Charles Busch: The Lady at the Mic

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by Jordan Cohen

 

 

Charles Busch has done it all. He’s a Tony nominee, Drama Desk Lifetime Achievement Award winner, two-time MAC award winner, playwright, screenwriter, actor, singer, director for both stage and screen, novelist – the list goes on. Over the decades, he has built a varied and impressive career by playing, in drag, the female leads in most of his own productions – plays written, directed, and performed in an over-the-top, high camp style. Mr. Busch considers drag to be both an opportunity for artistic expression and a way to honor the icons of old Hollywood, having once referred to the characters he plays as “feminist heroines.”

 

In his new cabaret, “The Lady at the Mic,” directed by Carl Andress for Lincoln Center’s American Songbook Series, Mr. Busch draws inspiration from “the image of the vulnerable but indomitable woman standing in the spotlight commanding an audience” in the cabaret venue. During his ninety-minute performance, he pays tribute to five women who more than fit this description: Elaine Stritch, Julie Wilson, Mary Cleere Haran, Polly Bergen, and Joan Rivers. As we come to learn, these stars of theatre, cabaret, and comedy touched his life in many ways.

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Mr. Busch is equally excellent performing a somber, bluesy standard as he is performing an exultant show tune. When he tells stories, he speaks with humor, self-confidence, and poise, tempered with humility and genuine warmth for those he’s befriended, worked with, and loved over the years. His style is easy-going and conversational (which is anything but easy to achieve), and he wins audiences over with a big heart, pleasant vocals, and a slew of hilarious anecdotes collected over a lifetime in the business.

 

Mr. Busch opened most appropriately with Tom Judson’s “The Lady at the Mic.” With bold gestures and lyrics like “sit back and let me take you to a place where songs are born,” he invited us into his world from the very first note. His duet to Jimmy Van Heusen’s and Johnny Burke’s “The Road to Morocco” with his pianist and music director, Tom Judson, was similarly upbeat and joyful. The pair maintained an easy rapport as they dueted several more times throughout the evening. Mr. Busch imbued Stephen Sondheim’s “A Parade in Town” with a tragicomic quality, balancing perfectly the eagerness and melancholy of the song. His performance of Jerome Kern’s and Johnny Mercer’s “I’m Old Fashioned” was easily one of the musical highlights of the evening. Quiet, introspective, and filled with longing, his performance was both beautifully intimate and far reaching to the upper corners of the Appel Room. Mr. Busch showed off bravura acting with back-to-back performances of Sondheim’s “With So Little to Be Sure of” and “Too Many Mornings” and sounded flawless on Kern and Hammerstein’s “Bill.” His encore performance of Cy Coleman’s and Carolyn Leigh’s “’Hey, Look Me Over” was buoyant and effortless, like he was performing for close friends in his living room. Guy Klucevsek and Joe Gallant were spectacular on the accordion and bass, respectively.

 

Between songs, Mr. Busch regaled us with stories about the five aforementioned stars. He spoke of striving to gain Elaine Stritch’s approval after years of strange interactions, like the time she informed him that his ass was hanging out of his dress at a Rainbow Room luncheon. With great pride, he tells us that she finally called him a “real artist” after seeing his performance of a one-man show. There was also the time he accidentally chose to sing one of Julie Wilson’s signature songs at an AIDS benefit on Fire Island where he and Ms. Wilson were the only acts. Instead of deriding him, she stood in the wings smiling, sending positive energy his way throughout the entire set. His deep affection and admiration for Polly Bergen, Joan Rivers, and Mary Cleere Haran were also on full display. Mr. Busch spoke of Ms. Rivers’ endless generosity and the memories they shared spending many holidays together. Once, they stood together in the corner of Hal Prince’s living room at a Christmas party, star struck, even though Ms. Rivers was, according to Mr. Busch, the most famous person in the room.

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Charles Busch is a theatrical treasure and nothing made this more obvious than the standing ovation he received. If you missed it, you can catch Mr. Busch’s next theatre piece, Cleopatra, which he wrote and in which he will star, at Theatre for the New City, beginning on March 25th.

 

 

Charles Busch: The Lady at the Mic

The Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall

Friday, February 26th (one night only)

For tickets to other shows in this series, visit: AmericanSongbook.org

*Photos: Maryann Lopinto

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