For Charles Busch in 'Lily Dare' off-Broadway Life's a Drag, and That's a Good Thing

Actor-playwright-drag-performer extraordinaire Charles Busch has gathered a cult following in the New York theater community ever since he broke through with his play Vampire Lesbians of Sodom at the Limbo Lounge in 1984, a satirical battle to the death (or undeath as it were) by the titular undead biblical ladies. That following has followed him from the Limbo Lounge to the Provincetown Playhouse and other Greenwich Village venues. Some even ventured north of 14th Street when he had his Broadway hit, The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, and they now come back when his shows run on 59th Street or other West Side venues.

All the while, however, Busch has remained true to his East Village artistic roots, and he has thrived by channeling his passion for old Hollywood movies and the larger-than-life actresses who starred in them into hysterically funny plays that have a moving throughline. Busch is an old-fashioned hyphenate: He does not just write plays, he takes the lead female role. On stage, he often seems like the long-lost child of Eve Arden and Joan Rivers—and Marlene Dietrich and Mae West...and probably seven others. He is mutt and a chameleon with a love of low-brow humor and an acute aesthetic intelligence to make first-class entertainments.

Like his mentor and idol, Charles Ludlam, who ran the late-great Ridiculous Theatrical Company from 1967 until his untimely death in 1987, Busch immerses himself in camp humor then creates his plays. While Ludlam's plays are more anarchic, Busch's are usually sympathetic, even nostalgic looks at those old movies and their strong-willed heroines. They are at once parodies and homages.

The Cast of 'Lily Dare'
From left, the cast of the "The Confession of Lily Dare," Kendal Sparks, Charles Busch, Christopher Borg, Nancy Anderson and Howard McGillin. Carol Rosegg

Busch did not start out to be a playwright, but he was always writing. "Even when I was negligible and an invisible presence in school," he tells Newsweek, "I was tossing out full-length plays at age 11. Strangely enough I never thought I was going to have a writing career. My obsession was to be onstage."

But getting cast was another matter. "When I was at Northwestern University and saw that I was not being cast—that I was just too gay and too eccentric—I realized I would have to write roles for myself. If I was going have any kind of career, I was going to have to make it happen myself. And so I started doing that my senior year at college, and it felt right. So I just committed to that course, and I never deviated from it."

Busch says he got his inspiration from Ludlam. Long before chat rooms, Ludlam's plays were the talk of theater circles. He raised the eyebrows of people whose eyebrows usually held firm. "I am from New York City, and I saw Charles Ludlam. And he made such an impression on me. We seemed to share the same frame of reference, and he was such a wonderful example of someone steering their own course. And I saw through his example that one could have a career creating roles for yourself. And the whole sense of androgyny that I have never seen before.

"Not many people had seen men playing female characters before, and since I knew that I had this androgynous nature and what I did best was playing a female character, Ludlam certainly inspired me to go forward.

"I am part of that tradition."

Getting Fresh With a Role

Rarely, but occasionally, he takes on roles written by other people. "Once a decade or so somebody offers me something." One of those somethings was the title role in a summer stock production of Auntie Mame by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. It toured, playing in Ogunquit, Maine, and Sag Harbor, New York. Life was a banquet for all his fans. But it did bring up the subject of men playing roles that were once played by the larger-than-life actress, the Rosalind Russells, Bette Davises, Deitrichs, etc.

"We live in a time of high-definition film and hyperrealism in theater," he notes with a tinge of disappointment in his voice. "And women in everyday lives generally aren't that flamboyant anymore it's not encouraged. It's discouraged."

This is a complex issue for Busch. "It's hard nowadays. There is always discussions in the chat rooms about who should play Mame. That seems to be a great concern for so many people. Over the past 30 years, women have not been encouraged to be flamboyant and certainly the tradition of the elegant madcap has kind of vanished."

For now Busch contents himself to star in his own plays, and at the moment, that is The Confession of Lily Dare.

The play came from the urge to age in a role. "There is a fantasy element. With Lily Dare, I'd wanted to play a part to play where I age and play a woman in different stages in her life and go from girlhood to…old…harridan. [Lily Dare] started with me wanting to play Barbara Stanwyck in a mother-love drama."

Taking Stock

Once he had that in place, Busch did what he has always done: "I honestly write a list of actors whose company I enjoy being with and I try to fit them into the scenario. I've always been like that. I've always had my stock company. Somebody asked me if I'd ever gone into rehearsal not liking one of the actors. And I thought about it, and I said, 'No, because I wrote the play for the people I wanted to spend time with.'"

