How do you get the best roles written for you, both onstage and onscreen?
In the case of the great Charles Busch, you write the roles yourself.
The gay/drag icon—who also found mainstream success with his Tony Award-nominated play The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife—will bring his cabaret show Native New Yorker to the Purple Room on Friday and Saturday, April 5 and 6.
“Ever since I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be on the stage,” Busch recently told me. “During college, I was never cast in any plays. I thought that if I was not making it in the university’s theater, I was going to have a big problem in the real world.
“It’s not like I could find any roles that were right for me. Being an androgynous young fellow, I didn’t know what would work for me. I started writing full-length plays when I was 11; I don’t know why it took me to the ripe old age of 19 to figure out I could write a starring role for myself. Northwestern didn’t offer the opportunity to put on your own production. I figured I’d never let that stop me. My senior year, I wrote a play and found a way of doing it myself. That was the first time I ever wrote, acted and directed my own play. … I really just became a writer so that I could have roles onstage.”
Busch, as the name of his show states, was born in New York City.
“I had an eccentric childhood. My mother died when I was 7, and I was very lucky that my Aunt Lillian, a widow with no children, lived in New York City. She was the great force in my life,” Busch said. “I was always spending weekends with her. She started taking me to the theater when I was about 9 years old. She was always very, very encouraging to me. When I was 13, I was living in a fantasy world, and I wasn’t functioning. I was going to be held back in school. I was living up in a suburb, and my aunt stepped in and brought me to live with her in New York City—just like Auntie Mame. She was the most influential person in my life. She encouraged any talent that I had and was extremely supportive. She taught me great lessons, and I was very fortunate I was never saddled with the concept of, ‘What would people think?’ It’s never been part of my consciousness, and that has allowed me to be something of an adventurist and just do something because I thought it would be fun or outrageous.
“My operative word that I have always held onto is always ‘fun.’ I don’t have the concern of, ‘What will people think?’—just, ‘How much fun this could be?’”
Busch’s April shows will mark a return to the Purple Room.
“I love Palm Springs and have been coming to the Purple Room for the last three years. I have some very good friends who live in Palm Springs, and I like to come whenever I can,” he said. “Unfortunately, I don’t get to spend as much time socializing, because I don’t want to exhaust myself before performing.”
Busch said Native New Yorker reflects his personal experience.
“I am a playwright—really, a storyteller. My cabaret show is about my story, where I come from—and then finding songs that help illuminate my stories,” Busch said. “This show is very much about my life in the ’70s and the ’80s. It starts off when I went to college at Northwestern, and it’s really about my quest during that decade and a half of how I was going to have a career in the theater. … The show ends at the opening of my 1985 show Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. This play helped establish me as a playwright and actor.
“I sing a collection of beautiful songs from the ’70s and ’80s by Sondheim, Rupert Holmes and Henry Mancini, as well as a collection of Broadway pop songs. The songs really helped to illuminate my storyline. It’s both touching and funny. I’ve told these stories so often in my living room that it’s nice to be able to share it on the stage. I create the illusion that the whole audience is in my living room.”
While Busch is known for his drag performances, he will not be in drag for Native New Yorker.
“Originally, the show was done with me in drag,” he said. “But it is my story, so a few years ago, I decided to try it without the drag. I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about it, but I’ve discovered that I really love it. It didn’t really change anything. It made me feel freer, and it makes more sense when I’m introduced as Charles Busch, and I enter as Charles Busch.”
Charles Busch: Native New Yorker will be performed at 8 p.m. (after a 6 p.m. dinner seating) on Friday and Saturday, April 5 and 6, at the Purple Room, 1900 E. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $50 to $60 plus a $25 food/drink minimum. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-4422, or visit purpleroompalmsprings.com.