Perched on a stool on the stage of Feinstein’s/54 Below, Charles Busch eased into the first bars of Diana Ross’s torchy 1973 hit “Touch Me in the Morning,” his voice soft and husky, his delivery relaxed but rueful. Busch became freshly enamored of the ballad after catching a YouTube audio clip of Peggy Lee singing it to a London audience as “this morose, tragic self-indictment,” he said admiringly. But when Busch performs it in his new show “Native New Yorker,” which opens Wednesday at the cabaret club, he won’t necessarily channel Lee or Ross — at least, not in the way he might have in the past.
As an actor and writer, Busch is among the most prolific and influential drag artists of his generation, giving us memorable women (and men) in solo performance, plays and films such as “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” “Psycho Beach Party,” “Die Mommie Die” and “The Divine Sister.” Busch crafted genre parodies that transcended camp in their fantastical elements and their abiding affection for the classic films and grandes dames who inspired him. But in cabaret, a form Busch has dipped into at various points with his musical director Tom Judson, he began to question his approach.
“I started doing it in drag because that’s how people know me,” said Busch, also known by Broadway audiences for writing the Tony-nominated hit “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.” “But I don’t have a drag persona like, say, RuPaul. I’d come here to 54 Below and they’d say, ‘Charles Busch!’ — and I’d come out looking like Arlene Dahl, then tell true stories about my life.” Starting about a year and a half ago, he thought, “Cabaret is about being real, and I’ve got to see what it’s like stripping off the veil.”
The progression was part of a process that started six or seven years back, and coincided with “this terrible period of dissatisfaction and brutal self-assessment,” Busch said. “I’m normally a very resilient person, but I was in a bad mood for about a year and a half, feeling disappointed in my creative life.”
In response, Busch “called in the Marines” — and rang a therapist he hadn’t seen in years. Later, “I took the radical move of actually taking some singing lessons. And you know, they work. I’d always approached songs as monologues, where it’s about the lyrics, and the melodies are Tom’s job,” he said. “I’ve had to learn that the composer also has something to offer, that the melody is also useful as a form of emotional expression.”
In his last cabaret show, “My Kinda ’60s,” Busch looked back on his childhood and adolescence, paying homage to the aunt who raised him after his mother died. “Native New Yorker” features music from the following decade, “an interesting and sexy period for me, going from college to figuring out how I’ll somehow earn a living in theater and be true to who I am,” he said. The songs are culled from pop, film and Broadway, veering from Stephen Sondheim (“Pretty Woman,” “In Buddy’s Eyes”) to Henry Mancini (“Whistling Away the Dark”) to Rupert Holmes (“Widescreen”) and Jim Croce (“I Got a Name”).
To develop his non-drag sartorial style, Busch, who describes himself as a “pretty conservative” dresser offstage, went back to his East Village roots and booked a show at the club Pangea in 2017. “I just wore a black shirt and black pants, and it felt great. Then I thought, am I so lacking in imagination in this gender-fluid age that I’m either in full drag or dressed as a waiter? So I had this young costume designer, Jimmy Johansmeyer, make me this man’s suit, a green paisley thing with rhinestone buttons. I would say it’s the place where Bruno Mars meets Judy at the Palace. There’s a place, you know?”
Busch credits his longtime friend Julie Halston, a collaborator and muse in his earlier work, with helping him enter this next phase. “As people get older, there’s a lot more to deal with, and I think Charles has gotten more open to the idea that life is very big,” Halston said. Busch has also seen his impact on a new generation of boundary-pushing artists, such as the Pulitzer Prize finalist Taylor Mac, whose own Broadway debut as a playwright, “Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus,” is set to begin previews in April.
“I guess I’ve given a boost to people, like Charles Ludlam did for me,” Busch said, noting that he was greatly moved when Jim Parsons cited Busch as a key influence in a Playbill article about last year’s revival of “The Boys in the Band.” But Busch added, “I think where drag is going right now is more outrageous, more in your face. For my generation, the word ‘drag queen’ was a slur on our professionalism. It’s so totally different today; younger performers — Jinkx Monsoon, Bianca Del Rio, Peppermint — honor that word, and have personae they can stay true to, and I think that’s fabulous.”
And Busch has no plans to abandon drag in his primary vehicle for it, theater. Next January, Primary Stages will present his latest play, “The Confession of Lily Dare,” in which he’ll portray — as he did last year, in a staging at Theater for the New City — the titular heroine as she evolves, over decades, from a convent girl to a cabaret chanteuse to the madam of a string of brothels. “I wanted to see if we could have outrageous fun with these old movie conventions — the gauzy 1930s mother-love dramas — and get a sophisticated, ironic 2018 audience to be genuinely emotionally affected. And we really did it.”
In “Native New Yorker,” Busch will again nod to the real “embattled woman” who stuck with him through the decade of struggle and adventure traced in the show, which ends with the 1985 Off Broadway opening of “Vampire Lesbians.” For “I Got a Name,” he took the unusual step of revising a lyric: “I sing, ‘And I carry it with me for my aunt to see,’” Busch said, then paused because he was getting choked up. “I was very fortunate to have someone who was always on my side,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate in every way.”