This is actually a fairly common practice in theater. It's one that Busch shares with Ludlam, who also had a company of actors that he knew and who understood what he was going for. Even Ludlam's Greenwich Village neighbor, the Circle Repertory Company did the same thing to much success. It actually goes back at least to the Shakespeare and the Elizabethans. And given these track records, it probably yields the best results too.

"The important thing," Busch notes, "is you've got to know talented people. That is the mistake some people make. You have to surround yourself with some talented folks. And I do."

A Scene from the play "Lily Dare"
From left, Jennifer Van Dyck, Christopher Borg and Charles Busch in "Lily Dare." Carol Rosegg

The incredibly funny and talented Julie Halston, most recently seen on Broadway in Tootsie, was an early member of his company. In Lily Dare, Busch is joined by Jennifer Van Dyck.

"It is a joy to work with people like Jennifer Van Dyck. I've done—God time does by so quickly: I've known her 11 years, and we've done 11 productions of I think 5 plays."

All Busch's plays are tightly scripted: "No improv, baby. There never was. I write every word from the first day of rehearsal. We do make little adjustments and cuts," and as often happens, actors influence the playwright.

"In Lily Dare, I wrote this part for Nancy Anderson. Gradually, I realized there were moments that made the character seem not too bright. And the more I got to know Nancy and work with her, I saw she is a very smart woman."

That's when things changed a little for Nancy's character.

"I really didn't like the elements in the character than made her seem silly. And so I started editing them out. In those '30s movies, the Joan Blondell—the wisecracking sidekick—is a wise person. They are not foolish women. They're street wise, and they have great common sense. I tailored the role for Nancy. And in doing so, I also made it more truthful to the movie genre."

While Busch can always mine a scene for a laugh, lots of them—and the laughs in his shows are big—it's equally important that on some level a show touches an audience. Nothing saccharine of course, and certainly nothing portentous or polite.

"I was curious to see if in this cynical modern age it was possible to have a lot of fun with a pre-code tearjerker film," he says. "Could an audience today be moved by it? And that's the thing I am very proud of. It seems like people really are oddly moved at the end of the play.

"There are certain primal situations that, if you play it honestly, people are moved.

"We've all had mothers. We've all been children and have complex relationships. So even within genre parody you can have moments of genuine feelings."

Nancy Anderson and Charles Busch 'Lily Dare'
Nancy Anderson and Charles Busch share a mother-daughter moment in "Lily Dare." Carol Rosegg

This is what separates Busch, as well as others in the ridiculous tradition like Ludlam and Kenneth Bernard. "Someone else could have taken this same subject matter and done it strictly on a camp level—with all the dramatic moments underlined and spoofed—and people could enjoy that thoroughly, I guess. But that's not what I do. I've always enjoyed kind of enjoyed a roller-coaster of tone.

"Just because something is an homage to a movie genre doesn't mean it can't be genuinely moving and genuinely touching."

He points to the classic comedy Some Like It Hot, which "is such a brilliant comedy but Marilyn Monroe anchors it with this vulnerable soulfulness that pierces though the forest and is very moving."

Reviewing the Situation

The results can't really be argued with. Even though Busch can always be counted on to satisfy his base, he does think about the reviews, which for Lily Dare have been positive across the board.

"It's been five years since I had a play reviewed. So I am very relieved. I don't know whether I am gun shy or what, but I'd done a series of plays down in the East Village that I intentionally never let reviewers in. We all had a very nice time. In this case, I had to let them [the critics] in, and it was very nerve-wracking, but we seem to have emerged unscathed."

But reviews that drop words like "delicious" and "irresistible" still send his playwright's heart aflutter.

His one great fear is critics getting together and doing a think piece. "You're always in trouble when they do a think piece," he says laughing. "A think piece always ends up being about how I'm sort of redolent of times gone by."

No danger of that here. For now, anyone with a taste for pre-Code tearjerkers and some newfangled, old-fashioned East Village camp or just some classic ridiculous theater, should try to catch The Confession of Lily Dare at the Cherry Lane Theatre while you can. It's no spoiler to say that Lily's in a pickle, a pickle that only a relish salesman with a hot dog concession could love, but you'll eat it up.

The Confession of Lily Dare is playing through March 5 at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, New York, for more information go to