"I love melodrama " says Charles Busch, the popular Off-Broadway playwright (Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party, The Lady in Question, You Should Be So Lucky) and cross-dressing star, "whatever I write always comes out with a crazy storyline. A couple of double and triple crosses and lots of intrigue are just my trip." And that's just what Busch gives Manhattan Theater Club audiences in the new musical at the Variety Arts Theater, The Green Heart, for which he's written the book. Music and lyrics are by Rusty Magee. Karen Trott, David Andrew MacDonald and Alison Fraser star.

"We've only been working on this for four years " explained Busch. "When I think of the people who've told me it took them ten years to get a musical on, I realize how amazingly lucky we are. Getting hooked up with Manhattan Theater Club didn't hurt. They were interested from the start, when we had only the first draft of the first act. They've done revues (Ain't Misbehavin', Putting It Together), but never anything on this scale. My God, the sets and costumes! And no wing or fly space at all at the Variety Arts!" How much did all this cost? "They won't tell me what it's capitalized at, so if you find out give me a call."

This was a project Busch wasn't interested in at all. He and his long-time collaborator/director Kenneth Elliot (who also directed the recent, acclaimed revival at WPA of Mart Crowley's The Boys In The Band) had been at work on a new piece for the WPA, which was to follow their recent revue there, Flipping My Wig. "Ken worked with Alison three years ago at the Public in Up Against It," said Busch. "Rusty is Alison's husband. I met Alison when she starred in my Off-Broadway revue Swingtime Canteen, which Ken also directed. Alison and Rusty loved the movie `A New Leaf,' written and directed by Elaine May from a short story by Jack Ritchie." The film starred Walter Matthau and May and was controversial on release because May disowned it over outside editing. But the film, which has quite a cult following, is heartwarming and hilarious.

"Basically, I was bullied into this," continued Busch. "Alison and Rusty are energetic people and can be a force to be reckoned with. They were determined I would write this. I didn't know if Rusty's work or the material was right for me. We typecast ourselves more than anyone else. I'd have thought the type of musical I'd write would be something like Mame, where the central figure is a woman. It was a real challenge." The Green Heart -- which was the title of Ritchie's story - and the movie, "A New Leaf," share only the most basic premise. A selfish playboy goes broke and must marry to keep the affluent lifestyle to which he's become accustomed. The woman he chooses is a wealthy botanist, brilliant but a social misfit. His plan is to murder her and inherit all her money. But, of course," says Busch, "there's where I start to have fun, and there's a great plot twist."

Fraser's Uta character isn't in the short story or film. "The story is sparse, only eight pages," Busch said. "I've got a wild imagination and work best when I can let loose. `Whores of Lost Atlantis,' my 1993 novel (paperback edition, Penguin Books; 290 pages; $10.95), began as an autobiography. But it didn't take off. When I made it fiction, it kazoomed! It was thinly disguised. I was the Typhoid Annie of regional theater. Every theater I played either burned or was going bankrupt. The most outrageous things in the book are the ones that are true! ...I was a bit worried when I started writing The Green Heart, but when I wasn't restricted by what Elaine had done for the film or what Jack had written, things began to soar."

Besides inventing Uta, Busch enlarged in a grand ghoulishly way the character of Mrs. Tragger, the housekeeper (Doris Roberts was memorable in the film, but in the stage musical Ruth Williamson literally walks off with the whole show, sets, kit and caboodle!). "At first, I deluded myself into thinking I was writing this in a style very different from my known work, but, as it turned out, this isn't so far removed from anything else I've done. So I guess, after all, I do have a voice and style!"

What's next for that voice and style? Busch is fascinated by gay life in the pre-Stonewall era and early drag performers and is at work on a play about a touring performer in the deep South that will heavily rely on his personal experiences. "I've finished the first draft and realize it still needs lots of work."


Key Subjects: 
Charles Busch; The Green Heart; A New Leaf
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).