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Why The Confession of Lily Dare is the playwright-performer's most personal parody
For the past 35 years, Charles Busch has made audiences cry with laughter at his over-the-top send-ups of classic movies (Die Mommie Die!, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party are just a handful of his spoofs). But at The Confession of Lily Dare, theatregoers may be surprised to find that, after the guffaws subside, they're moved to genuine tears.
"Over the years I've experimented with the balance of sentiment and outrageous comedy in my plays," says the playwright, performer and drag legend. "In this case, I wanted to still have fun with the genre, but really see if we could get the audience to have a true emotional response. It's lovely hearing people sniffling at the end!"
In the Primary Stages production, currently at the Cherry Lane Theatre, Busch plays the title character over many decades in early 20th-century San Francisco, as she evolves from convent-educated orphan, to unwed teen mother, to sultry cabaret star, to fall girl, to madam with a heart of gold who gives up everything to protect her daughter. "I've always just loved these movies where the leading lady goes from girl to old crone," Busch says. Movie buffs will recognize flashes of disparate cinematic icons in his performance—Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West. But you don't need to know the stars or the specific movies he's evoking to get the humor or the heartbreak.
"I think with my early plays, before I figured it all out, there were references that really were only funny if you knew those movies," Busch says. "Eventually I realized that wasn't quite fair. I like to think that I never go for a laugh that's solely predicated on someone's knowledge of an old movie. The genre that I'm paying homage to with Lily Dare is a very obscure one that was called the confession film of the '30s, like Madame X, The Sin of Madelon Claudet and Frisco Jenny. Ninety-nine percent of the public doesn't know those movies at all, and there's no reason why they should. But during the Depression, it was a popular theme: a woman down-at-the-heels who would sacrifice anything for her child. That struck a real emotional chord in that era."
The theme also hit home for Busch. "The mother-love melodramas have all my life really touched me, and I think it's because of the fact that my mother died when I was 7," he says. "That's something that always sticks with you. A lot of my plays actually deal with that. It took me a while to understand that everything a writer writes is personal, even a campy movie parody. I keep telling the same story over and over. It's in my blood. I have to do it. I'm compelled."
Busch and his longtime collaborator, director Carl Andress, originally produced The Confession of Lily Dare for a few weeks in the summer of 2018 at Off-Off Broadway's Theater for the New City, a venue where they'd put on similar romps (Judith of Bethulia, Charles Busch's Cleopatra) just for fun. "When I do these plays at Theater for the New City, it's with no intention of transferring them," Busch says. But when Primary Stages invited him to participate in the company's 35th anniversary season, he suggested they remount it. "I just really love playing Lily," he says. "It's meant a lot to me."
Busch, an enviably youthful 65, is famous for portraying women on stage, which is why many call his work drag. Yet that seems like a reductive term for his nuanced characterizations. Although his shows are a hoot, he never goes for cheap, gender-based jokes. If he did, Lily's journey wouldn't be so moving.
"Over the years I've done a lot of readings and radio productions where I've played female characters just dressed as myself," Busch says. "It was never about costume being a transformation for me. I'm just so completely comfortable with my own androgynous nature that it's effortless, like walking into another door. Frankly, I don't think I look all that different out of drag than I do in drag!"
Busch also has a thriving cabaret career and has written plays he hasn't appeared in, notably The Tale of the Allergist's Wife, for which he earned a Tony nomination. But of his many projects, The Confession of Lily Dare is particularly dear to him. "It's certainly my favorite thing I've performed," he says. "I just always wanted to play this kind of part. I know how fortunate I've been to not just have to settle for a daydream, but to actually live out my fantasies."
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Charles Busch in The Confession of Lily Dare. Photos by Carol Rosegg.
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