Life Is a Cabaret (Act) for Charles Busch at Bay Street

Writer, actor, drag performer and director Charles Busch will return to the Bay Street Theater and Sag Harbor Center for the Arts on Saturday, July 26, for A Divine Evening with Charles Busch. The iconic entertainment personality is well known among East Enders, having performed and collaborated with Bay Street in the past. Busch, accompanied by Tom Judson, will perform a solo cabaret act reflecting on his life and career. Dan’s Papers caught up with Busch on his performance and other projects.

“It’s nice to come back,” Busch says. “I’ve a long history with Bay Street—my God, I don’t even know the last time I was there!”

Busch notes that although audiences may be familiar with his work and style, A Divine Evening is a little different. “Usually when I’m at Bay Street, I’m in a play. I usually come out looking very glamorous in drag. But [for this show] I’m very much myself. There are different types of cabaret acts; this is the kind of cabaret act when you’re basically in someone’s living room. I’m ‘naked,’ telling stories about my career, singing gorgeous songs from Jerome Kern…I try singing the songs as honestly
as possible.”

Busch’s cabaret act, which has played at 54 Below in Manhattan, is just the latest of Busch’s many creative pursuits. “I write plays, I paint, I do a lot of stuff. But at the moment, I seem to be enjoying this the most and it’s the thing I’m least self-critical of,” he says. “I’ve gone in and out of cabaret. In the early ’90s, there was a cabaret called the Ballroom Theatre, and I won a MAC [Manhattan Academy of Cabaret] Award for my revue.” One of Busch’s cabaret collaborators was composer Dick Gallagher, who wrote the scores to several musicals, including Whoop-Dee-Doo! and When Pigs Fly. Gallagher died of AIDS-related causes in 2005 at the age of 49. “When Dick died, I stopped doing anything involving music,” Busch says with a sigh. “After that, I focused on plays and movies.”

It wasn’t until Busch got a phone call from a cruise line two and a half years ago that he revisited cabaret. Busch decided to work with Judson on an act for the cruise. “I called him, and we quickly threw it together and had a ball. It was very encouraging. So I started accepting and pursuing certain cabarets, and the next thing I know, I have a cabaret career! It’s pure self-expression. I’m really enjoying it. I get more of a feeling [performing cabaret] of painting a picture than doing a play. I’m glad people are
enjoying it.”

Rather than focus on screwball comedy or camp, Busch’s act focuses more on personal experience and introspection. “I’m not the world’s greatest singer, but I think I’m doing a good job interpreting the lyrics,” Busch says. I recently put together these two disparate songs, ‘Hello Young Lovers’ and ‘The Folks Who Live on the Hill.’ Together, the two songs tell this touching story of this person whose lover has died and he’s flashing back.”

But Busch is quick to point out that the show has plenty of laughs, too. “I do some monologues that reflect the different play styles, the film types, the ‘ladies’ I’ve played. There’s also a monologue I do that mirrors the tone of the main character in The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.” When asked if he would ever play the lead female role in his Tony-nominated Broadway comedy, Busch says, “I’ve never wanted to do it. [Star] Linda Lavin was so extraordinary, every line reading of hers is so indelible in my head.” Busch believes that his drag performances work for a very specific style of show. “My gift, I think, as a kind of ‘male actress,’ is that at my best I could act a role with an emotional truth to it, but also comment on a history of movie star acting. The Allergist’s Wife is a more naturalistic comedy.”

Busch is thrilled to be returning to Bay Street and hopes audiences will enjoy this personal, unique offering. “My life has just been a carnival of fluke and miracle and hijinks, and I’ve got a lot of stories to tell.”

A Divine Evening With Charles Busch plays at Bay Street Theater and Sag Harbor Center for the Arts on Saturday, July 26, at 8 p.m.. Admission $65 for side and $75 for center. For $125, see the show and attend an after party with Busch. Purchase tickets at baystreet.org or call 631-725-9500. 

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