What's Hiding Under That Wig? Charles Busch, The Tribute Artist, and 30 Years of Intellectually and Emotionally Honest Drag
The beloved writer and frequently cross-dressing performer opens up about the serious themes that undergird his plays.
"I really need to go buy some false eyelashes," actor/playwright Charles Busch told me when I asked him what he was going to do with his day off. "Fortunately I live in a neighborhood where false eyelashes are plentiful." For over 30 years, Busch has authored riotous comedies for the stage like The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, Psycho Beach Party, and The Divine Sister. In most of them, he has played fabulous ladies. Yet there's more than meets the eye behind those luscious lashes: Busch's latest play, The Tribute Artist (now making its world premiere at 59E59 Theaters in a production by Primary Stages, Daryl Roth, and Ted Snowdon), delves into issues of class, identity, morality, and inequality. It's not just two hours of a man in a dress spouting your favorite Bette Davis lines (although there's plenty of that).
Set in the lavishly decorated parlor of a West Village townhouse, The Tribute Artist is about Adriana (Cynthia Harris), the wealthy widow who lives there "like exiled royalty," according to her frenemy Rita (Julie Halston). A couple of weeks out of the year, Adriana rents a room to Jimmy (Charles Busch), a Las Vegas-based professional female impersonator who prefers to be called a "Tribute Artist" (more on that in a moment). He does all the greats: Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, and Marilyn Monroe, to name a few. When Adriana dies suddenly in her sleep without leaving a will, Jimmy prepares for his greatest performance: He decides to impersonate Adriana for several weeks in order to sell her townhouse and split the money with Rita. It's a victimless crime, right? As he tells Rita, "Why shouldn't we know happiness? Why shouldn't we know luxury? We're not bad people. We've made bad choices."
Busch was inspired to pen this highly creative tale of real-estate fraud after witnessing the pains some of his friends were going through just to get an apartment in New York City. "I have friends who are willing to commit murder to find a 250-square-foot room," he said, only slightly exaggerating. The real-estate blues are something that all but the wealthiest New Yorkers go through.
"Charles' work has become a little bit more accessible to a wider audience," said Casey Childs, executive producer of Primary Stages, which originally commissioned The Tribute Artist. "The early work was wonderful, but perhaps rarified...for a select audience, which was just fine. It has blossomed in all the right ways."
Over the years, Busch's work has become more personal. To create the character of Jimmy, he's drawn upon his real-life experience as an actor who frequently plays women. "Over the years, I've almost entirely played female characters," said Busch. "I've never done a Charley's Aunt kind of story where someone is actually posing as a woman." And much like Jimmy, Busch refuses to be labeled with the title drag queen. "I just prefer to be called an actor," the semantically sensitive playwright told me. "It's almost a joke now whenever I do a show," he laughed, recalling an incident in which someone asked him not to drag a chair across the floor, eliciting many raised eyebrows from the cast. "Don't use the word drag around Charles!"
"I've always thought he was very courageous to be a wonderful drag artist at a time when it wasn't as mainstream as it is now, à la Kinky Boots," said producer Daryl Roth (who is also one of the lead producers of that Tony Award-winning musical). In addition to producing the New York run of The Tribute Artist, Roth is also spearheading an initiative to license Busch's plays to companies all across America in celebration of his 30th anniversary in show business. (Roth is counting as the start of Busch's career the 1985 off-Broadway premiere of his smash hit Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, but he was performing his one-man show Hollywood Confidential on the stage of Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatre as early as 1978.)
"Under the umbrella of my producing business, we've started a company [Daryl Roth Theatrical Licensing] that helps license plays that either I have produced or had something to do with," Roth elaborated. Roth promotes the plays to troupes across America and then helps connect interested parties to the official licensing agencies, like Samuel French or Dramatists Play Service. She also works to license the original production designs. Presently, she's helped to arrange 33 productions of Busch's work this coming season, from New Hampshire to Wyoming. "There's a lot for people who don't know Charles' work to find in this new outreach," said Roth. "His writing is not only joyful, but meaningful."
Of course, when you're in a wig, a dress, and six-inch stilettos, there's a natural tendency to just play it for laughs. "They're tricky to do," Busch asserted about his own plays. "They're flamboyant and theatrical yet there has to be a real core of honest emotion. It's often not the case when my plays are done around the country. People have a marvelous time, but they get very broad and neglect the other tones."
And like The Tribute Artist, the earlier plays are thematically rich and interested in grappling with big issues. According to Busch, Psycho Beach Party is really about the fragmentation we feel when we're young. The Lady in Question is a comment on the New Age movement of the 1980s.
"It's a little frustrating for me," Busch admitted. "I've always felt that in all of my movie-genre-parody plays there was more to it than just a spoof of the movies. It just seems that most people don't want to look for it." So, to the 33 American companies currently mounting Busch's work: Take a minute to dig a little deeper into the text when you sit down for the first reading. You might be surprised with what you find beneath the false eyelashes and multiple layers of MAC foundation.