Voice To Voice: Robert Leleux And Charles Busch Discuss Judy Garland, Theater, Gay Literature And More
This month we've invited several LGBT authors to participate in our first ever Voice to Voice conversation series. Throughout January we'll feature intimate interviews between novelists, poets, playwrights, and writers as they discuss everything from the state of LGBT literature to sex and sexuality between the pages to the joys and challenges of writing about LGBT issues, themes, and lives.
Our first featured conversation was between Violet Quill members Edmund White and Felice Picano.
Then we featured novelists Christopher Rice and Eric Shaw Quinn.
Today we bring you a hilarious conversation between writer Robert Leleux and author, playwright, actor, and drag legend Charles Busch.
Leleux is the author of "The Living End: A Memoir of Forgetting and Forgiving," as well as "The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy." His essays and articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country including The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, and The Utne Reader. He is also a columnist for The Texas Observer.
Busch is the author and star of such plays as "The Divine Sister," "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom," and "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife," which ran two years on Broadway and received a Tony nomination for Best Play. He wrote and starred in the film versions of his plays "Psycho Beach Party" and "Die Mommie Die." In 2003 Busch received a special Drama Desk Award for career achievement as both performer and playwright.
Here Leleux and Busch discuss the joys of Judy Garland, impassioned acts of activism gone awry, the hilarious reason Busch lost his contract with Disney Animation, and more.
Robert Leleux: Hello, you handsome man, you.
Charles Busch: Well, look at you. You've lost so much weight. You've positively melted away! How did you do it?
RL: Diet and exercise, sadly.
CB: Oh, I was so hoping you'd say something like, "I drank daily the juice of the leaves of twelve lemons," or something like that.
RL: I know, it's almost as horrible to say "diet and exercise" as it is to do it. I ask myself, "When did I become this kind of homosexual?"
CB: Yeah, I know what you mean.
RL: It's... disheartening. Unlike sitting down to talk to you, which is extremely heartening. Now, I've been sitting here trying to remember... I think the first play I ever saw of yours was "Allergist's Wife."
CB: Oh, really. And that's so out of character, too.
RL: I laughed so hard I disturbed the people sitting next to us. They complained about me during intermission.
CB: That's funny, too, because that play was such a specific sort of New York Jewish play, and you're far from it.
RL: I know, but growing up in Texas... Do you remember that TV movie with Ingrid Bergman?
CB: Oh, Golda.
RL: That's it. "A Woman Called Golda." I must have watched it about a thousand times. I had this whole fantasy of being Jewish and moving to a Kibbutz.
CB: Oh, dear.
RL: Finally, my mother said, "You are not Golda Meir. You are not moving to a Kibbutz. It is never going to happen."
CB: That's hilarious. So, when was the first time you actually saw me on stage? "Die, Mommie, Die"?
RL: "Die, Mommie, Die." And you were so brilliant. But there are jokes from "Allergist's Wife" that I still laugh at.
RL: Like, "I call my daughter an extremist because she's married to rabbi and she lives in Jerusalem!"
CB: Right, right.
RL: That was so funny. You know, there's nothing greater to me than being in the theater. To me, it's the only time when adulthood lives up to that childhood promise of Christmas morning. You know, of running downstairs and seeing those presents under the tree.
CB: Watching a play?
RL: It's just the most wonderful thing.
CB: How come you don't write for the theater, then?
RL: I don't know! I'd love to. Sometimes I go to see the same show over and over again, and just try to absorb it. This last production of "Angels in America," for instance, I saw twelve times.
CB: So you saw all the different casts?
RL: Yes, it was fascinating.
CB: Was Michael Urie just great?
RL: I think he is so divine.
CB: He's very talented. And when you meet him, he's so nice.
RL: I know! I met him at the opening night party for "Other Desert Cities," and I just swooned. I made a total ass out of myself. I said, "I'm from Texas, too!" Just harrowing. Oh, you know, I have to keep in mind that the Huffington Post wants us to say something about "gay literature." I'm wracking my brain, trying to remember if I've ever read any.
CB: Well, in the '70s, during that great flowering of gay literature, I read 'em all.
RL: What did you read?
CB: Oh, there was "Dancer from the Dance."
