News flash: Charles Busch has developed a "terrible" case of stage fright.
While it may seem like an astonishing confession, the actor, drag icon and Tony Award-nominated playwright says those newfound nerves have partly inspired his forthcoming engagement at New York's 54 Below, where he's scheduled to perform on March 7 and 14.
"At one point, my frequent co-star Julie Halston said, 'You're like Susan Hayward going to the gas chamber in 'I Want To Live,''" Busch recalls of one particularly anxious backstage moment. "One of the reasons I'm doing cabaret work again is because it's curing me of that anxiety. If you can get past the 'me-me-me' aspect of performing, there's something rather pure and noble, as opposed to simply narcissistic, about it."
Expect Busch to don a number of colorful personas throughout his 54 Below show, which has been deemed a campy cavalcade of "laughter, music, tears and sequins." They include Cinderella's wicked stepmother by way of the Joan Crawford classic "Mildred Pierce," and a New York housewife paying tribute to Edith Piaf, a character loosely based on the protagonist of his Tony-nominated play "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife."
But he's also planning to croon three ballads during his set, including the poignant Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer standard "I Wonder What Became of Me," with accompanist and musical director Tom Judson. While these may seem like unorthodox choices for a star best known for comedic sass, Busch hopes the show will give audiences a peek at his more introspective side, too.
"On the one hand, I try to do pieces that convey the camp humor of my stage work," Busch notes. "But the songs allow me a kind of intimacy that I've only enjoyed when I've made movies. I want to entertain the audience and make them laugh, but also give them a little insight about life. It's good therapy."
At present, the 54 Below act is not the only project in Busch's cauldron -- his new family musical "Bunnicula: A Rabbit Tale of Musical Mystery" opened off-Broadway Feb. 10 to rave reviews. Though "Bunnicula" is based on a series of popular children's books, he dismisses the notion that the show is geared exclusively toward an adolescent audience, saying he wrote the musical with adults in mind, too.
"I think kids like to see something their parents are laughing at," he says. "My generation grew up on things like 'Funny Girl' and 'Fiddler On The Roof' -- that was our first exposure to theater. I think it's important for children to see things that have adult stories and emotions."
He's also refreshingly enthusiastic about the recent cultural resurgence of drag performance, particularly in the wake of "RuPaul's Drag Race."
"I love Ru, and I think he's just so fantastic on that show -- the tightrope he walks, in between sincerity and parodying the reality genre, is wonderful," says Busch, who describes himself as a "reality competition junkie." He's also quick to point out the wider cultural implications of the television smash: "On shows like 'Drag Race' and 'Project Runway,' almost everybody's gay, so the audience has to decide which effeminate homosexual they're rooting for. I just think that's so radical … it does more for getting people to let go of their silly prejudices than anything else."
So how would Busch, whose stage and screen resume includes glittery turns in "Die, Mommie, Die!" and "Psycho Beach Party," fare alongside "Drag Race" champs like Raja, Tyra Sanchez and Sharon Needles?
"People like me or Lypsinka, we'd probably get booted off the first day," he quips with a laugh. "I'm just the world's worst lip-syncer."
Charles Busch plays New York's 54 Below on March 7 and 14. For more information, click here.