We republish this story from last year to celebrate tonight’s annual reading of Charles Busch’s Times Square Angel. As per usual, the show is sold out, but Busch assures us, “if you show up, I’m sure you can get in. It seems like we always get everybody in a seat somewhere.”
There are three actresses of Old Hollywood you must see every Christmas: Donna Reed, Rosemary Clooney, Charles Busch.
To qualify that: Charles Busch‘s movies (such as Die Mommie Die!) and plays (such as The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife) have brought him national attention. Yet, it’s one of his lesser-produced plays that has come to make him an important staple of many people’s Christmas season.
Times Square Angel is the Christmas Eve story of a 1940s broad, the Hell’s Kitchen lounge singer Irish O’Flanagan. The play has taken on a very special second life, being presented as a staged reading at New York’s Theater for the New City on one night only each Christmastime. Miss O’Flanagan has always been read by Mr. Busch. For years, many of the original players have returned for the reading, and so have the audience. From Sarah Jessica Parker to, well, me, it’s become a part of the Christmas season that will not be missed, non-negotiable.
Charles Busch talked to Metrosource about this tradition.
By Matt Gurry
[This interview has been condensed.]
METROSOURCE: Hi Charles, it’s early November. Merry Christmas!
CHARLES BUSCH: Merry Christmas! I feel like I’m breaking the spell of Times Square Angel by giving an interview for it.
What do you mean?
Well, the magic of it is that we don’t publicize this at all! People just know it’s on the second Monday of December, and they buy their tickets. A friend of mine told me he called Smarttix and said they’re already sold out!
How long have you been doing the show?
For 30 years, but there was one stretch when we didn’t, 1992–99. We originally did the play in the East Village in 1984 at the Limbo Lounge. It was just going to be a little Christmas show at this mixed theater/gallery space. That was before my real break [Vampire Lesbians of Sodom].
Then, we moved Vampire Lesbians to the Provincetown Playhouse, and it ran five years. After the second year we were all getting a little stir crazy, so we had this crazy idea to do Times Square Angel in rep. I added another 45 minutes of material to make it a full-length evening.
And, you know, New York has never been able to understand the repertory idea. It was around the holidays. We were going to do four shows of Vampire Lesbians and four of Times Square Angel. People were showing showing up for Vampire Lesbians but not Times Square Angel. So then it was maybe five of Vampire Lesbians and two of Times Square Angel, and then at the end we were just doing one show on Sundays, even after Christmas!
Has the cast stayed intact over the years?
For the most part, yeah. My friend Andy Halliday has been in it since the very beginning. It’s been rewritten so many times, like a Shakespearean play. Years ago, I met this little boy, Sean, who was 11 years old. I was so enchanted with this kid that I wrote him in as the newsboy. Now he’s 22 years old — the oldest newsboy in the world, still playing that same part! So yeah, most of the cast is in tact from 1999.
It really means a lot to the cast. For a lot of them that’s the only acting they get to do over the year.
I’d say the majority of the cast, that’s the only acting they do all year. A lot of them were actors, but they’ve gone on to other careers. Sidney Myer manages Don’t Tell Mama [a piano bar in New York’s Theater District], so he really is that character.
People get very emotional about it. Sarah Jessica Parker has never missed a year! I’ve never experienced anything like that as an audience. People tell me they’ve been there for 10 years, and they stand on line waiting for the doors to open and see the same people waiting them each year.
When I saw it last year, Julie Halston’s understudy had to go on. I hate it when the understudies go on!
[laughs] I think Julie might have been sliiightly miffed. I won’t say I traded up… But when she found out Joan Rivers was going on—
I bet. I love, love Julie as the Voice of God, but seeing Joan was a really nice treat. Especially given, well, you know.
I went to my friend Joan and asked her to do it. It was so like her to be there for me. She was the busiest woman in the world, and to do that— That was very, very special. I’m having a hard time accepting she’s gone. And remember? That night, she had laryngitis. I wonder, in a way, if that might have been the beginning of the problem.
Julie can’t be there again this year, so I have to figure out who will play the Voice of the Lord. I have an offer out to one celebrity friend of mine. We’ll see.
Why do you think Times Square Angel is so special? People have other Christmas traditions, but what is it about this play that makes it such a tradition for your audience?
I think it surprises people. Initially they go in thinking it’s going to be one thing and then it’s another. They think there’s drag or camp, so it will be making fun of the sentiment. But then they come to see it and find we’re not spoofing — we’re having fun with the old holiday movies. We’re being completely unironic. I think people miss that sentiment. We live in such an ironic age. We want to distance ourselves from intense emotion. Our show, it does have the trappings of camp but the heart has very pure sentiment, with no irony. People aren’t embarrassed to like it.
Do the characters have to be be in drag to work?
Either way. I’d rather a very talented actress play it, as long as they tell the story. When my plays are done around the country, because there are the trappings of camp, they make them so broad and jettison the story, anything for a laugh. It’s disturbing to me in a way. Just because something has references to different movie plots, doesn’t mean you can’t go for a real emotion.
Is it performed regionally?
Not that much. It’s been published, but not that much.
Are the women’s roles usually played in drag around the country?
More often than not they have a woman playing Irish, is my feeling.
Are you working on anything now?
I’ve just been having a wonderful, wonderful time doing my cabaret act. It’s a really emotional, gratifying turn in my life. My pianist, Tom Judson, and I have been traveling all over. San Francisco, Boston, New Orleans, Atlanta. Next week I’m in London and Paris! It’s been quite an emotional thing, meeting people who’ve followed my career mainly from the two movies or seeing regional productions of my shows.
Do you do the shows in drag?
It’s an odd act. I’m Charles Busch, but I come out in this glamorous dress.
I don’t know why I am in drag. I’m almost more myself when there’s just a little bit of disguise. It liberates me, makes me less inhibited.
Times Square Angel plays Theater for the New City on December 15. It’s sold out, but Charles tells us it’s one of those things where, “if you show up, I’m sure you can get in. It seems like we always get everybody in a seat somewhere.”
On New Year’s Eve, Charles will play Below 54. We spoke with him, too, about his cabaret act; we’ll post that conversation here soon.
Last modified: July 27, 2017