Don’t call Charles Busch a drag queen. “We share a certain DNA,” he says, “but we are a very different species.” A drag queen is a persona, and one that he admires. He is a big fan of RuPaul and avidly watches RuPaul’s Drag Race, but he insists that what he does is different.
Last week, in preparation for Prologue, I had lunch with Charles at a café near his apartment in the West Village. While he is a friend of mine, and someone I have studied, I still find it difficult to explain to people what to expect when he comes to THEATREWORKS and UCCS this month. There are very few drag queens who have made their fame in cabaret acts, on Broadway and in Hollywood. Yes, Charles Busch is a television and movie star too. You may have seen him on the HBO program Oz or in the film version of Psycho Beach Party or Die Mommie Die. But his big fame comes from a style of drag performance that may belie what many assume they know about the proverbial drag queen.
Charles identifies the modern drag queen as often bitchy, a sexual outlaw. He says this with great love and admiration for the style, but with the understanding that this was decidedly not his modus when he started his drag career many years ago. “For 30 years, I bristled at being called a drag queen in print… When I was starting out in the mid–80s it was very important to be taken seriously and I wanted major publications to review me. I wanted The New York Times to take me seriously as a writer and an actor so I felt that if somebody called me a drag queen it was somehow dismissing me… a little patronizing, I thought. That was always a bête noire of mine. I guess now I should loosen up a little bit and try to be a bit more with it.”
Charles Busch is an artist of the first order and for many years “drag queen” and “artist” were not terms that seemed to go together for some people. And, lets be honest about it, it probably still isn’t fully understood because too often it is written off as “silliness” or “dress–up”. This, as you will learn this month, is entirely unfair. Charles’ drag is astonishingly good and cannot be seen as anything other than an art form. While there is never a doubt that he is a man dressed up in women’s clothes, you will absolutely forget that fact and be lost in the essence and the aesthetic of his performance. For me to describe what this show is would be to reduce his art. And all he will say is this: “The illusion is that you are in my living room and I am entertaining you by telling you about the outrageous things that have happened to me in the course of my career. And I sing a collection of gorgeous songs from some of the greatest composers of popular song.” Let me reiterate what The New York Times and other publications from around the country and world have said: Charles Busch: Hit the Lights is a scream, a tour de force by one of the great entertainers of our era.
Charles joins us for several days on the occasion of our production of Psycho Beach Party. We are so excited. Yes, he will entertain us, but his presence in Colorado Springs means so much more to many, including myself. He says he is moved to know that generation of gay (and straight) actors have been deeply moved by his style, his courage and, of course, his classy and intense perfectionism. Indeed, as I auditioned New York actors for Psycho Beach Party, I heard the following over and over: “I love Charles Busch. He is an inspiration.” When I mentioned to them that he is coming to Colorado and consulting with us, they were universally gobsmacked.
I am honored and thrilled to have him with us and trust that you will find him a delightful man, a great intellect, a gender bending illusionist, a side–splitting comic and a terrific singer. Just don’t call him a drag queen.