Charles Busch Loses Habit For L.A. ’Divine Sister’
Charles Busch has the uncanny ability to lovingly evoke the stars of Hollywood's Golden Era, be it Greer Garson, Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck or even Sandra Dee, in a series of side-splitting satires. When he purrs a caustic crack in such works as "The Lady In Question," "Die, Mommie, Die!," "Times Square Angel," "Psycho Beach Party" or (his most recent) "The Divine Sister," he does so with such style as to disarm his audience. That he both writes and stars in these vehicles only indicates his talented range and longevity. "Demolition by laughter" is what one critic wrote of his first hit, "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom" (which ran some five years off-Broadway in the 1980s), and it has been his credo since.
Busch comes to Los Angeles this week for an unusual production of The Divine Sister, which he starred in off-Broadway for nine months. What makes it different is that it will be performed without sets and costumes, and recorded live for later broadcast on public and satellite radio stations nationwide. The production, directed by Carl Andress (who staged the original off-Broadway), stars Busch as the Mother Superior out to save her Pittsburgh convent from being demolished. Joining Busch in this habit-less staging are two holdovers from its New York production, Alison Fraser and Julie Halston; along with Emily Bergle, Maxwell Caulfield and Juliet Mills. The production runs July 11-14 at The James Bridges Theatre 235 Charles E. Young Drive, Los Angeles.
Think of such titles as "The Trouble With Angels" and "The Singing Nun" to see the kind of entertainment that Busch satirizes with "The Divine Sister." "Cue the 'Hallelujah' chorus. Charles Busch has put on a nun's habit and is talking to God, from whom he has evidently received blessed counsel," wrote Ben Brantley in reviewing the New York production. "'The Divine Sister,' his new comedy at the SoHo Playhouse, finds Mr. Busch returned to peak form. This gleefully twisted tale of the secret lives of nuns - in which the playwright doubles as leading lady - is Mr. Busch's freshest, funniest work in years, perhaps decades."
Here for EDGE Media Network, Charles Busch spills the beans on all his summer plans and shares a bit of his creative magic that will always be 'divine' to his admirers in every port or city across the nation. He is a national "treasure" that's for sure.
Back to cabaret
EDGE: How is your summer so far and what have you got in the works?
Charles Busch: It’s been sort of an interesting thing this past year. I had done some cabaret work in the mid-1990s. It wasn’t something I wanted to pursue and fortunately some better things came along. (Such as Busch’s Tony Award-nominated ’The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife’).
But, over the past year, it dropped in my lap and out of the blue, I got this very lucrative offer to do an act on a gay cruise. It was like three weeks’ notice... Idina Menzel must have cancelled or something. [laughter] So it took me literally three weeks to get my act together. I called my musical director Tom Judson and we threw it together.
I really got a kick out of it. I ended up performing in Provincetown and other different places. Then, there’s this wonderful new nightclub in New York called "54 Below" which is underneath the old Studio 54. It’s all been a good time and Tom and I enjoy hanging out together. (The talented Judson may be known to some from his adult male non-de-plume, Gus Mattox.)
EDGE: That’s nice. You give so much and they are bound to enjoy it.
Charles Busch: There’s a wonderful spontaneity to it. The act is very set except that when I’m talking to the audience as myself, it does sort of vary to the feeling in the room. So whether it’s 54 Below or Hudson, NY or Provincetown... why I’ve even done the act in Three Oaks, Michigan. So... we’ve gone in all different directions and it’s been fun.
EDGE: That’s an excellent way to spring into summer.
Charles Busch: It’s been fun. Honestly. About two years ago, I was getting a lot of anxiety getting on stage and doing these plays. I was doing ’The Divine Sister’ in New York, it was a long run. It wasn’t stage fright, it was stage anxiety. It was sort of OCD as I was afraid I was going to forget lines, which I don’t do but... what if? Crazy stuff like that.
EDGE: That’s to be commended; the fact that you realized you needed a break.
Charles Busch: I have to say it never really affected my performances but it affected me wanting to do it. It’s like whatever joys you have in the two hours you are on stage, is it worth the six hours before and the nausea and anxiety.
