BY NAVEEN KUMAR
The preeminent queen of drag theatre, Charles Busch returns to the New York stage this week with his new comedy The Tribute Artist, in which he plays a female impersonator taking on the role of a lifetime—that of a dear, deceased friend. Opening Off Broadway on Sunday, February 9th at Primary Stages, it’s the latest in the playwright’s lineup of comedic plays in which he also performs a role in drag.
For thirty years Busch has been known for his distinct brand of high camp style and the easy charisma with which he embodies female characters, many inspired by legendary Hollywood stars. In his latest, Busch plays Jimmy, a down on his luck Vegas ‘celebrity tribute artist,’ whose glamorous old friend dies in her sleep leaving no will behind. Jimmy hatches a plan to impersonate his late friend in order to hang on to her West Village townhouse.
I spoke to Charles about his work on the new show, the future of drag, and why not every gay man needs to love Judy Garland.
Naveen Kumar: Can you tell me a bit about where you got the idea for this play?
Charles Busch: Over the years I’ve been writing two kinds of plays: one the sort of drag, camp, movie parody play and the other a more traditional New York comedy like The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife. I thought it’d be interesting to try to find a middle ground between the two, so I was in search of a story that would be camp and sort of real at the same time.
Of course, living in New York City, I’m surrounded by friends who are in desperate straits trying to find a place to live in Manhattan. It’s just this terrible catch-22 with all sorts of rules and regulations. So, the real estate dilemma put it all together.
Also, I had never done a story where I was posing as a woman. I’ve made a career out of playing female characters, but I’ve never actually done a show where I was a man posing as a woman. I thought that would be a fun twist, and wanted to see what I could bring to it that was fresh.
It’s a centuries old theatrical convention. All the popular movies—Tootsie, Some Like It Hot, Mrs. Doubtfire—are really about a resolutely heterosexual man forced into playing a female part, which he’s never done before. The comedy comes from his struggle to be feminine and the big difference between men and women. The sort of sexy part of the story is when another straight man is attracted to the straight guy in drag, and there’s a certain amount of homosexual panic.
I’ve been discovering that the interesting part of this play for me, particularly as an actor, is that there’s so little difference between my character and the impersonation he’s doing. His sexuality is so androgynous that he’s able to slip into the female role very effortlessly, and we take it from there.
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