‘Lily’ is the latest by eternally ephemeral Charles Busch

Our Lady of Pre-Code Cinema: Charles Busch as Lily Dare. | Photo by Michael Wakefield

BY SCOTT STIFFLER | Twenty-four times for “The Confession of Lily Dare” — the latest from actor, playwright, novelist, screenwriter, director, and drag legend Charles Busch — sure seems like a scant amount. And yet, in this age of on-demand streaming platforms and everlasting social media posts, the fleeting nature of what goes on at Theater for the New City (TNC) suits our lady in question just fine, thank you.

“One could think it’s sort of a dotty thing to do, because we put a lot of effort into these,” said Busch, of the many blink-and-miss-it productions he’s brought to Crystal Fields’ iconic East Village venue over the years (including 2012’s Biblical epic “Judith of Bethulia,” with Busch as the morally sound, titular heroine).

“When I want to rekindle a sense of pure joy in putting on a show,” Busch said, “which often happens when I start feeling low ebb and want to pull myself up, other people might take a stiff drink. For me, I put on a play. I have a very loose relationship with Crystal. I just call her up before there even is a play, and ask her if she has a couple of weeks when one of her theaters is available.” Demonstrating a steadfast commitment comparable to what might account for the longtime presence of those in his own creative ensemble (actors Christopher Borg and Jennifer Van Dyck, along with director Carl Andress, are on board for “Lily Dare”), Busch noted of Fields, “She produced my very first play when I was extremely young… and she never lost faith in me. And so I return, often.”

Although he granted our interview request with no grand effort required (and let the clock run well past the chunk of time we asked for), Busch doesn’t court review coverage for his shows at TNC. He doesn’t have to. They’ve long sold out by word of mouth, buoyed in more recent years by updates on his Facebook page. Still, some potential audience members see the limited run and the small house and need to be advised not to miss the boat. “People always think it’s a workshop,” Busch observed with benign bemusement, “and I have to explain, ‘No, this is it.’ It just so happens twice, we have actually transferred these plays commercially [“Shanghai Moon” and “The Divine Sister”]… But honestly, there’s never any ulterior motive or agenda. It’s just do it 24 times, take the pictures, and then move on.”

The cumulative effect of this ethic is a body of work that seems like a mirage, albeit one with real pleasures. “The last one we did [at TNC] was my version of ‘Cleopatra.’ I wrote it so quickly, and we performed it so quickly, and since nothing really appeared in print about it, sometimes I think, did I really play Cleopatra or did I just have a dream that I was in ancient Egypt? It’s just so ephemeral. I mean all theater is, but particularly in this case… that aspect, I find rather moving and fascinating.”

Armchair analysts might find it interesting to note that just under a year into the Trump presidency, the playwright set about writing his current project, grounding it in an era of permissiveness cut short by conservative backlash. Asked if the subject matter connects to our current political climate, Busch said, “I certainly have passionate feelings about what’s going on today. But as a writer, I don’t know if that’s really in my wheelhouse to do contemporary satire. There are other writers who are much better suited to that kind of material… I do think everything you write is personal, whether you know it or not. Certainly my emotional state is reflected in whatever I’m writing.”

Charles Busch (seen here) assures you’ll need no prior knowledge of the “confession film” to enjoy his latest. | Photo by Michael Wakefield

Set along California’s lusty Barbary Coast during the turn of the 19th century, “The Confession of Lily Dare” takes its title character from the sheltered life of a convent girl to success as a cabaret chanteuse to serving as the madam in a sting of brothels to the downwardly mobile lot of a “drunken waterfront hag,” as Busch put it.

It’s all in the spirit of the story arc found in what came to be known as the “confession film” genre. “There was a spate of movies between 1931 and 1933,” Busch explained, “that centered around a female character who suffered all sorts of romantic tribulations, and had an illegitimate child who she gives up for their own good.” During this period, American films were “free from any moralistic limitations on stories of adultery, and a woman didn’t have to be punished for her sins. The language could be racier. There were intimations of homosexuality among the minor characters. They weren’t censored, and it was an exciting thing.”

Then the pendulum swung back. “Catholic groups were appalled by the open sexuality,” Busch noted, “so the motion picture community decided to police their own works, because they were worried that other groups would come in and police it for them.” Thus, the confession film had its day during the last bastion of pre-code picture making. But you don’t have to be cinephile enjoy your night out at the theater.

“I like to think that if you’ve never seen a motion picture before,” Busch submitted, “you can have an awfully good time at ‘The Confession of Lily Dare.’ I do think if you have a fondness for classic film, certainly you would notice details. But I really don’t think there’s a single laugh in the play that’s predicated on your familiarity with the particular movie genre.”

