10 March 2013

Charles Busch at 54 Below

The Laddie in Question.
He was striving for a look that summoned up the club Reno Sweeney’s in the 1970s.
Illustration by WVM©
Like so many things in life, this picture looks better if you blow it up.

Unlike Patti LuPone and Sarah Rice, the divas I’d seen previously at the New York nightclub 54 Below, Charles Busch is a performer known to me exclusively from his work in theater and film — until Thursday night. I had no idea what his solo act might consist of, whether he’d sing, whether he’d wear drag, whether he’d — oh, I don’t know — perform magic tricks and juggle. And how would he fare in what he called “this atmosphere of fake intimacy” that is a nightclub act?

As it happened, he did sing on Thursday night, and he did wear the drag that has made him one of New York theater’s most glamorous artists; and as for tricks, he juggled comedy with even more comedy, and his indisputable magic required no sleight of hand. A gifted writer whose plays don’t depend on his physical participation in order to succeed, Busch proved himself a gifted performer who doesn’t depend on a conventional (or even an alternative) theater.

Which isn’t to say that we didn’t get plenty of drama. In one sketch, Busch cheerily mashed up Mildred Pierce and Cinderella (“Yes, I killed my stepdaughter!”); in another, he ran through every conceivable cliché in the career of Golden Era character actress Gladys George, creating his own movie scenario. It’s always been clear that Busch knows his old movies, but at 54 Below he explained that he grew up on a steady diet of them, when Million Dollar Movie on New York’s Channel 9 used to run the same picture as many as 22 times in one week — and the young Charles watched every broadcast.

This immersion has informed his scripts — The Divine Sister, for example, throws together elements of every nun movie ever made, and that was just the start. And who but Charles Busch knew what Judith of Bethulia was, much less that it was ripe for mockery? At his best, Busch knows exactly how far to push the melodrama to make it funny. And as a performer, he lovingly assembles all the mannerisms and inflections that make an actress distinctive — and therefore a star.*

Busch as Judith of Bethulia.
I was lucky enough to see a limited engagement of this show last year. Who knew there was a silent movie of the same title, starring Blanche Sweet?
Charles Busch knew, that’s who.

Thus we got a side-splitting “she-said/she-said” showdown between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, based entirely on statements those ladies made during interviews on the subject of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? The Davis imitation would be lethal, if she weren’t dead already, and yet the Crawford imitation is more devastating yet: Busch brilliantly lays bare that lady’s cluelessness. She praises herself for her own genteel magnanimity even as she’s cussing like a sailor and insulting Davis, and she doesn’t seem to notice the difference.

When Busch granted a solo to his music director, pianist Tom Judson, I was inevitably reminded of a certain coloratura soprano who visibly had to restrain herself from checking her watch whenever Juan Diego Flórez launched into “Cessa di più resistere” in the Met’s production of The Barber of Seville. Busch didn’t really hand over the spotlight to Judson. Instead, he mugged from the sidelines — in a mix of bored approval and diva-like impatience to resume a rightful place at the center of attention — throughout an otherwise touching account of “Winter Was Warm,” from Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.** Really, the material in the show is drawn from everywhere.

As Madame DuBarry to Norma Shearer’s Marie Antoinette.
I may have run my college film society, but Busch’s expertise outpaces mine. I recognized Gladys George’s name but never could have picked her out in a police line-up.
Busch created an entire movie scenario around her.

Busch’s singing voice is less distinctive than his acting personae: though it’s a perfectly pleasant instrument and does what he needs it to do, he knows its limits. So when he made his entrance with the barnstormer “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” (as logical a choice for an entrance as Groucho’s “Hello, I Must Be Going”), he stopped abruptly and sang another, less strenuous and very funny song, about the kind of opening number he requires.

A special guest star, Busch’s longtime collaborator Julie Halston, took the stage for a few minutes, demonstrating her ability to read a wedding announcement from The New York Times absolutely verbatim while still wringing tears of helpless laughter from the crowd — which included the legendary Phyllis Newman and the playwright Douglas Carter Beane, whose adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, co-starring Ann Harada, just opened on Broadway.

The presence of such luminaries reinforced the feeling that I’d had all through the show: that I’d been transported back to the Golden Age of New York Night Life, where swanky stars hobnobbed with the hoi polloi while glamorous performers served up sophisticated material. If you’d addressed me as Dorothy Kilgallen, I’d probably have answered you.

Granted, Charles Busch has taken this act beyond the island of Manhattan, too — but I found myself thinking, “Only in New York, kids. Only in New York.” And for one who feels so often as if he missed out on the best of this city in its heyday, that was a precious gift, indeed.

There’s one more performance in Charles Busch’s current engagement at 54 Below: Thursday, March 14 at 9:30 PM. For more information and reservations, click here.

Busch’s plays don’t depend on his performing in them:
Such classics as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Die, Mommy, Die!, and his hit Broadway play, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife (in which he didn’t perform at all), have enjoyed successful productions in theaters around the country.
He’s seen here in a publicity still from the film adaptation of Die, Mommy, Die!

*NOTE: I can’t imagine that cabaret performers 50 years from now will be vamping on Jennifer Lawrence, or even the more imitable Kristen Stewart. But time may prove me wrong.

**Judson is such a good sport about this that one supposes he’s borne the brunt of real-life, non-ironic diva antics.


Anne said...

Thank you for this marvelous post. Mr.Busch is a national treasure. Such events are to be greatly savored. Thanks for allowing your readers to do so

She praises herself for her own genteel magnanimity even as she’s cussing like a sailor and insulting Davis, and she doesn't seem to notice the difference


Lord! This MUST be recorded for all those less fortunate people who will be born in the future and cannot see Mr. Busch in the flesh

Please God!

he explained that he grew up on a steady diet of them, when Million Dollar Movie on New York’s Channel 9 used to run the same picture as many as 22 times in one week

Happy memories! Somehow Channel 9 was in the prehistoric cable package on my suburban Phila TV. I can mum the theme song on demand. Back then one had the same problem as now...little worth watching on TV. So one had to watch those great movies over and over on Channel 9 perforce lol

“Only in New York, kids. Only in New York

and you are right...another case of " only in New York," a year or so ago my sister was walking along the street and out of restaurant came the Dalai Lama and co....I mean, where else?

New York is New York

Thanks, again

Mark said...

Great stuff!