WHO IS “LILY DARE”? The True Confessions of Charles Busch!

Lily Dare beads saturated.jpgIt’s hard to believe that it’s been 34 years since Charles Busch’s Vampire Lesbians of Sodom shocked and titillated lucky audiences at the legendary Limbo Lounge in Manhattan’s East Village.  If the title alone didn’t lure audiences into the theater, then the word of mouth about the show certainly did: The New York Times famously described Busch’s satirical 1984 play as having “costumes flashier than pinball machines, outrageous lines, awful puns, sinister innocence” and “harmless depravity”.  Who could resist?!  A bona fide hero of the New York City arts scene, Busch first gained recognition as a pioneer of drag culture and renegade playwright with his original works, complete with delicious titles such as Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium and Psycho Beach Party. Through the years, Charles Busch’s career as performer, playwright, novelist, screenwriter, and director has branched out in seemingly endless directions.  As an actor, he has appeared on both the big and small screens.  He was the subject of a documentary called The Lady in Question is Charles Busch in 2005. Interestingly, since that movie came out,  Busch has had enough artistic achievements for a an all-new full-length follow-up documentary.  He made his own directorial debut with the independent film A Very Serious Person in 2006, in which he also starred.  As a performer, he has found a new and even wider audience in the world of cabaret, bringing a series of one-man shows from coast to coast and everywhere in between (South Bend, Indiana, anyone?)  In 2016, he released his very first CD, Charles Busch Live at Feinstein’s/54 Below, a mix of music and storytelling.  Recently, entertainment websites have been buzzing with some great news for this prolific multi-hyphenate: His play The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, which was nominated for Tony and Drama Desk Awards when it made it to Broadway in 2000,  is in the works to become a major motion picture starring two Hollywood icons, Bette Midler and Sharon Stone.
While both Busch and his beloved New York City has evolved through the years, Charles Busch hasn’t lost his renegade spirit when it comes to entertaining the masses.  He  is still dedicated to creating new performance pieces with over-the-top, colorful characters who find themselves in equally over-the-top, colorful situations.  Being a playwright, of course, has its privileges: Busch always chooses a juicy part for himself.  His newest play, coming to New York City’s Theater for the New City this April, is called The Confession of Lily Dare... and it’s no mystery who will be playing the title character!  For a man famous for creating strong female characters as well as bringing us his own take on real-life heroines of history (Judith of Bethulia, Cleopatra…), Lily Dare promises to be one helluva dame!
Behind the long and varied collection of accolades, Charles Busch has a keen sense of his own unique hue of stardom.  He tells me, “I have a very odd kind of cult celebrity: I’m deeply appreciated yet also somewhat unknown.  It’s a sweet kind of celebrity!   I’m not really famous.  I always say that ‘true fame’  is when someone’s mother has heard of you! Then your’e really famous. I may be a legend to someone and a complete unknown to someone else!  It’s odd, but it’s alright!”
Charles white turtleneckCharles Busch took the time to speak to me about The Confession of Lily Dare and much more:
JR: Hello, Charles!  Congratulations on your upcoming show, The Confession of Lily Dare.
CB: Thank you!  The show will be at a wonderful nonprofit theater in New York called The Theater for the New City on the Lower East Side.  It’s been around since 1970, and it was founded by this extraordinary woman named Crystal Field.  She is still the Artistic Director there all these years later.  It’s kind of like an avant garde multiplex: She has four or five theater spaces in this one complex on First Avenue.  She really gave me my start.  She produced the very first play that I wrote in 1982.  It was a terrible, humorless tragedy where I play identical twin brothers who are incestuous.
JR: Oh my! I would have liked to have seen that!
