Luigi Pirandello would have appreciated the house of mirrors that is Taboo, the Boy George musical (so to speak) that Rosie O'Donnell fell in love with in London and hopes the audiences at Broadway's Plymouth Theatre will fall in love with, too.
The music and lyrics are indeed by Boy George — or by George O'Dowd, to use the name under which he was born in Eltham, Kent in 1961. And George O'Dowd is indeed one of the principal performers in the show, here as in London — but not as Boy George. O'Dowd is playing Boy George's friend and rival, Leigh Bowery, the fantastical London fashion designer also born in 1961 but blown away by AIDS in 1994. So who's playing Boy George? Well, that's an actor (and, for this endeavor, Olivier Award nominee) named Euan Morton. Got it? Wait.
The producers are Rosie O'Donnell and Adam Kenwright. The director is Christopher Renshaw, who shares credit for "original concept" with George O'Dowd. And the book of the show — "adapted from the original book by Mark Davies" — is New York's own Charles (The Tale of the Allergist's Wife) Busch, who follows a mock sigh with a Buschian smile as he says: "God, I feel like I've been involved in this since the Crimean War." But Busch is not unhappy. For one thing, he's still knocked out by the pleasure of working with Ms. O'Donnell.
"I didn't know her. About a year ago she got in touch with me. She has no office. We met in a hotel room. She was all excited about this show she'd seen in London and wanted me to write a new book for it. I was reluctant, but she said, 'Come with me to London and have a look.'
"You know," says the playwright-actor whose brilliance first burst upon the downtown scene in drag satires like Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, by and starring himself, "you expect, with Rosie, a big blustering woman, but what you get is a wonderful girl who is quiet, and listens, and gives you that focus. Not one of those celebrities who drain all the air out of the room. "This is a strange product, though, in that the producer is the biggest star involved. I've never been this friendly with a star of such... notoriety. I mean, I'd be on the phone, having a long conversation with her, and then I'd go out to the supermarket and see a headline: 'ROSIE INSANE, BREAKS UP WITH GIRLFRIEND' — this woman I'd just been on the phone with. I guess it's true that the tabloids make up these stories."
One wonders why a big London hit should require a new book. Busch doesn't like to bad-mouth anybody else's work — "but I will say that the predominant voice in the original was that of a bitching drag queen. Boy George and Leigh Bowery were supporting characters. The main character was a fictional Billy, a young man who comes to London . . . Well, Billy's gone, and Billy's mother is gone, and Billy's girlfriend is gone. I've written it so that Boy George comes to London [as, of course, he did, in the 1980's].
"I didn't know anything about Boy George except his music — which has melody you don't get anymore, sweet and decadent at the same time — and I knew nothing about Leigh Bowery until I read a wonderful biography of him by Sue Tilley," who herself becomes a character in the Busch version.
"Occasionally I can pull a line from [the London script], but I would say it's now 98 percent Busch." Sunny smile. "Charles, not George." George W., that is.
As for that other George — Mr. O'Dowd — "we have a lot in common. My years in the East Village in the mid-eighties were not that dissimilar from his in London in the early eighties."
An interviewer remarks that, just as John Osborne's breakthrough Look Back in Anger followed by 20 years or so in the footsteps of this country's Clifford Odets, so the climate and events of Taboo might seem to follow in the American footsteps of Andy Warhol and The Factory.
"Yes," says Busch, "I agree. Certainly the sixties and Warhol must have been fantastic. Yet it seems like, every other decade, London becomes the city of glamour and decadence. I wish I could have been in London in the sixties. This job has been kind of tricky. Here I am, writing a play for audiences in New York. The slang can't be too British. All the British I know is from 'Upstairs, Downstairs' and 'Ab Fab' [TV's "Absolutely Fabulous"]. Fortunately, the director's British, the star is British and Boy George is British. They seem to catch every anachronism." One further thought: "Here's this strange American coming over to write his, George's, life. I don't know if I'd have been that pleased, either."
But Rosie O'Donnell is. Luigi Pirandello has still to be heard from.