The American Songbook Association Sunday Sessions: Charles Busch

Director of ASA Education and Outreach Carolyn Montgomery interviewed and offered video clips of Actor/Playwright/Author/Producer/Drag Legend Charles Busch with whom she shared the screen. Busch is a two-time MAC Award winner, Tony Award nominee and recipient of a Drama Desk Lifetime Achievement Award.

When Montgomery opens by asking Busch how he’s doing, he hesitates for just a moment before answering – with perhaps a touch of guilt, “I’m kind of having a wonderful time.” Not only has the multi-talented artist just finished a memoir (now being shopped), but with Carl Andress, he’s managed to shoot and complete a film! (The Sixth Reel, featuring Julie Halston and Margaret Cho.)

“We followed very strict SAG protocols at studios in Fishkill, New York, and a few locations in the city. The cast was in a bubble; tested every three days.” Busch describes the test method as being “sensuous,” as opposed to the long straw down one’s nose about which we hear. Out of 80 cast and crew, not a person got sick!

CM: “Your sheer number of plays and performance begs the question, do you work all the time or are you fast?”

CB: I’m fast. (He pauses.) I’m disciplined. I wanted to be on the stage from the beginning, but despite a love of old film heroines, I wasn’t raised to be a fantasy queen. I’m very pragmatic. As a theater major at Northwestern, I never got cast. I played an important mind game asking myself what I have to offer. It put a positive spin on things. I didn’t figure out I could write roles for myself till the age of 19…I’m lucky that in an over 45 year career, I’ve almost never written completely on spec. Sometimes I book a theater with which I have a relationship and then write. I star, but I always have a director. I think I’m a participant and a witness.”

CM: “In cabaret, I talk to my students about the power of lyrics. When you choose music for cabaret, is it lyric first? Busch responds that he’s a storyteller. One infers the answer is “yes.”

We then watch a clip of his show The Lady at the Mic from Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series. Busch sings “Bill” (Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II). The lady is daunted, pleased, hopeful. It’s moving. See for yourself on YouTube.

The host expresses admiration for Busch’s women, but says a lot of her feminist friends are offended by drag because it’s caricature. Busch acknowledges the point, but notes that only some drag performers come off as “sexual outlaws/vulgar bitches.” “I find it hard to believe that any drag performer would struggle to achieve a career based on hate.” His femmes fatales may be stylized, but they’re always palpably human.

CM: “I want to ask you about your process putting together a cabaret show.”

CB: “When I did cabaret in the early 90s, I thought an audience wanted me to be campy and funny, but then I decided to just be a singer. For that clip, I made the drastic decision to take some singing lessons and you know, they work!” (He grins.) The performer collaborates with MD/pianist Tom Judson, who he affectionately cites as “something of a martinet,” bringing out the best in him.

We’re then treated to a video of “Whistling in the Dark” (Henry Mancini/ Johnny Mercer) from a show at 54Below. The artist wears a feminine, bespoke suit – no drag. Phrasing is conversational, performance intimate, touching, and feather light. “Tell me dreams come true,” he sings, voice quivering. Whether the source is physical or emotional doesn’t matter. It works.

Montgomery compliments the suit. Busch says he no longer feels compelled to dress as a woman. “I have an androgynous nature and go between both sexes freely…In theater, I’m more comfortable as female. In cabaret, I’m more comfortable out of drag. It was Salome’s final veil. I think I sing a little better out of drag, perhaps thinning my voice to sound more feminine. Also, in cabaret, the more authentic you are, the better. I’d say you have to be 98 percent real with a two percent lift for performance.

Audience Question: What were you like when you were 13?

Busch had a rough childhood. There was probably bullying. His mother died when he was seven. The boy withdrew into himself and came close to flunking out of school. “I had all these psychosomatic illnesses, carried around a nasal inhaler, and was popping Tums.” Aunt Lillian Blum adopted and brought him to Manhattan from Hartsdale, New York. “She devoted herself to my reclamation and tutored me. I grew out of it at 15. One hundred years later, I was talking to a shrink and discovered I’d been depressed from about seven to fifteen years old.”

Audience Question: What do you do for fun?

This one catches Busch short. He has to think about it. The impression is what he does for a living qualifies. Also “I’m a gifted amateur artist. In fact, my main job in my 20s to support theater was as a quick sketch artist on the streets.”

CM: I think it’s important for students to know you have to get out and try things.”

CB: “I’ll attempt anything. There are geniuses like Barbra Streisand for whom it’s all there quite young, but for most of us, it’s a process of learning who you are.

Audience Question: What books do you read?

CB: “Biographies, mostly show biz. I’m not terribly intellectual. I watch low brow TV. I haven’t missed a single episode of Survivor.

We close with another clip from the American Songbook show. Paul Williams’ “The Rainbow Connection” is delicate, charming, poignant. Busch makes it personal.

Coming Up: 11/29 @ 4 p.m. What Good is Sitting Alone in Your Zoom? Interviews with the hosts of Open Mic Events in four cities.” 12/6 @ 4 p.m. interview of television personality and author Bill Boggs.

The ASA Education Department is moving online with its own YouTube channel (address TBA) for music enthusiasts and learners of all ages. Included are videos of brilliant performers, presenting a variety of American music from Jazz to Musical Theater to Classic Standards. Each day’s offering  will have historical fun facts and a little bit of information about the composer, lyricist and performer. Later in April, our subscribers can participate in on line quizzes, have access to more content, a chance to win a recording of their favorite performers or tickets to shows! It’s free for anyone to subscribe. Stay tuned for more information. 

Photo Courtesy of American Songbook

About Alix Cohen (1080 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.