RL: Oh, I read that. That was good.
CB: And there was Larry Kramer's book, "Faggots."
RL: I read that, too. Very dark, very upsetting.
CB: Oh, and another book I loved that was sort of crypto-gay was called "Good Times Bad Times," by James Kirkwood.
RL: I loved "P.S. Your Cat is Dead."
CB: Well, the book he did before that was called "Good Times Bad Times." It was sort of a prep school book about these two boys, and it's kind of clear that they're lovers, but at that point, in the early '70s, you couldn't really do that, and it was a really terrific book. But before that, I read a lot of those Single Girl in New York books, like "Fear of Flying," where you could sort of put yourself, through transference, into the Jewish Girl in New York situation.
RL: I suppose I always did that anyway. I did that with "Jane Eyre." I wanted to marry Mr. Rochester. When she says, "Reader, I married him," I was so jealous I wanted to kill her. I feel like that's just what little gay boys do.
CB: I guess that is part of it. I mean, you don't want to get simplistic about it. But so many of these women who've become such gay icons, like Bette Davis, the very strong woman...
RL: ...are the best characters. The most interesting people in any story.
CB: And it's more interesting to put yourself in the place of Bette Davis than Irene Dunne, I guess.
RL: Poor Irene Dunne.
CB: It's always very complicated, what makes a woman a gay icon.
RL: Well, that's because it always changes, doesn't it? I mean, Doris Day is a gay icon.
CB: She is?
RL: Don't you think?
RL: I don't know, I remember watching her in those movies with Rock Hudson, and thinking...
CB: Don't get me wrong, I love Doris Day, but I would not put her on a list of all-time gay icons. But honestly, I’m so into Judyism that...
RL: Wait a minute. "Judyism?" That's so funny.
CB: I stole that from Vito Russo. He said he was a devout believer in Judyism.
RL: Well, I grew up in the temple, because of my mother. I'm telling you, all my mother needs is one glass of wine, and she starts slurring, "The way MGM treated Judy was a sin!"
RL: "A sin!" That's where she goes. Scratch her and that's where she goes. They have the same birthday, you see. June 10th. And, oh! This week, I was talking to my mother about Nietzsche!
CB: Boy, I can't wait to see where you're going with this.
RL: Well, bizarrely, this week I was reading "The Genealogy of Morals," and I was trying to explain to my mother Nietzsche's whole thing about how the weak are always sabotaging the strong, and she says, "Ah, yes. Just like Mr. Mayer did to Judy at MGM."
CB: That's funny. My ex-partner Eric was just touring Poland, and he went to Auschwitz.
RL: Oh, brother, from Nietzsche to Auschwitz.
CB: I know it, but I said to Eric, "I don't think I could ever go to Auschwitz, because when we took that tour of MGM, I nearly collapsed outside the Thalberg building."
RL: Hear, hear.
CB: So, I mean, Auschwitz? Please! I can’t even see "Follies"! These days, I'm feeling very emotionally raw, what can I tell you?
RL: I just saw "Follies." And, you know, my grandmother died last year... she's the one I wrote my new book about, "The Living End." Anyway, I'd forgotten that "Follies" is really a musical about old ladies. And I'm telling you, I cried from the moment the curtain went up to the time... My mother looked at me during intermission and said, "I think you have some kind of hormone imbalance." And I said, "I just find it all very touching is all." And she said, "Touching? You cried through the tap numbers!"
CB: Well, I grew up with "Follies." I saw it when I was fifteen. It was the original production, and of course, that production will never be equaled. But, at fifteen, it didn't have any kind of resonance with me, this show about regret and middle age. It was all about the spectacle, the spectacle and the actresses. Then I saw it again at thirty, and you know, I had this great appreciation for Sondheim's brilliance, his lyrics. Then I saw it again at forty-five, and I was sitting there thinking, Oh, my god, this is me. I saw it again at fifty-two, and I'm sobbing. Meanwhile, I'm thinking, This production is really fucked up, but even still, I'm sobbing. So now, I wouldn't dare to see it! Now, I'd identify with every character. I'm Phyllis. I'm Sally. I'm the third hag from the right in the mirror number. I just would not dare. So you know, Auschwitz?