CB: The highlight of Act 2 is when I had sex with myself.  Despite that, it was really not very good.  But she never lost faith in me.  I return there over and over again over the last 40 years.  She gives me total freedom.  There is no dramaturg or producers looking over your shoulder.  You just do the play.  It allows me to work with the same people over and over, which I enjoy.  Carl Andress is my close friend, who has directed the majority of the plays that I have written for the past 20 years.  It’s just fun for us to work together.  When I write plays for The Theater of the New City, I come up with roles that I like to play: a character who would be interesting for me, or an old move genre that has always delighted me.  I ask myself, “Who would I like to be in that kind of movie?”  Then I make a list of actors who are friends of mine, who I think it would be fun to hang out with for a month and a half… and ask, how do I fit them into this old movie genre?  And then, there’s the play.  That’s really how it seems to work out.  So, the whole experience comes out of just joy and fun.  We only do these shows 24 times, and we don’t invite any critics.  It’s kind of kooky.  Sometimes I don’t understand it: We go through a lot of effort to put on this show,  but no thought of the future.  People always think that it’s a “workshop” and that we are trying something out.  I tell them, “No!  This was it!  We did it!”  It’s really enough for me.  I get the fantasy out of my system, and we all have a marvelous time.  We could invite critics.  But what if they didn’t like it, and we were left with a bad feeling?  In this case, we sell out the whole show pretty much before we open, just  through social media basically.  We just have a marvelous time.  But sometimes, it’s over so quickly.  When we did Cleopatra, we had such a great time.  But we rehearsed it so briefly, and we performed it so briefly, that now it’s taken on the quality of a dream… and I wonder, “Did I actually play Cleopatra, or did I dream that I was in ancient Egypt?”  It’s hard to tell!  It is kind of a nutty thing that we put so much time and energy into something without some great plan or ambition for it.  We just do it to entertain the audience and to have a good time.  I think that nowadays, people are pretty desperate for some old-fashioned entertainment.  And we’re giving it to them!  I feel like we’re working for the USO and entertaining “the folks at home”!
JR: (Laughs)  Yes, just like the USO– except with some sexual innuendo and a few four-letter words thrown in!!!
CB: A little bit!  This play’s not too bawdy.  (Pauses) Yeah, I guess it’s a little bawdy.  (Pauses again) Yeah, I guess it’s PRETTY bawdy! (Laughs) The Confession of Lily Dare is an homage to a rather rarified movie genre– or movie sub-genre, I guess you’d say– called the Pre-Code era: before the Motion Picture Code censorship guidelines came in 1934.   There are a spate of movies in the 1930’s called “the confession films”.  These were all stories about a woman who was kind of led astray, and goes down the “primrose path”, and has a baby that she’s forced to give up… and then years later, when the baby is grown up, they find each other.  My play has a similar plot to a bunch of these movies.  In many cases, these movies are not that well-known. One of them was The Sin of Madelon Claudet in 1931, and it’s notable mainly because Helen Hayes starred in it and won an early Oscar for it.  Then there’s a movie called Frisco Jenny in 1933.  They are not really well known.  Madam X is another, and it’s well-known because it was remade so many times!  Madam X is kind of the the template for all these movies.  There are so many forms of theatrical parody… and my form is based on the fact that I’m something of a film historian.  My approach to a movie parody is that it’s so close to the style of the actual movie that it can be enjoyed as a good old-fashioned yarn instead of just being a broad spoof.  In this case. we are taking on the old “tearjerker” movie… and I am hoping that the audience, when they’re not laughing, will actually be touched by the story: this woman who had to make this great sacrifice and give up her child, but never stops loving this child.  The child then tries to find her.  I like having my cake and eating it too: spoofing the excesses of these old movies, but also honoring the true emotion.  I found that I am able to do that.  I think that I can control the audience’s emotions.  I can get a laugh, and then get them to calm down and get into the true sentiments of the plot, and then give them another laugh again.  That’s an interesting tightrope to walk.  It took me a while to learn how to do it!
JR:  Well, I must say that I love the description of Lily Dare: “the story of one woman’s tumultuous passage from convent girl to glittering cabaret chanteuse to infamous madame of a string of brothels”. Lily Dare sounds like my kind of gal!
CB: What’s also fun is that the character is going through these wild changes of persona.  So yeah, it’s gonna be fun for me… and I hope for the audience too.  In a way, I am playing four different characters, because she changes so radically.  I have to play a young girl of 16 at the beginning… so the audience may need a little bit of…
JR: …suspension of disbelief?
CB: Yes!  I’ll do everything I can– makeup, hair, costume– to make it easy for them!  She starts out as a young girl from convent school… and she goes through the San Francisco earthquake in 1906… and then she has a baby… and then she becomes a very glamorous, decadent cabaret entertainer… and then, ultimately, she finds herself as the most notorious brothel owner on the Barbary Coast!  We see how the events of the times affect her.  She loses all of her money in the stock market crash of 1929.  In a certain sense– and I don’t want to get pretentious about it, because it really is just fun entertainment– but it is a little bit of the history of San Francisco from 1906 to the early 1930’s.  I’ve tried to keep it, in certain senses, as authentic as possible, with the names of certain restaurants and places.  Thank God for Google!
JR: Well, I can’t wait!
