Rather than do Mildred Pierce, it would be womens’ suspense movies from the 40s.

Or Sudden Fear!

How nice that Joan Crawford is getting nice reviews for her acting and not just child abusing. It’s refreshing. One of the pleasant surprises of 2016 was that Joan’s acting was being reassessed in a positive way.

I love how, to you, a mention on TCM about Joan’s acting means her body of work is being reassessed. You probably get your headline news from The Daily Show. [We laugh.] Was she ever assessed in the first place?

I think she was always dismissed a bit as a glamorous movie star, while Bette Davis was always the actress, and there’s a truth to it, but when Crawford got a real chance with a decent script and director, she was so ambitious, she always rose to the occasion. I‘d only seen Sudden Fear once before. It really called on her strength. She has this ability to embody an emotion. She’s not a complicated actress who can play five things at once, but when she plays fear, she’s like fear incarnate.

Maybe Madonna should remake that movie, She can play fear. And there are Crawford parallels. In a way, Sean Penn was the new Franchot Tone.

Is there any way they can put her across as an actress?

I do think so.

If she doesn’t open her mouth.

Even if she does. I liked her in parts of Swept Away.

I liked her in A League of Their Own. I wonder if they can take that honest, fun, gritty side of her and make that the center of a movie. Maybe in 2020, the big news item will be Madonna is rediscovered as a great film actress.

I love that she has to wait four years.

Well, I don’t think it’s happening in 2017.

Happy new year, dahling.

IF YOU CAN MAKE IT THERE…

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LGBT NYC is uncovered and not swept away at the Gay Gotham exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, where the two-floor showing of photos and information illuminates and entertains. Among the artists represented (and discussed) are Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, Greer Lankton, Nan Goldin, Bill T. Jones and Mercedes De Acosta (an author and liberated woman). Along the way, there are fascinating glimpses of voguers (Willi Ninja), doorpoeple (Haoui Montaug), lesbian hangouts (Clit Club), and topics like Cruising, Posing, Printing (old Christopher Street magazines are on display), and the work of erotic photographer George Platt Lynes. Mostly, I appreciated learning that in the early 20th Century, gays migrated to neighborhoods with affordable, furnished housing for single people and found that these nabes were safe places to “put their gender and sexuality on display.” Among them were the Village and Harlem, whereas today, of course, it’s all about HK, especially with G Lounge—one of the last remaining Chelsea gay bars—having just shuttered its gay doors. I might still hang out in Chelsea, though--just to prove I’m not a gay sheep and also because the competition is way less fierce these days.

BOY MEETS WORLD

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On Broadway, Dear Evan Hansen is creaming the competition, proving to be a thrillingly moving experience about the power of words, lies and delusions as they usher us into acceptance, but at what price? Evan is a fast-talking, sweaty-palmed, insecure high school kid who writes a pained letter to himself, which is then mistaken to be the suicide note of a fellow student—the unhinged bully Connor—when it’s found on Connor’s dead body. To appease Connor’s parents, who're looking for any comforting answers about their son, Evan goes along with this scenario, pretending he and Connor were close friends, as the folks glow, Connor’s sister romantically acquiesces and the entire student body becomes fascinated with Evan, whom they’d previously rendered invisible. Evan even pays a family friend to write and backdate email exchanges between himself and Connor, making sure to cut anything that might make them seem too close; they were just friends, after all, not gay lovers.

The resulting musical, with a book by Steven Levenson and a set consisting of emails and other communications, is a rivetingly dramatic study in ethics—at least until the somewhat pat ending—and it’s blessed with a rich, feeling score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (A Christmas Story: The Musical, La La Land), which is easily their most mature and affecting work to date. Michael Greif (Rent) directs persuasively, and it helps that—as in Waitress, where Tony winner Jesse Mueller sings Sara Bareilles’ pop/rock score—the voices we hear here aren’t Broadway-tinged, but radio friendly. It’s also a plus that the high school milieu is more suggested than recreated; most shows that try to reproduce classroom ambience fail miserably.

In the cast, Mike Faist and Will Roland are terrific as the suicidal bully and the sneaky family friend, who both play big roles in Evan’s self-advancement. Jennifer Laura Thompson, Michael Park and Laura Dreyfuss shine as the bully’s family members, all striving to be validated after his death. Rachel Bay Jones is superb as Evan’s mom, proving both believable and touching as a woman struggling to pierce through her son’s evasions and find some connection with him. And in the title role, Ben Platt is a revelation, giving a star-making, richly sung performance that takes us from Evan’s anguish to his awkward ascent and back again. Dear Evan Hansen: you rock.

A LOVELY “PRESENT” FROM CATE BLANCHETT

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Another theatrical event is The Present by Andrew Upton “after Chekhov’s first play, Platonov,” and starring Upton’s wife, Cate Blanchett, in her Broadway debut. Chekhov’s play was discovered after his death, and here, Upton updates it to a 1990s country house full of regret, passion, and unfinished business. It’s a wild and woolly Chekhovian comedy, which grows darker in a second act populated by endless smoke and burning psyches. Blanchett acts the part of the widow Anna with a full-throttle theatricalism that’s vastly enjoyable, especially as she toys with a pistol, a rifle, and a detonator, while demanding the group play “Truth or Dare” and announcing, “Life makes us all craven. Have we no shame? Is there nothing we won’t do?” Richard Roxburgh matches her as the cutting Platonov, and with its inventive approach, this turns out to be the snob hit of the year, while also proving wildly accessible, especially when Blanchett and company launch into sexy and silly dancing moves to Tears For Fears. Chekhov must be rolling…with laughter. And Blanchett? What a diva.

A LION IN WINTER

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Lion is an Oscar contender about the real story of an Indian boy who becomes separated from his family and spends his adult life using Google Maps to try to reconnect with them. Dev Patel is strong as the grown guy, and Nicole Kidman shines as the Australian woman who lovingly adopts him along the way. At a Monkey Bar event for the trippy and ultimately moving film, hosted by the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, Kidman said she initially liked the script, not knowing it was a true story. She was then told that the Australian woman, Sue Brierley, wanted Kidman to play her, so she sent a friend to meet with her (“I didn’t want Sue to close up”), later spending time with Sue herself, chatting about everything in Nicole’s Sydney home. They became friends, she said; “Sue will stay in my life forever.”

Patel, who’s British born, of Indian descent, said he grew up shunning his Indian roots “because I wanted to fit in.” But with Slumdog Millionaire, “all those preconceived conceptions I had as a child were completely dispersed.” He’s now doing his fifth film in India and happy about it.

Patel also revealed that roles are hard to come by for him, unless it’s something like playing a goofy best friend, so he went after the Lion part with aggression. “My resume worked against me,” he said. “‘He’s the dude from Slumdog.’ I ended up knocking on the writer’s door and persuading him otherwise.” He probably used Google Maps to find him.

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