"Bring some valium," Charles Busch (S76) tells a visitor, scheduled to meet him a few hours after the 2001 Tony Award nominations are to be announced. His hit Broadway comedy, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, is a frontrunner.
He should have asked for champagne.
"You can't take anything for granted," Busch says later in his tiny Greenwich Village apartment shortly after learning Allergist's Wife had nailed a nomination in the Best Play category, along with works by three play-writing powerhouses: brainy British author Tom Stoppard for The Invention of Love, August Wilson for King Hedley II and David Auburn for the Pulitzer Prizewinning Proof.
A few weeks later Proof won the Tony, but the Best Play nomination was still a magnificent milestone for the tenacious Busch, whose career may be the quirkiest of all four Best Play nominees. He is, after all, the only one (as far as can be determined) who has a closet full of gorgeous gowns, wigs and high heels he has worn onstage, and an Al Hirschfeld caricature on his wall of himself in a flamboyantly vampy long dress.
Busch is, as many New York critics have noted, a mightily talented gender-bending performer who wrote and starred (in drag) in such outrageously funny '80s' Off-Broadway hits as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and Psycho Beach Party.
He appears in a film version of that surfer movie spoof, which was released last year and is now available on video, as the no-nonsense Captain Monica Stark, a Los Angeles police detective with perky hair and great legs.
But Busch is also a highly prolific writer and a master of comic dialogue who had audiences roaring and New York's theatrical kingpins raving when Allergist's Wife, which stars Valerie Harper, Tony Roberts (S61), and Michele Lee, opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club in February 2000. (It moved to Broadway last November. Linda Lavin originated the lead role and was in the cast until July.)
The New York Times' Ben Brantley said the play, about an intellectually frustrated New York matron, "earns its wall-to-wall laughs." Composer Stephen Sondheim gushed that it may be "the funniest evening I've ever had in the theater." New York Magazine's often acerbic John Simon called the play "an intelligently funny, satirically relevant uptown comedy."
Though many critics expressed surprise that Busch had "gone mainstream," former New York Times drama critic Frank Rich is matter-of-fact about Busch's professional path. "It has been wonderful to watch his career catch up to his talent," Rich says. "It shows that somebody who is gifted and really works hard and hangs in there over a period of time can sometimes triumph over a system in the theater that makes it very difficult for an original artist to flourish."
Talking in his studio apartment (with pillow-strewn bed in the living area, on-the-blink stove in his nook of a kitchen and laptop in the hall), Busch says his stunning success has at times seemed daunting. "It was hard to find seats at the first previews of The Allergist's Wife on Broadway because it was selling out. One night the only seat I could get was in one of the boxes on the side. I felt sort of exposed, and I could see all the faces below. To hear that roar of laughter was so thrilling, but at the same time, I was going all fetal, just to think I had inspired that huge response."
An affable, unaffected fellow who can, in a heartbeat, turn into a teasingly haughty "grande dame" by arching both back and eyebrows, Busch fell in love with the theater at an age when most kids are still glued to cartoons. "I had the most overbaked romantic sensibility by the age of 7," he says, recalling that his father, an aspiring opera singer who owned a record store, took him to see Joan Sutherland in Bellini's La Sonnambula at the Metropolitan Opera House, where the boy swooned over the diva.
Watching The Million Dollar Movie on television, he connected with "embattled, long-suffering women" played by Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Ida Lupino and other 1940s' stars whose tough-talking characters have inspired many of the female roles he has written and played. His mother, always in fragile health, died when he was 7, and he later moved from his family home in suburban New York City to Manhattan, where he lived with his Aunt Lillian. She sent him to the High School of Music and Art and to acting camps during summer vacations. "It was like summer stock. You'd do 30 plays in eight weeks," he says.
As a student at Northwestern, Busch was determined to "really be a part of the theater department," but couldn't get cast. "I was too thin and too gay and just too weird," recalls the playwright. At the same time, "I was finally becoming a me that I really liked and that I thought was kind of fabulous, so I didn't want to immerse myself in another character. I didn't want to play Biff in Death of a Salesman." But he did play Cleopatra in a Shakespeare class. "I could throw myself into that," he says.
"By senior year, I was clueing in that maybe the answer for me was to create roles for myself, that I was going to have to create a new kind of career." That year he wrote a play called Sister Act, starring himself and his roommate, Ed Taussig (S76), as Siamese twin showgirls, Hester and Esther, who were part of a traveling freak show. "It was a hilarious comedy about all these misfits," says David Downs, associate professor of theater and Busch's primary acting teacher at Northwestern for three years.
A week or so before the midnight performance of Sister Act at Norris University Center, "a young man from the Daily Northwestern interviewed us," says Busch. "I wasn't getting much of a rise out of him so I tried to make it sound kind of racy. The day of the show, on the front page of the Daily Northwestern, there was this big picture of Ed and me in drag with the headline, 'Degeneracy Reigns at Midnight Madness.' We sold out."
After graduating Busch snagged a few roles in Chicago and continued to write, working on a one-man show called Hollywood Confidential. He moved back to New York but traveled around the country performing solo, doing that show and others he had written that "were kind of like screenplays, where I would have to be six different people, doing dialogue back and forth. I learned a lot about playwriting because the audience had to be very clear on who was speaking and where I was and what time had passed."
When Hollywood Confidential got panned in Chicago, Busch was both devastated and ecstatic. "I read the reviews, and I started shaking. You couldn't believe these homophobic, awful things they were saying, and yet I was kind of enraptured by the fact that [the critics] took my show seriously enough to want to destroy me. Nobody ever cared that much before."
