Gone are the dresses, the tresses and the emerald green eye-liner. In their place, a simple (to the brink of Spartan) ensemble: T-shirt, jeans and a chrome-dome. Charles Busch, who has raised stage-transvestism to a high arch (The Lady in Question, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom), is in a no-frills mode.
The pate that's usually encased in cascading artificial curls has been sheared to stubble level. He runs his hand across what's left of his hair and ventures a possible scenario: "I can say I'm doing Saint Joan for the Theatre Guild." (A very funny fellow, Busch is one of the few people on this planet who can utter weighty words like Theatre Guild so airily his lips don't seem to move.)
The cross-dressing diva of Off-Broadway is, in point of fact, toiling in the vineyards of the Manhattan Theatre Club at their new home-away-from-homethe Variety Arts Theatre on lower Third Avenuenurturing to stage life The Green Heart, a musical comedy based on the same-named short story by Jack Ritchie.
He and Rusty Magee (the musical half of the act) have created a ditzy antic about a once-rich roué resorting to marriage and murder, and Kenneth Elliott directed it. "I never worked on an original musical before," admits the writer whose Busch-strokes spruced up latter-day editions of Ankles Aweigh and House of Flowers. It's all part of a playwright's progress, he figures. His last, You Should Be So Lucky, was the first show he'd written that he could play in pants. Nowwonder of wondershe has done a show with no role at all for him.
You could call this a new leaf except that A New Leaf is the name of the 1971 movie version of The Green Heart, and the show's producers prefer to distance themselves from that. (Walter Matthau co-starred in the film with Elaine May, who produced, adapted, directed and subsequently disavowed it.) "I saw it 25 years ago," says Busch, "but I intentionally haven't seen it since we're doing the short story, not the movie. It was a breakthrough for me at one point to step away from the source and invent my own story. Now, it's only the basic notion of this rich man who's lost his money and is looking for a rich wife." William Graham, the principal protagonist played by newcomer (and new to musicals) David Andrew Macdonald, is a spendthrift scoundrel who runs through his own fortune, then zeroes in on a likely looking new cash flow named Henrietta Lowell (Karen Trott), a nerdy, nouveau riche botanist. Because he comes with excess baggageincluding his Eurotrash mistress, Uta (Alison Fraser)Graham decides to bump off the botanist for her inheritance and joins the already-in-progress murder plot hatched by her attorney, McPherson (John Ellison Conlee), and her housekeeper, Mrs. Tragger (Ruth Williamson).
"In a nutshell," says Busch, putting a happy, have-a-nice-day smile on all of the above, "the show is about this man's search for redemption, going from the dark side to discovering his own heart. I haven't thought about it before, but everything I write has an element of someone with wrong values being forced somehow to find their own humanityeven Vampire Lesbians, in a crazy way. Those ladies are so off on hating each other or out for their own selves, but at the endafter 2,000 years of bitcherythey find solidarity and survive."
Busch being Busch, the best roles go to the women. The innocent wallflower who blossoms from love, oblivious to the sinister clouds gathering around herHenriettagives The Green Heart its beat; the laughs go to the villainesses.
The alcoholic housekeeper, Mrs. Traggera Mrs. Danvers pickled in dandelion wineallows Williamson to strut her stuff in not one but two show stoppers. "If you can't kill with a song like 'Easy Life,' you ought to have your Equity card revokedit's that good," she insists. "I've worked with Rusty before. For years, he has been developing a particular kind of musical-theatre piece with such strong lyrics. They tend to be great for actors. We love singing his songs. There's that kind of lyric structure where you get a lot to play with."
Mrs. Magee (i.e., Fraser) couldn't agree more. Coming from legitimate mittel European musical-comedy roots (Romance/ Romance) to contemporary Eurotrash like Uta is, she says, "like Eva Gabor morphing into Zsa Zsa." Indeed, she found the key to her role in a second-hand Pennsylvania bookstore: sort of a Gaboresque Gypsythe autobiography of Mama Gabor, co-written with Cindy Adams, Jolie! "All through this book, she's saying 'I should be the star. I gave up my life for these children. None of them vus as talented as I vus.' It's the funniest book I ever readand a marvelous inspiration for Uta."
Fraser turns out to be the prime mover for the project, according to Busch. "Alison was such a fan of the movie that she found the short story, and she really wanted me to do the adaptation. She's a strong ladyand a smart lady."
Having spent almost his entire career being his own one-man band, Busch surprised himself with how swimmingly he took to teamwork. "I sorta fancy myself an amateur composer/lyricist/designer /choreographer when, in truth, I'm really none of these thingshopefully, I'm a writer and actorbut I get lots of ideas, and what I find so exciting about collaborating in the theatre is that I can throw somebody an idea and, because they really are the real thing, they can take it to a place I never imagined. Often I'd write a very elaborate monologue in the script where I thought a song would be, hoping to tempt Rusty into seeing it that way. I wrote a lot of notes on the villains seeing themselves as victims, which is a rather contemporary view. Rusty took that idea and turned it into Kurt Weill Meets Manhattan Transfer. I never in a million years would have thought of that. That's why he's a composer and I'm not. It's so wonderful to hear a Broadway-type score again, with ballads and comedy songs and chorus numbersand yet Rusty is a very contemporary guy, much more than I am. Music ended for me when Patti Page had a hit single."
-- By Harry Haun