Just last year, I wrote a very campy kind of piece for The Theatre for the New City, which is downtown. I’ve had a relationship with them for about thirty years, so it’s a very loose, downtown kind of place. That was very good therapy for me to lighten up a bit. Then doing the nightclub act now has been just more ways of me just ’cooling’ it. So, I’m doing well.
Charles Busch: Yeah, every couple years I get this urge to put on a play in the most simple and non-pressure way. That’s where ’The Divine Sister’ started out at Theatre for the New City. It was only meant to be twenty-four performances with no critics and sell it through Facebook and have a nice ol’ time. That’s what we did. With no agenda at all and it came out very well and then Daryl Ross, who is a wonderful producer in New York got on board. Her show ’Kinky Boots’ just won all those Tony Awards!
Daryl has been a great friend to me. For the past fifteen years, she has produced almost everything that I’ve been involved with whether film or stage. She loved ’The Divine Sister’ and produced it for the commercial run after that. It’s a lovely surprise that it’s being done all over (’The Divine Sister’ just finished a run at San Diego’s Diversionary Theatre) with different theatre groups.
Counts his blessings
EDGE: Your playwriting continues to amaze me. Not only writing the script but creating the character and performing in the productions. There aren’t many artists who have that level of creativity.
Charles Busch: There aren’t too many of us around but I guess there is one in every city... isn’t there? [laughter] Some gay fellow with a lot of imagination who gets people to bend to his will. It is kind of funny that after you’ve been at it for thirty years... people do start giving you all sorts of strange awards. Some of them are nice but some of them... if you look too closely, you might start raising an eyebrow. I, I accept them all!
Life has been very kind to me. I’m able to earn my living as an actor and writer and doing just what I want to do. That’s very rare and I count my blessings every day.
EDGE: Please do share more about ’The Divine Sister,’ as you are going to be doing a special four-night and matinee run at L.A. Theatre Works as part of a syndicated radio series this month from July 11 through July 14.
Charles Busch: Yes. Alison Fraser and Julie Halston, they were in the original cast with me, the three of us will be in L.A. It will be fun to do this on stage for the radio. I’m looking forward to it. You don’t have to get all in costume... I tell ya, that habit is not too comfortable. It was hot. One of the reasons I kind of having such a difficult time during the year that we did it in New York was that most of the Off-Broadway theatres have closed and Off-Broadway is not terribly alive right now. The theater (we were performing in) was so low that the lights were too...
EDGE: Oh no... too close to your head!
Charles Busch: And wearing a hot habit. In thirty years, I’ve never missed a performance; but fortunately we decided to have an understudy (for this production). As it turned out, I got heat stroke one night. I ended up missing a couple of shows which I felt terribly guilty about. On the other hand, they are very flattering... the traditional habits. [laughter]. I think the nuns lost a lot of allure when they went ’modern.’
Catholicism and the movies
EDGE: So, there are three nuns and a postulate (young nun in training) in the show?
Charles Busch: Yes, I really enjoyed writing it, actually. Some things are tougher than others and this was meant to just be ’fun.’ I grew up just loving all those movies with religious themes. ’The Trouble with Angels’ and ’The Song of Bernadette,’ ’Bells of St. Mary’s’ and all those movies and I wasn’t raised with any kind of religious background at all. So, consequently the only thing I knew about religion, New or Old Testament was from watching movies. I just loved anything to do with Jesus and Catholicism in the movies... it all seemed just so romantic. People sort of got the wrong idea with ’The Divine Sister’ that it was going to be some kind of harsh satire against Catholicism... it’s really just about the movies, frankly.
EDGE: It really sounds awesome. Thank you, Charles.
Charles Busch: Thank you.
The Divine Sister - all performances recorded live in front of an audience (without sets or costumes) at The L.A. Theatre Works on July 11 at 8 pm, July 12 at 8 pm, July 13 at 3 pm and 8 pm and July 14 at 4 pm. Part of L.A. Theatre Works syndicated radio theater series, which broadcasts weekly on public radio nationwide and in Southern California on KPFK 90.7 FM. L.A. Theatre Works is located at the James Bridge Theater at 235 Charles E. Young Drive in Los Angeles.