The last time Charles Busch was in town, just over a year ago, was also his first time at Feinstein’s intimate 140-seat room at the Nikko, playing a cabaret act that of late has become the famed New York playwright-actor’s principal creative occupation, touring far and wide. So successful was the outing last year that he’s back at Feinstein’s this weekend with an all-new show, Charles Busch, That Girl/That Boy.
The cabaret set — in which Mr. Busch, in elegant drag, takes on the great American songbook, as well as his own glamorously unexpected life, with equal parts crooning and confabulation — is another in a long series of San Francisco debuts for an artist whose earliest work was unhesitatingly embraced by the city.
That was back in the early 1980s when, by his own account, the then largely unknown Charles Busch “couldn’t get arrested” in New York. But in San Francisco he and his multi-character solo plays found a home away from home in the budding gay comedy and performance scene, centered on the legendary Valencia Rose Cabaret and including the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Doug Holsclaw, Marga Gomez, Lea DeLaria and Tom Ammiano.
Mr. Busch has been enamored of the city ever since.
“It was really very important to me,” he says, speaking by phone from Greenwich Village of that early San Francisco welcome. “It gave me the confidence that I needed to really dig deep and pursue my career with even more fervor.”
That fervor would soon find outlet in a tiny corner of the forbiddingly battered East Village of the mid-1980s — a hole-in-the-wall gallery called the Limbo Lounge where, with friends recruited on the fly for a last-minute gig, Theatre-in-Limbo was born, along with a body of work for which Mr. Busch remains justly famous, beginning with 1984’s Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. In its crossover success, Vampires — which transferred across town to become one of the longest-running Off-Broadway productions ever — paved a path into the dominant culture for some of the queer aesthetics of the downtown theater and performance underground.
The plays — Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium, Times Square Angel, Psycho Beach Party, and many others — also solidified Charles Busch’s reputation as an outstanding performer of female roles, for which he had always had a particular knack, even as he continued to grow as a playwright. In the latter role he eventually reached Broadway with the long-running hit, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.
Sociable and kind, Charles Busch is a charming interlocutor who, in the course of reflecting on his career then and now, made no bones about his continuing love affair with San Francisco.
You first appeared onstage in San Francisco in the early ’80s. Wasn’t it at Theatre Rhino?
Charles Busch: Yes and no. I was a solo performer back then — in a very different way. I wasn’t in drag. I was doing monologues. I read the first couple Tales of the City books and my obsessive dream was to preform in San Francisco. That was the goal.
I had a friend I had known from New York who’d moved to San Francisco to get into arts management. She arranged for me to have Theatre Rhino for one night free of charge to do my act as a benefit for the Golden Gate Business Association. It was very clever of her. People out there thought maybe I was somebody important — even though I was totally unknown in New York! Anyway, it sold out. And this great fellow, Donald Montwill, who was managing the Valencia Rose Cabaret in the Mission, came that night. He booked me to come back to do an engagement at Valencia Rose. I was very young. It was the first time I was ever reviewed and taken seriously! It was just extraordinary.
So it lived up to your expectations?
CB: My first night in San Francisco I ended up going over to some little enclave of houses where this adorable group of gay guys were living together. We all ended up naked in a hot tub, you know [laughs]. I thought, ‘Oh, this is everything I’d dreamed it would be!’ And then I got to be friends with Armistead Maupin! It was really too much. So I’m very emotional about San Francisco.
It seems you’ve returned again and again at key points in your career.
CB: Of course, when I became sort of the drag diva, doing Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and all those, my dream was to come to San Francisco with one of my plays. That never happened. Over the next 30 years it always seemed like it was going to happen, then at the last minute the money couldn’t be raised or the producer got cold feet. It just seemed unwieldy.
Your plays, however, have had been done by local companies. In fact, I saw you onstage at New Conservatory Theater Center last year in conversation with artistic director Ed Decker. NCTC was in the midst of rehearsing a production of Die Mommie Die!
CB: That was fun. I was [in town] to perform at Feinstein’s. It worked out perfectly that they were in rehearsals for Die Mommie Die! and Ed and I were able to do that onstage conversation.
Die Mommie Die! started life as a film, released in 2003. It’s a wonderful achievement helmed by a well-respected San Francisco theater director, Mark Rucker, who recently passed.
CB: Yes, it was a shock. I’m rather haunted by the whole thing.
What is your memory of working with him?
CB: I didn’t really know him very well. I think he was a rather shy person. But we did share this magical experience making that movie. In indie film you shoot in like 21 days, so I wasn’t a long time in his orbit. But we were so completely in sync. Often there never had to be any discussion because we were of one mind about everything. It was his first film as a director, and it was my first time starring in a movie. I had had a supporting role in my movie Psycho Beach Party, and then some small parts in commercial movies, but to carry a movie — I was nervous and thrilled. But he was such a calm presence. Here he has so much riding on it, and yet he was able to give me confidence, which I thought was rather extraordinary. After the movie was over I only saw him a handful of times. He was always someone I wanted to know better. We had a wonderful time together making the movie. I absolutely can say it was the happiest, most exciting 21 days of my life in a way.
Currently, you’re consumed with cabaret. Has singing always been a part of your life?
CB: I always thought I had a pleasant voice but it didn’t really come up particularly. The people in my theater company were resolutely unmusical! We had a Christmas play that we did. At the end, the characters are all supposed to be caroling — Hark! the Herald Angels Sing, you know, not that hard to do. We brought in a choirmaster to teach us the most rudimentary harmony and oh the poor guy left having practically lost all his hair from the agony we put him through! Yeah, we stayed away from musical numbers.
I dabbled in cabaret at different periods in my life. In the early ’90s I was doing quite a bit. There was a wonderful musical director named Dick Gallagher, a very beloved figure in New York cabaret. He died of AIDS and that kind of ended my cabaret career. I didn’t do it again for 20 years or so. Then, almost four years ago now, I got a call out of the blue to perform on an RSVP gay cruise for quite a bit of money. I don’t have an act. I don’t have a musical director. I think somebody must have canceled because I had about three weeks' notice. So it propelled me to get my act together. I remembered a friend, Tom Judson, who I’d known for many years socially, not that well really, but he was real handsome and an excellent musician. I thought he’d be fun to be on the cruise with. So that stimulated this whole new career as a cabaret chanteuse comedian. And I’ve just been loving it so.
Is there anything you want people to know before seeing the show?
My career’s always been as a storyteller. I approach each song really as a little theater piece. My singing is somewhere between talking, shouting, singing, crooning — you put it all together and it seems to work. What I love in a cabaret performer is when it’s somebody you really get to know. I like it to feel we’re really in their living room. It’s a challenge when you’re in drag because the costume and assuming a persona can be a bit of a wall between the performer and the audience. I don’t’ want that wall at all. I don’t have a drag persona like Bianca Del Rio or other people that I admire. I’m Charles Busch. In my act I talk about being a playwright and my experiences growing up and the world today. I’m also singing these very beautiful songs from the great American songbook, and I try to sing them in the most honest, unguarded way possible. So it’s an odd act. I keep saying that I feel like an old Philco TV set. You know, I’m pretty much myself onstage, I just dial up the brightness or the contrast.
Charles Busch performs at 8 p.m. this Friday and Saturday, Oct. 23 and 24 at Feinstein's at the Nikko. $40 - $55; details and tickets here.