CB: It’s gonna be fun.  We have a wonderful cast of people, most of whom I have worked with before, and then we have two people from Broadway musical theater who I adore but who I’ve never personally worked with: Nancy Anderson and Howard McGillin.  They are both highly accomplished performers.  I’ve written these parts for them, and I really look forward to working with them.  The cast also includes Christopher Borg, Kendal Sparks, and Jennifer Van Dyck.  Jennifer has really become kind of a muse for me. This is the eighth production we’ve done together. She is a marvelous actress.  I think I’ve turned her into a raucous comedienne, because she is really a skilled classical actress who’s played great Shakespearean roles– but I guess it’s not that much of a switch from Shakespeare to Busch! (Laughs)  She’s marvelous because she can play ANYTHING!  She has such an incredible range.  First of all, she’s beautiful, so she can play lovely female roles… but she’s also a highly skilled character actress.  I’ve just thrown all sorts of crazy parts at her… and in Lily Dare, she plays multiple roles.  She plays my aunt, who’s a brothel owner… and then later, she plays my daughter!  And she plays other characters along the way.  It’s fun in general to write parts for specific people– not only for myself, but for the people I’ve worked with over and over.  It’s fun to imagine how they’re going to play it… and then it’s a surprise when you actually get to hear them read it out loud.  I enjoy writing for specific people, and tailoring it to their personalities– and then pushing it a bit further to give them a little bit of a challenge.  I’ve always loved doing that!
JR: That’s great!  Now, as an artist you have always been so closely identified with New York City’s East Village.  I’m sure you must have seen so many transformations in that neighborhood through the years.  What kind of changes have you seen?
CB: It’s “different and the same”.  It’s all about real estate, really.  There was a period when I first started doing shows in the East Village in 1984 when Alphabet City was just a completely neglected area.  It was scary: almost abandoned, with burned out buildings.  I grew up in New York City, but I never went into that neighborhood.  It wasn’t until a performer friend of mine invited me to see her show in this strange after-hours bar/art gallery called The Limbo Lounge that I ever ventured into that part of town.  I was so fascinated because it was this very neglected. scary neighborhood– but the rents were so low that it was dotted with these different edgy art galleries and dance clubs and bars.  It was an exciting place to be for that brief period.  Then, like all places in Manhattan, the rents start going up, and those places become gentrified, and those artists galleries had to move somewhere else.  I guess they moved to Brooklyn.  It’s still a little funky down there, in a bohemian chic kind of way.  It doesn’t look like the Upper East Side, but it’s certainly fancier than it is in the ’80s.
JR: How true! So, in other good news: Celebrity news sites are buzzing that Bette Midler and Sharon Stone are teaming to co-star in the film version of The Tale Of The Allergist’s Wife.
CB: Both of them are very interested in being in the movie.  Bette has been interested in the project since the play was on Broadway.  Movies are very complicated to set up.  This thing has been alive and dead so many times!  But at the moment it seems very alive– and very exciting!  There’s no date on when the cameras are moving, but it seems to have real energy attached to it now.  Both those ladies want to do it, and this wonderful director Andy Fickman wants to do it also.  So, it looks really good.
JR: Wow!  So, with all that you’re doing creatively, what do you like to do in your spare time?
CB: Fortunately for me, I’m so lucky that what I do for work is also what I do for fun.  I really do enjoy writing.  I’m happiest when I’m in the middle of writing a play or another project.  It’s nice that after all these years, I still find it so exciting to have my mind challenged like that.  Sometimes I feel that I’m not living my life “correctly” because I’m not seeking out adventure in my spare time.  I should be going parachute jumping (laughs) or taking more vacations and stuff like that!  I do travel so much when performing, though, so that satisfies my wanderlust.  We’ve played some wonderful but also some odd places!  But aside from traveling when performing, I don’t “get out of town” much.  I feel like I should. “Time’s marching on!”  But my work is fun.  It’s marvelous going to another city and the people treat you so nicely.   I’m kind of spoiled that when I do my act, I’m taken care of and we meet so many fun people to go out to dinner with afterward.  It’s so different when you’re on your own.  But I should really try to turn over a new leaf– and try to have some fun other than the “fun” that I do for a living!  I’m very lucky.  A lot of people– the majority, I think– have their work which pays their bills, and then they have their life.  It’s a little different for me in that my work IS my artistic expression, and it IS my life.  That’s what I wanted.  That was my dream ever since I was a kid.  I wanted to earn my living as a writer and a performer, and boy, that’s a hard thing to achieve.  It took me until I was 31 to achieve it.  Honestly, I do count my blessings that I can do exactly what I wanted to do.  I have a wonderful life.
The World Premiere of The Confession of Lily Dare, written by and starring Charles Busch and directed by Carl Andress,  runs for 24 performances only from April 4 through April 29, 2018 in the Johnson Theater at Theater For The New City, 155 First Avenue, New York City.  For tickets and more information, visit www.theaterforthenewcity.net/lilydare.html.
Visit www.CharlesBusch.com for more!
(All photos by Michael Wakefield.)

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