Audiences familiar with his body of work, however, are likely to recognize the source of those laughs. “Humor, the best humor to me,” Busch said, “is self-recognition at the noble foolishness of people trying to do the right thing and failing — but trying so hard; just the folly of human existence.”

What’s more, the playwright assured, you can make those post-show dinner plans with confidence. “Most of the movies, for the 1940s, were under two hours,” Busch noted. “And in the ’30s, it could be 80 minutes. So when I’ve done a parody, I see no reason to make it much longer than the original movie would be… at two and a half hours, you lose your welcome. And I like to get to the restaurant before it closes.”

Not long after “Lily Dare” closes, Busch returns to the road. “Like most careers, there are changes and chapters,” he said of his cabaret act. “They happen before you know you are doing it.” With longtime accompanist and “marvelous arranger” Tom Judson at the piano, “It’s almost like a two-person show,” Busch noted, “because he sings duets with me… and it’s been so fun. My god, we’ve been to at least 27 different cities and four different countries.”

Over the past six years, Busch has refined his approach. “In a creative situation, the question you should ask yourself is, ‘What do I have to offer?’ I think that’s a little healthier than, ‘God, I can’t do this.’ So when I first stated doing cabaret, I said, ‘I’m a playwright and a storyteller. I’ll go about it that way. It doesn’t matter if my singing is a little sketchy. I’ll choose songs I can really act and do a lot of anecdotes in between.’ ” But as Judson’s arrangements became “more complex and demanding,” Busch recalled, he made “the move, about a year ago, to take some singing lessons, which really helped a lot. And now I’m really singing… It sounds rather obvious, and yet, it was challenging for me.” As an interpreter of song prone to favor playwriting mode, he conceded, the lyrics “have always been more important to me than the melody. But to use the melody as an expressive tool, as well as the lyrics, was something I had to trust.”

Be it Barcelona or South Bend, Indiana, Busch seems to encounter the same faces likely to be found in the house at Feinstein’s/54 Below  here in Manhattan. “Every audience is all New Yorkers. Wherever I’ve gone, it really seems to happen,” he said. “In Paris, I was determined to learn a French song — in French. I worked so hard on this Edith Piaf song, and it turned out there wasn’t a single French person around. They were all from Yonkers.”

Busch and Judson will tour again in the summer (heads up, Sag Harbor, among other places). In the meantime, TNC audiences hoping for a tune or two will not walk away disappointed, as, after all, Lily does go through her cabaret entertainer phase. “I was searching for an old song,” he recalled, “and Tom said, ‘Well, I’ll just write you one,’ and he wrote this most perfect song, called ‘Pirate Joe’ that is just every song Marlene Dietrich ever sang.” Cast member Kendal Sparks, as Mickey, plays Judson’s “rather complicated arrangement,” while Busch, of course, sings — “which is ironic,” he noted, “because we have, in the cast, Howard McGillin and Nancy Anderson, who are two of the most accomplished musical theater performers around. Howard has played the Phantom of the Opera for more performances than anyone else, ever, and Nancy, among her many credits, recently stood by for Glenn Close in ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and went on one night, spectacularly. So it’s a little embarrassing, that they keep their mouth shut and I’m the one doing the singing.” Lest one think these high achievers are shooting daggers at their leading lady, Busch noted, “I think they’re relieved. They don’t have to worry about their voices, or getting a cold. Musical theater people are thrilled when all they have to do is act.”

As for Busch, it seems as if another act is in store for his 2000 Broadway hit, “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.” Bette Midler and Sharon Stone are currently attached to the long-awaited screen adaptation, and the playwright is optimistic. “At the moment,” Busch said, “it’s looking very good. We have a wonderful director [Andy Fickman]. But I can’t tell you when the cameras are going to start cranking.”

Circling back to his upcoming cabaret work, Busch said that although “a lot of people think of me as a drag performer,” he’s “recently stopped being in drag during in my act, because it seemed like the more I was unveiled, the better it is.”

“The Confession of Lily Dare” is presented through April 29; Tues. at 7pm, Wed.–Sat. at 8pm and Sun. at 3pm; Sat., April 7 at 3pm. In the Johnson Theater at Theater for the New City (155 First Ave., btw. E. Ninth & 10th Sts.). For tickets ($25 general admission), call SmartTix at 212-868-4444 or visit smarttix.com. To be placed on the waiting list for sold-out performances, call TNC at 212-254-1109. Venue info at theaterforthenewcity.net and artist info at charlesbusch.com.

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