RL: That reminds me of the story... You told me that story once about being on public TV?
CB: Oh, when I turned into Judy Garland.
RL: Tell me that again.
CB: Oh, it was so humiliating. Well, I was lying on my sofa one night, as I usually am doing, and the phone rang and it was somebody from PBS saying, "Could you come over here immediately? We need somebody to do a pledge drive speech. Would you mind jumping in a taxi right this minute?" So, you know, I said, "Sure!" So, when I got there, they just threw me on live TV, standing in front of the phone banks, and they gave me this hand mic with a cord, and there was no teleprompter! They told me, "Just speak extemporaneously!" And suddenly, there's this camera coming toward me, and I'm holding a hand mic with a cord. And I defy any man, I defy Mark Ruffalo, not to turn into Judy Garland under those circumstances. I was trying so hard to be sincere, but somehow my speech got all, "Oh, dahlings, you know PBS is so terribly important..." All with this very Judy cadence, with the stutter and the stammer, saying "Think of the young children... who might... for the first time in their little lives... see... Pavarotti... or the ballet." And inside, I'm thinking, Oh, god, oh god, stop it! You're turning into Judy! But I cannot help myself! I’m working the cord. I'm doing the opening number of her TV show. I tell you, I was mere seconds away from belting out "Be My Guest."
RL: Oh, god, that's so funny!
CB: Or "I Will Come Back." Oh, I was so embarrassed. When I got home and called Eric, I said, very casual, "Did you watch?" And he said, "Yeah, I watched." And I asked him, "Was I very nelly?" And he said, "You weren't nelly, you were Judy." And I said, "I know, I know! I couldn't help myself!" Needless to say, PBS never asked me back.
RL: Judy Garland was just the great practitioner of that era's conversational style. When I was growing up, that's what I was taught to think of as great conversation.
CB: Well, she had this wonderful spontaneity that you just don't see anymore. She was such a witty, witty woman. And when you listen to her on...
RL: Jack Paar! Those wonderful Jack Paar interviews.
CB: On Jack Paar, certainly, or on something like the "Carnegie Hall" album, where between songs, she's talking. Now, I'm sure that by the time she did Carnegie Hall it was at the end of a long tour and she had her banter down, but she sounds like she's just completely off the cuff.
RL: I've probably listened to that album more than I've ever listened to anything. Growing up, my mother played it constantly, constantly, constantly.
CB: Me, too.
RL: Oh, I have to tell you a story. So, last summer, in the weeks leading up to the New York legislature's vote on same-sex marriage, the local TV news channel, NY1, kept playing these ads in support of it, showing these sweet little lesbian couples holding hands. But then, in the final days before the vote, they started running the opposition's ads, too. So, every time they showed the sweet little lesbians, they'd also show, like, these scary, gyrating S&M people, with chains and snakes or something. And it really made me very angry. Because I have this whole thing about that fake TV concept of "equal time," which I think is this cheap parody of democracy. Because, you know, justice is not equal to injustice. It isn't like selling soap or soda. You can’t, you know, say, "Coke versus Pepsi. Choose." So, I’m in my bedroom, and I have NY1 on in the background, and I'm having this really terrible day, and so I think, "I'm going to give those people a piece of my mind." So, I looked up the TV station's phone number, and I called them on this old rotary phone next to my bed, and I say, "Hello, I'm a very loyal viewer, and I just want you to know how very, very offended I am that you're running these anti same-sex marriage ads. I just want you to stop for a moment and ask yourself, "If you were living in Apartheid South Africa, would you run an ad in favor of Apartheid? If you were living in the segregated south, would you run an ad in favor of segregation?" Very, very grand, you know. And I pause, just for one second, to draw breath, and when I do, this poor woman on the other end of the line, says, "Honey, I am so sorry to tell you this, but you've got the wrong telephone number."
CB: Oh, no. No!
RL: Yes! She says, "This is the Darling Beauty Salon. But honey, I'm proud of ya. So, you call 'em back and give 'em a little hell for me." So, very carefully, I call NY1 back, and I go through my whole speech again, but at the end of it, I say, "And one more thing. Peg at the Darling Beauty Salon agrees with me. In fact, I stand at the head of a movement burgeoning throughout the city's day spas."
