Charles Busch is going to be naked.
Not literally; more like emotionally. The actor/playwright — famous for his shows and films “Psycho Beach Party” and “Die, Mommie, Die!” — often performs on screen in drag. But for his Aug. 19 cabaret show at the Rrazz Room at the Clarion Hotel in New Hope, Busch may perform out of drag. Fans will have to attend to find out. PGN chatted with Busch about his upcoming show.
PGN: You titled this show “Naked and Afraid.” I’m guessing this is because you’re not performing in drag. What prompted that decision?
CB: I’ve been performing in drag for about 40 years, and I’ve been doing cabaret work for about five. It seemed odd I’ve been in drag for cabaret shows, but I’m introduced as Charles Busch and I’m not playing a character. I’ve been telling true stories about my life and adventures and singing Sondheim and Bachrach; I never understood why I was in drag, but people knew me for doing that. I’ve been experimenting out of drag, but gender is so fluid. If I’m not in drag, can I still be theatricalized? It is performance. My version of naked is someone else’s version of drag. I’m an androgynous person in life. The admirers who want to see me in drag won’t be disturbed. I always straddle the fence between male and female.
PGN: Can you talk about expressing yourself in female form?
CB: I used to be very glib about why I did drag, or what it means to me. I’ve come to truly appreciate and begin to understand the profundity of what the feminine me is. So, in a certain sense, I don’t have to be in full drag to tap into it; it’s like crossing into another room. I’ve become so aware of the essential androgyny of who I am that it doesn’t matter what I’m wearing — I can still express the feminine in me. I’m both masculine and feminine. In cabaret work, I feel very comfortable not completely hitting the feminine button, but in a play or a movie, I’m much more playing a regular female character, which is what I do best.
PGN: What is the appeal of cabaret for you?
CB: What I love about cabaret, unlike movies or theater, is how personal it is. The most successful cabaret performers have a persona close to who they are. Everything is dialed up a bit for theatrical purposes. So [for] my performance style, I dial up the femme a bit more. My singing voice is light. It’s not like I’m going to be Brian Stokes Mitchell. I have an androgynous nature. There’s not much adjustment that needs to be made.
PGN: Can you describe how you build your act with comedy, ballads and stories?
CB: I really am a storyteller, and that’s what I’ve been as an actor-playwright, and that’s what I bring into the world of cabaret. I choose songs that strike a bell with me, and I find an anecdote that illuminates that song. I’ve chosen songs that I feel some kind of personal connection to or that are very “actable.” I never choose a song because a woman sings it, or a man does. I never choose songs about a man singing about his love for a woman. I’ve sung woman songs — “My Man Done Left Me” — and I still want to do that out of drag because that’s my experience as a gay man. Sometimes it’s hard for me to come up with an “up” tune, because I like songs that loan themselves to a dramatic monologue. My introductions are my up tunes. It’s 30 percent of me talking, 70 percent singing.
Back in the early ’90s, I did cabaret and was convinced my audience was strictly there to see me being campy and funny. So I could at best get away with two dramatic songs. This time around, I discovered the audience responds to me being more vulnerable and human so they respond to the dramatic songs. I’m funny in between. I live my life for the anecdote. I throw myself into things because it will make a good story after.
PGN: Do you gravitate to songs of strength and vulnerability?
CB: I tend to put things in a dramatic context. There are different tones. My Kurt Weill song is kind of a victim song, and I rewrote the lyrics so it’s more a revenge song. “The Rainbow Connection” is a song of hope. The Sondheim song I do, “There Won’t Be Trumpets,” is a new song. It’s about searching for a hero who can change our world, which is something we’re all hoping for.
PGN: How do you account for the longevity of your career?
CB: I want to keep learning. If I could just keep improving and getting better, then good things will happen. I do keep reinventing myself.
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