Known best for his turns in drag in such plays as Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and films Psycho Beach Party and Die Mommie Die, Charles Busch has more recently penned the book for the new musical which opened in Philadelphia this month – Philadelphia Theatre Company‘s Stars of David at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. The show’s adapted from Abigail Pogrebin’s bestselling book Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish, a snapshot of Jewish identity with insights from everybody from Joan Rivers to Tony Kushner. The LGBT connection is also alive and well with music from composers like William Finn and the late Marvin Hamlisch
The Tony nominee talks to us about Auntie Mame, identity and never really being in the closet.
How did you first get involved in this musical project?
The director, Gordon Greenberg, accosted me in a restaurant. He was a friend of my dining companion Julie Halston, and he wouldn’t let me eat my spaghetti putanesca until I agreed to write a couple short funny monologues for this show he was directing - Stars of David. Of course, it turned out to be a lot more complicated. I’ve been responsible for providing a structure for what I think is a very unique theatrical evening.
With so many insights into what it means to be Jewish in America, are there any LGBT stories of note in this show?
A real highlight of the show is a piece about the playwright Tony Kushner, written by Michael Friedman who wrote the show Bloody Andrew Jackson. It totally captures Tony’s brilliant stream of consciousness style of conversation. It almost sounds like a musicalized monologue from Angels in America.
What’s your own story?
My story is a cross between Auntie Mame and The Miracle Worker. It’s the story of a little boy from the suburbs of New York whose mother died when he was seven, and over the next few years he drifted into a fantasy world of old movies and felt completely separated from the world. And then in the nick of time he was rescued by his aunt, an extraodinary woman of great brilliance and insight, who brought him to live with her in New York City and with great effort and determination, awakened the boy to a wider world of possibilities and gave him the complete freedom to explore his creativity and know that he was absolutely loved. The gift she gave me has allowed me to have such an eccentric career and never for a moment fear ”what will people think?”
What was it like coming out?
I never came out. I was never in. Just seemingly one day I saw myself as an orphaned waif and the next day I was sexualized and aware of the fascinating world of gay men. I’ve been very, very lucky.
Many of your fans know you best for your drag performances in both theatre and film. What interested you most about being behind the scenes of this project?
The score for this show has involved a raft of the creme de la creme of contemporary musical theatre composers and lyrics of several generations. It’s been fascinating getting to know them and conspiring with them and laughing with them and being encouraged by them and ecouraging them.
I’ve become more aware of how conflicted so many people are by identifying with their ethnicity in a cultural and even spiritual way but very uncomfortable with organized religion.
What new projects are you working on these days?
I’m writing a new play for Primary Stages Theatre Company and I’m back in the mercurial world of cabaret. I’ve been having a great time perfoming my cabaret act all over the place. I was in Provincetown last summer and I’ll be at a beautiful club in Hudson, New York – the Club Helsinki – on Nov 11th, and in New York City at 54 Below on December 29th and 30th.
Will we see you back on the stage or screen anytime soon?
I’ll be in the new play I’m writing and I’m determined to make another movie. I’ve just gotta settle on an idea and discipline myself to write and then work a miracle and get it made.
What can we learn about identity from this show?
It seems to be part of the human condition to want to be a part of a group. There is a great line in the Tony Kushner song: “A house so big has a room for you in it somewhere if you want.”
Stars of David, now through Nov. 18, Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, 215-985-0420.