Between gigs as a solo performer, Busch took a variety of part-time jobs to supplement his actor's income. "I never took a full-time job because I was afraid it would kill my ambition." A talented artist, he did quick-sketch portraits during the summer months that brought in a hefty nest egg. He also tried cleaning apartments, "which was a joke, because I didn't know how to clean my own apartment," Busch says. "I would sort of talk to these old ladies and look at their photo albums, keeping them company for an hour."
By 1984, he says, "I was just doing the act, having a hard time, and it was clear I wasn't going to get on Saturday Night Live. The calendar was empty, and I was shaking the pennies out of my cuffs."
At loose ends late one night, he and his roommate, Kenneth Elliott (S77, GS78), who had been directing his act, went to an East Village club called the Limbo Lounge to see a friend perform. "She was this very strange Pakistani performance artist who did a weird piece where she recited the names of designer perfumes. It was a funky sort of gay-punk-art gallery-performance space, and I was just enraptured by the whole decadent, '20s' Berlin quality about it."
Busch asked for a booking and got one for a few weeks later. What the Limbo Lounge audience would want, he figured, would be "something campy, something sexy and something not too long, because you're standing up holding a beer. You don't want to see The Three Sisters."
In a day and a half he wrote "this silly little piece" about two rival vamps, set in ancient Sodom and Gomorrah ("the twin cities"), in 1920s' Hollywood and in contemporary Las Vegas. He called "a group of different friends of mine who were sort of unemployable but would work for free, and we all clicked." The group became known as Theater-in-Limbo. His loosely plotted Vampire Lesbians of Sodom became a cult hit at the Limbo Lounge and later transferred to Provincetown Playhouse, also in the Village, where it ran for five years.
On opening night in 1985, the New York Times gave the show "an incredible rave review," says Busch. "Every one of us got a mention. I went into my dressing room and closed the door and just sobbed because I knew then that I would actually be able to earn my living in the theater."
After Vampire moved to its Off-Broadway venue, Busch wrote a surfer movie spoof for his Theater-in-Limbo company, originally conceived as Gidget Goes Psycho but retitled Psycho Beach Party. The group began performing it as a late show at the Limbo Lounge, with Busch in the lead role as Chicklet, a teen beach bunny.
"It was insane, just exhausting," he says. "We'd do two [Vampire] shows on Saturday night, then there would be a van waiting for us, and we'd rush out in our wig caps, get in the van, and the Limbo Lounge audience would be waiting outside on Avenue C. They'd applaud as we entered the theater."
Busch kept writing plays for Theater-in-Limbo, including Red Scare on Sunset and The Lady in Question, both of which had Off-Broadway runs. Frank Rich called Busch "hilarious company" in his review of The Lady in Question, a satire of 1940s' Hollywood melodramas in which Busch played concert pianist Gertrude Garnet. Rich added, "That the lady in question is a man soon becomes beside the point. What matters here is that the performer in question is a star."
With several successes for his theater company under his belt, Busch decided in 1991 to tackle several new kinds of writing projects. He wrote a play, You Should Be So Lucky, with himself as the lead male, "but I didn't like the part I played." He tried "doing drag in the context of a drama instead of a spoof." The play, Queen Amarantha, was "very ambitious, exploring the idea of gender roles. But the critics hated that one."
He started to become frustrated. "I felt like the critics were keeping me in a very tight box that I couldn't really breathe in. I was thinking: Do I have to just do drag spoofs? Is that the only thing I'm good for? But then I realized there was actually a lot more room in that box than I thought."
At this point two things happened that paved the way for Allergist's Wife. First Busch wrote and performed a solo show for the WPA Theatre in 1997 called Flipping My Wig. In one sketch he played Miriam Passman, a "raging upper West Side Jewish housewife whose children are grown and who is finally expressing herself doing a cabaret act in the Village that is a tribute to Edith Piaf. It is a very funny little piece, and I thought, she is such a full, rich character that I should write a play around her, but it was sort of on the back burner."
Also around the same time he wrote the book for The Green Heart, a musical produced at the Manhattan Theatre Club. The show flopped, but the theater's artistic director, Lynne Meadow, said she would produce his next play.
"I had to write something, but I didn't think I should hit her with a big drag vehicle for myself, so I thought, maybe this is a great time to write the Miriam Passman play."
He worked on it for more than a year, starting with about 60 pages of notes with bits of dialogue from his own family and changing the main character's name to Marjorie Taub. "Marjorie was inspired by Miriam they're like sisters but they really are different characters," Busch says. "Miriam is much more narcissistic than Marjorie, and pragmatically I wanted to separate Miriam, the character I played in my act, from Marjorie, whom I would never play." He also did a lot of reading because Marjorie is "very intellectually striving and a great devotee of German fiction."
Veteran Broadway comedian Linda Lavin agreed to play the lead role after Busch doggedly pursued her (see story on page 28). His unwillingness to give up on bookings, on writing projects, on actors is a key to his success, says David Downs.
"He has had the ability to just keep working and learning and getting better. Just to keep at it is a talent," Downs says. "For all his gentleness, he simply can't be stopped."
Frank Galati (S65, GS67, 71), Northwestern professor of performance studies and also a noted actor and director, adds that Busch has enormous appeal as a writer, performer and human being because "his humor is not corrosive. It's very generous-hearted. He doesn't condescend to his characters."
Busch has been working on a new play for the Manhattan Theatre Club that focuses on Laura Keene, the London-born 19th-century actress who was onstage with her troupe performing Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre the night Lincoln was shot.
The playwright has already cast his leading lady: Himself.
Anne Taubeneck, a freelance writer based in Wilmette, Ill., writes frequently about the theater scene.