The Sweetest 'Taboo'
Talking With Charles Busch (2003)
By Owen Keehnen
12 quick questions with film star ('Die Mommie Die', 'Psycho Beach Party'), playwright ('Taboo', 'The Tale of the Allergist's Wife'), stage legend ('Vampire Lesbians of Sodom', 'The Lady in Question', etc.) and novelist (Whores of Lost Atlantis) Charles Busch.
by Owen Keehnen
Owen: You've revised the script of 'Taboo', the Boy George musical. How much of a rewrite did you give it?
Charles: The New York version bears very little resemblance to the London show. The main characters in London were a fictional boy and girl who had a romance and the characters of Boy George and Leigh Bowery were sort of in the background. I decided to make Boy George the main role and threw out the boy and girl. I had to assign songs to different characters and George wrote 4 new songs to accommodate my new story. Rosie and I felt that the original London book lacked emotion. Also when I read about the life of performance artist Leigh Bowery, I was fascinated by his close relationships with two women, Nicola Bateman and Sue Tilley. I decided to bring them into the play and that is very different from the London production.
Owen: Was it a challenge to work on someone else's piece since you usually do original plays or was it nice to have a framework in place?
Charles: 'Taboo' has been the most challenging writing project I've done. It was very difficult writing a complex naturalistic story around 18 songs that were written for a completely different story. I'm not sure I was totally successful but the audiences are loving this show. The reviews were very mixed, but I've never seen such a wild standing ovation that occurs at the end of every performance. We must be doing something right.
Owen: After doing so many plays what is the most valuable thing you have learned when it comes to playwriting.
Charles: Providing yourself with a good outline before I start writing dialogue. I think it's too discouraging just writing aimlessly without knowing where you're going. However, I'm friends with an excellent novelist who believes in exactly the opposite. He hates knowing how things will end. But I have a suspicion that a play is more dependent on a set structure than a novel which can ramble and twist and turn.
Owen: Speaking of novels, I loved Whores of Lost Atlantis, when are you going to write another?
Charles: I'd love to write another novel. I'm very proud of Whores of Lost Atlantis. I never thought I'd finish that one. I actually wrote about a third of it and it was so bad that I threw it all out and started from scratch. The problem is that it takes too long to write a book. I'd love to write a sequel to Whores of Lost Atlantis. It would be quite a story. As you can imagine, it was very autobiographical. Sadly our little troupe fell apart. Feuds, deaths from AIDS. But in the past few years we've all become friends again and it's really very beautiful. I think that could be a lovely story. I'd also love to write a big, fat novel about my Aunt Lil who raised me. She was an extraordinary woman and deserves to have a novel written about her. I wonder if I'm good enough to pull it off? Also, I have a primordial fear of libraries and librarians. And I would imagine I'd have to do research into all sorts of odd things like nursing schools in Cincinnati in the 1920s.
Owen: I loved 'Die Mommie Die' by the way and was awestruck when the director said it took 18 days to film.
Charles: It was crazy. I worked 16 hour days but I loved every minute of it. Making that movie was such a dream come true for me. I never thought I'd get a chance to star in a movie and do all the things I've done on stage all these years.
Owen: Congratulations on it and on the accolades you've been given...specifically the Sundance Performance Award.
Charles: I was so thrilled and moved to win the Best Performance award at last year's Sundance Film Festival. I've never been nominated let alone won anything for acting. It's easy to get a chip on your shoulder that no one take you seriously, so for this jury to judge me on my acting and getting past that I was a guy in drag, well, it meant a lot to me. And then after that, suddenly I was getting all sorts of awards from the oddest places, including my high school and my college, Northwestern University. When I never had won an award, I pooh poohed the whole concept. But when you get one, it's awfully nice. Makes you feel a part of things. And I'm a real sap when it comes to feeling part of a group, because most of the time I feel like the cat that walks alone.
Owen: 'Psycho Beach Party' and now 'Die Mommie Die'...any more plans to film your stage successes?
Charles: No immediate plans. Mark Rucker, who directed the film of 'Die Mommie Die' would love to make a movie of 'Red Scare at Sunset'. I think that would lend itself well to a film. The play reads almost like a screenplay. I'm actually working on something that I may direct myself. There's a lot of enthusiasm for me to direct a movie and I think I should strike while the iron's hot. It would be sort of a screwball caper movie, where a group of eccentric characters are all after the same treasure. I'm in the process of writing it.
Owen: Why not do 'Red Scare at Sunset' and an original movie?
Charles: I'd love to. Hell, I wish it were 1932 and I could make 6 movies a year. I'm totally hooked. There is nothing more fun or exciting than to be on a movie set. The long waits while they set up the lights is a bit dreary, but then suddenly all the cacophony stops and fifty or more people are so quiet and still, everyone holds their breath and for thirty seconds, everyone's focus is on this little fragment of a large mosaic. It really is fascinating.
Owen: You seem so heavily influenced by old films. Are you a TNT Classics addict?
Charles: I do love old movies. I tend to watch the same ones over and over. I do love TCM, but they aren't scheduling as many rare old films as they used to.
Owen: So care to name any of those you love to watch over and over?
Charles: 'Marie Antionette' with Norma Shearer, 'Waterloo Bridge' with Vivien Leigh, 'I Could Go On Singing' with Judy Garland, 'The Hard Way' with Ida Lupino, 'Random Harvest' with Greer Garson and Ronald Coleman, I'm No Angel' with Mae West, and a zillion others.
Owen: What are you working on now?
Charles: As I said, I'm working a screenplay for a new movie and also a new play. I've now been represented on Broadway twice as a playwright. It's a great dream of mine to act on Broadway. Manhattan Theatre Club, who produced my play 'The Tale of the Allergist's Wife', has just renovated the history Broadway theatre, The Biltmore and it is now their Broadway home. They've saved me a slot in their 2004/05 season and I'm determined to give them a play I can also act in.
Owen: Earlier you mentioned striking while the iron is hot, why do you think this is the right time for you?
Charles: I hope this is a good time for me. It does seem like the average public is more accepting of camp humor and what's perceived as the gay sensibility (don't ask me to explain that one). Every artist benefits from the breakthroughs of the past. I benefited from the trailblazing of Charles Ludlum, Charles Pierce, Harvey Feirstein, and so many others. And I guess there are younger people who feel I've paved the way for their efforts. It's a nice continuum.
Owen: Thanks Charles and good luck.