CB: Oh, no.
RL: Yes! So, what are you working on now, Charles?
CB: Well, I've made a concerted effort, during this past year... I mean, not to drop a name...
RL: By all means, drop away.
CB: Well, I'm pretty chummy with Joan Rivers.
RL: Who I'm totally in love with, by the way. You know, I've watched that documentary about her, "A Piece of Work," a million times. It's very, very moving.
CB: Well, I'm sort of in it. I'm at the Thanksgiving dinner, only you can't see me.
RL: Intensely moving, that movie.
CB: Well, she's a very wise lady. We're good friends, and I find her very much an inspiration as to how to conduct your life, and how to remain very youthful, with ambitions and dreams. Anyway, she always says that she says "yes" to everything, because you never know which thing will click, or be thrilling...
RL: Like she says in her documentary, "If you want to get struck by lightning, you have to stand out in the rain."
CB: Right. Well, up to now, I've tended to say "no" to everything.
RL: That's because you didn't listen to that Liza Minnelli song, "Say, Yes!"
CB: Oh that's right! "Say, yes!"
RL: Yes, I can! Yes, I'll dare!
CB: I guess I forgot to look to Liza for wisdom, Robert.
RL: Well, that's where you went wrong, Charles.
CB: Anyway, back to Joan. I always tend to say "no" to everything, but now I've decided to say "yes" to everything. Now, I'm doing all sorts of things that I would've said "no" to before.
CB: Yes, only I'll be really pissed off if it turns out I was wrong to take her cockamamie advice in the first place. So now, I'm writing the book to a children's musical.
CB: Yes, I'm doing that. The other day, I got a note from the producers saying, "Can't you make it campier?" So now, I'm trying to determine the camp sensibility of the average eight year old.
RL: Oh, which reminds me, will you tell the story about the Disney thing? About the teapot?
CB: Oh, that was many years ago. I was...
RL: Now, I feel like I'm Jack Paar.
CB: You're very Jack Paar. Very Jack Paar. I'm on the verge of telling all my Deanna Durbin stories.
RL: Oh, I wish you would!
CB: Anyway, I was very briefly under contract to Disney Animation, to develop ideas for animated features. They don't like you to use the word "cartoon" around there. So, I had two chances to fail. The first one, they said was "too juvenile." I thought, "Wow, now I'm too juvenile for a cartoon."
RL: You mean, for an "animated feature."
CB: Exactly. Well, the second one they seemed to go for, and it was... they give you, sort of, general areas to work in. So they said, "Set 'My Fair Lady' in ancient Egypt." So, I came up with this idea about an Egyptian princess, and I gave her, as a sidekick, a little scarab. A little talking scarab beetle. So, I had a telephone meeting with the executive "handling" me, and he said, "I looked over the notes. Very cute. But lose the beetle." And I said, "Lose the beetle? The cute little talking beetle!" And he said, "Beetles don’t talk." Well, how do you answer that? So, I said, "Excuse me just a moment, I've got a teacup calling me on the other line."
CB: For the sake of a wisecrack, a contract was lost. That was the end of me at Disney Animation.
RL: That's such a great line though. I wish you could work that into one of your plays. Oh, wait! Speaking of gay literature, you wrote that wonderful novel!
CB: "Whores of Lost Atlantis," yes.
RL: That was a blast.
CB: Well, that was an enormous endeavor. I worked on it for years, because while I was writing it, I was also performing eight shows a week, on several different shows, and you know, that takes a lot out of you. And in those days, in the late '80s, early '90s, I wasn't on the computer yet. So I would type it on my little typewriter, and then I'd have my friend Kathie, who was Camille in the book, retype the whole four hundred-page thing. She had to retype it three times.
RL: Like Countess Tolstoy!
CB: Yes. It took us three years to do it. And it was kind of funny because Kathie, since she was a character in the book, had to write awful things like, "Camille still had a pretty face, despite all the weight she’d piled on..." I felt terrible.
