Playwright Charles Busch, who wrote a new book for, “Taboo,” the hit London musical. It opens this fall on Broadway.
A few years ago, Charles Busch was asked to be guest speaker at a “Women of Theater” luncheon at the Rainbow Room. There he sat, surrounded by a dozen or so of the most celebrated grandes dames of the American stage.
“I thought they’d, you know, spend a fascinating hour or two exchanging wonderful stories about the theater. And all they talked about was . . . shoes.”
Playwright-actor Busch, who, in fact, can strut a mean pair of Manolo Blahniks when the occasion demands it, would have you know that Rosie doesn’t talk with him about shoes. That’s television’s Rosie O’Donnell — or Rosie O’Donnell, late of television — and what she and the dramatist of “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” have spent a year talking about, thinking about, concentrating on, is “Taboo,” the hit London musical that Ms. O’Donnell and co-producer Adan Kenwright are bringing to Broadway in the fall with a new book by Busch.
Why a new book? Some background:“I didn’t know her. About a year ago she got in touch with me,” says Busch in a rare moment of relaxation in his apartment just off Abingdon Square. (Well, relaxation under the lenses, lights, and mike of a video crew. Ms. O’Donnell is having a documentary made of the making of New York’s “Taboo.”) She had seen and much enjoyed “Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.” “She thought it funny but with a lot of emotion involved,” said Busch. There was a show in London, she told Busch, that had excited her — “Taboo” — in common parlance, “the Boy George musical.” She invited him to come to London with her to take a look. He was reluctant, too busy, an Off-Broadway hit (“Shanghai Moon”) in progress, a movie (“Die Mommy Die”) coming out soon, but he went. “A wonderful experience.”
Boy George, born George O’Dowd, had made his way to London as a teenager from a small town in Kent, in the 1980s — like Dick Wittington, without cat; shot to fame as a cross-dressing deejay, singer and composer; then in the ‘90s had faded out, only to reemerge as a cult-ivated soloist. The show filled in many, but not all, of the blanks.
Euan Morton, a young Scots-born actor, was brilliant as George — got an Olivier Award nomination for it, why not a Tony nomination here? — and George O’Dowd (i.e., Boy George himself), now in his 40s, was in “Taboo” (and, like Morton, still is) in the role of a cynical fashion-designer friend of George’s, the late Leigh Bowery.“
If I knew hardly anything about Boy George except his songs — melody you don’t hear much any more, sweet and decadent at the same time — I knew nothing about Leigh Bowery,” says Busch. “Then I read a wonderful biography of Leigh Bowery by Sue Tilley. Some of the characters in that book who were important in Boy George’s life weren’t in the play. I thought they should be, and put them in.”
Also prominent in “Taboo” is a character named Sue Tilley, who is Leigh Bowery’s best friend. The script describes her as “a big, no-nonsense kind of girl, good-natured and comfortable with her Rubenesque lushness.” Don’t know who writer Busch could have been thinking of.
As for that factor in “Allergist’s Wife” that had appealed to Rosie O’Donnell — “the emotion involved” — Busch says he doesn’t like to disparage anybody else’s work, but has to also say “that the emphasis in the original was in the voice of a bitching drag queen.” Ask the man who once upon a time at the Limbo Lounge on Avenue C brought forth “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom,” thereafter starring in it for five years at the Players’ Theater on MacDougal Street. He now set out to objectify the tone of “Taboo.” Also to straighten the story line. “In the London show the main character was a fictional Billy, who comes to London. Boy George and Leigh Bowery were supporting characters. Now it’s Boy George who comes to London.” Two beats. “Billy’s gone — and Billy’s mother’s gone — and Billy’s girlfriend’s gone.” Busch says he has taken an occasional passage here and there from the London text, but that the new script is “98 percent Busch.” Pokerfaced: “Charles, not George.”
The job has been “kind of tricky” in terms of language. “Here I am, writing a play for a New York audience about events happening in London in the ‘80s. The slang can’t be too British. I know British from [British television’s] ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ and ‘Ab Fab.’ Fortunately the director [Christopher Renshaw] is British, the star [Euan Morton] is British, and Boy George is British. They seem to catch every anachronism.”
The biggest star of all, in this instance, is of course not some member of the cast but co-producer (and New York prime mover) Rosie O’Donnell.“It’s interesting,” says Busch. “Here you expect to meet this big, blustering woman, but what you do meet is a wonderful girl, quiet, who listens, and gives you that focus. Not one of these celebrities who draws all the air out of a room.“I think that at this point she felt she was living this artificial life [as a famous television personality] and wanted to be a real person who could put together writers, performers, creators, and other people she admires.”
Charles Busch, who’s been living in his West Village neighborhood 22 years, in the same apartment eight years, is still amazed that he can have a long, serious, affectionate phone conversation with Ms. O’Donnell and “then go down to the supermarket and see these sensational tabloid headlines about her, the woman I’ve just been having that phone talk with.” Completely lying headlines, he has concluded.“
Taboo” opens officially at the Plymouth on Nov. 13. “Two weeks before that, on Halloween, my ‘Die Mommy Die’ movie opens in 10 cities; here it’s at the Loew’s chain.” For his performance in it, Busch was voted Best Actor at last year’s Sundance Festival — astonishingly, not to say shockingly, the first award he’s ever won for anything. “No longer the need for a chip on my shoulder. Sundance has started its own distribution arm, and this is one of its first products.”
In personal terms, these have been a rough several years for him. Last year he lost his father, that “fond, affectionate” showbiz-loving man who used to run a record store in Yonkers; before that, year by year, the two aunts, Lillian Blum and Belle Grohs, who’d brought Charles up in New York City.“
It’s strange,” he says — not for the first time on this given afternoon. “It now looks like I may be doing ‘Shanghai Moon’ in London in January. I was born in New York City. I sometimes feel sort of trapped; always envied the people who move to a new city, a new life. I’ve never left home. Except when I first went to London one summer with my aunt Belle.”
And would someday go again with Aunt Rosie.
Reprinted from The Villager, New York City.
Special thanks to Jerry Tallmer.