RL: You know, one of the things that inspired me to lose weight was something Jerry Mitchell said to me. I'd said something very light and off-hand like, "Well, I may have recently put on a few extra pounds." You know, as daintily as possible. And he said, "Yeah, you remind me of my friend who just had that surgery. You know, Bruce Vilanch? You remind me of Bruce Vilanch, so why don’t you just do what Bruce did?"
CB:: Bruce had liposuction?
RL: He apparently had that surgery...
RL: No, that surgery.
CB: Oh, gastric bypass!
RL: That's the one.
CB: Oh, no!
RL: And I thought, "This is not going the way..." Oh, and then I did this reading in Florida with two other writers, and it was covered in the newspaper. And in it, this asshole writes, "The first writer spoke very eloquently about blah blah blah. And then, "the second writer enlightened us on the topic of blah, blah, blah." And then, he writes, "Robert Leleux spoke. He's a jolly fellow with a loud laugh."
CB: Oh, that's vicious. That "jolly" is a euphemism.
RL: I thought, "It is time to go on a diet." Oh, hey, Charles, something I've always wondered about your work is, how soon in the writing process do you know if you're going to perform in whatever it is you're working on?
CB: I always know from the start.
RL: You do.
CB: Yeah, because often, there's a real fantasy quotient to my work. Any play that I've written for myself to perform in basically begins with the idea, "Wouldn't it be fun to be, say, Jean Harlow in a pre-code movie?" In fact, I'm doing a new play in the spring, just for twenty-four performances...
RL: Well, what is it? I want to see it!
CB: It's a Biblical epic. The story of Judith. But one of the reasons I'm doing it is because the roles I've been writing for myself over the past few years have gotten older and older. And I thought, You know, before it's too late, I want to play a sexy, tough young gal again. And I always wanted to do a Biblical epic. So, I'll play a beautiful young widow who saves her people from the Assyrians.
RL: I'm so there!
CB: Judith of Bethulia. She's one of those gals in the Bible who's always cutting people's heads off.
RL: Like Salome. This has Wildean undertones.
CB: Judith was a great heroine, though. Dressed in her finest gown and jewels, she infiltrated the enemy camp of the evil general Holofernes. She seduced him, decapitated him, and saved her people.
RL: Fabulous! I’ve always wanted you to do something Southern, of course. I always wanted you to do a cross between "Gone With the Wind" and "Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte."
CB: I've always wanted to do "Mandingo."
RL: Yes! Wouldn't it be wonderful? You wearing a dress like Scarlett's at the barbecue?
CB: Yes, it can be a little pricey, though, getting those costumes together. I do have this other idea... kind of an Americana piece. I've always wanted to do something where I aged a lot, went from young girl to dowager. And in the idea I've kind of been playing with, I'm this wealthy old dowager, and my grandchildren have terrible values.
CB: Just deadbeats, really. And I gather them all together to tell them I'm cutting them out of my will. And I'm very Greer Garson, with this Irish brogue, and I tell them, "You’ve all gone soft! Why, when your grandfather and I settled this great and beautiful land..." And then, we'd flash back to the 1840s, when we were settlers out west.
RL: I love this!
CB: I'm this young maid in a wealthy household, and I meet this backwoodsman and we run off together. We go out west to fight the Indians.
RL: Oh, please write this.
CB: And there's a gold rush. All very "How the West was Won," you know?
CB: Well, I wish somebody would just give me a couple of million dollars a year, so that I could do a play based on every little fantasy I have. But, I have to admit, things do work out pretty well. Like with the play we're doing in the spring.
RL: And this new play, it'll be here in New York?
CB: Yes, at a wonderful place called Theater for the New City. The cast is going to be filled with people I've worked with before.
RL: This is what you do. This is your life.
CB: It may be my favorite thing, you know, to get a group of friends together and put on a play.
RL: Well, I have to say, I was thinking on the subway ride down here that, aside from the enormous affection I have for you and your work, I feel like you've kept this theatrical tradition alive that's almost disappeared from the world, and that contributes so much joy.
CB: Well, that's awfully nice of you.
RL: Hey, what's that beautiful thing you always say at the end of your plays? You always come out at the end, and you take your bow, and you say...
CB: Oh, "Bless you, darlings!"
RL: Yes, "Bless you, darlings." We can end with that. And, bless you, darling.
CB: And you.