Theater Talk
April 21, 2007

Many thanks to my transcriber! 
 Please do not repost. 

Susan Haskins:  This is Theater Talk, I’m Susan Haskins.  Leave it to Charles Busch to take the greatest tragedy in the history of the American theater and make it into a comedy! (Charles Busch laughs as Susan is speaking)  So we’re so happy to have him here, along with his leading lady, and here to introduce them, my leading man, Michael Riedel of the New York Post.

Michael Riedel:  Charles, how do you feel about Susan’s introduction there?! The assassination of Lincoln is sort of tan…gentially… tangentially I should say, connected to your new play… 

Charles Busch:  Very much so…

Michael Riedel:  “Our Leading Lady” at the Manhattan Theatre Club…

Charles Busch:  Sort of the central…

Michael Riedel:  The central… 

Charles Busch: …fact…

Susan Haskins:  (Why is he?) knocking me down?  That’s the point.

Michael Riedel:  Yeah.

Charles Busch:  Yeah. I guess it would be worse if you said that I turned… that my comedy was a tragedy.

Susan Haskins:  No, I didn’t say that at all.  But we’d say that Mr. Lincoln’s death was a tragedy. 

Kate Mulgrew:  Indeed.  Indeed.

Michael Riedel:  But the play though is not about the death of Mr. Lincoln.  The play is about Laura Keene, the actress played brilliantly by Kate Mulgrew.

Kate Mulgrew:  Thank you so much. Thank you.

Michael Riedel:  And who was Laura Keene?

Kate Mulgrew:  Laura Keene was a great actress/manager of the nineteenth century.  In fact, the first of her kind.  And quite extraordinary in that she did manage her own theatres in New York, and elsewhere.   And it is true that this episode in her life eclipsed what could have been a brilliant career.  (To Charles Busch) And I say it in that beautiful line you give me. ‘In the future, if my theatrical memorabilia is ever displayed, it will only be thought of as having belonged to the actress who was on stage the night Abraham Lincoln was shot.’

Susan Haskins:  Yeah.

Charles Busch:  Because I… you know I… the one subject in school I … that interested me was history, and so I always used to read about anything to do with Lincoln and the Lincoln assassination and then of course the connection to the theater, because he was assassinated in the theater, and the name Laura Keene was always the footnote.

Susan Haskins:  That’s right.  Yeah.

Charles Busch:  …Just the actress who was on stage that night and I was kind of always fascinated by who was Laura Keene and how did this affect her, and what did she do afterwards, or how did she respond to this big moment.  And uh… and finally, it really was after 9/11, actually, when I was responding in my own totally self-centered, self absorbed way to…

Michael Riedel:  Only you would respond in that…

Susan Haskins: Only you would admit to it!

Charles Busch:  Only I would admit to it!  Because, you know, here … you know, I’m living downtown in fact, you know, and yet my first play was on Broadway - “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife”, and all the theatres are closed.  And of course I was just hysterical.  What was gonna happen, you know?  I had a hit, you know!

Michael Riedel/Susan Haskins:  (lauging)

Charles Busch:  How is this going to affect me?!  And so I … but then I did think really seriously though that in a way our self absorption is kind of our key to our survival.

Michael Riedel:  Yeah, yeah, yeah…

Charles Busch:  …just getting on with your life and all the things, even though you’re living through history…

Kate Mulgrew: When you’re talking about theatre people?

Charles Busch:  Theatre - I’m talking about everybody. 

Susan Haskins: … all of us…

Charles Busch:  You know, just all of us … you know…

Kate Mulgrew:  In this play, yes.

Charles Busch:  You’re involved in history … collide into history and yet at the same time you do have your every day… your relationships that are still ongoing and your business and … yeah… so…that kind of inspired the play. 

Michael Riedel:  It’s very interesting you say that, though, about the attack on the World Trade Center, not to make light of it now, but I mean, you get the sense, watching you (indicating Kate Mulgrew) in this play, there’s no, of course, idea that this momentous event is going to happen.  You’re just trying to get that show up, and you’re…

Kate Mulgrew:  That’s exactly right…

Michael Riedel:  And you’re just driving those actors, in the crazy way that you drive them, very, you know, in a very funny way… you’re just taking charge of everything – that’s who you are, and then all of a sudden this event that’s going to change the history of America.

Kate Mulgrew:  Well that’s why it’s so delicious and complicated.

Susan Haskins:  There’s a wonderful nuance and is this true – that Lincoln decided he wasn’t going to come that night, and Laura Keene…

Kate Mulgrew:  He didn’t want to go to the theatre…

Susan Haskins:  And Laura Keene had a …

Kate Mulgrew: …and I did send him a note.  Mrs. Lincoln pressed him as well…

Susan Haskins:  Yeah.

Kate Mulgrew:  But had my note not arrived, and indeed it was found on his person, when he died… had it not arrived I think they would have gone elsewhere. 

Susan Haskins:  So she pressured him ‘You’d better show up’.

Kate Mulgrew:  Yeah.

Charles Busch:  Yeah.  She was an admirer of Laura Keene. Yeah.

Kate Mulgrew:  It’s really the examination of this kind of a moment in a woman’s life who’s heretofore been so myopic in her thinking – Laura Keene was completely self-absorbed.  And what did this, in fact, do to her?  And it shows the resilience, I think.  It shows a grace note, a depth.  And also the wonderful way that comedy saves us.  It’s a valentine to the theatre, but it’s also an examination of the kind of people we are in the theatre.

Michael Riedel:  How closely have you stayed to the actual story?  I mean did you… it seems you did an enormous amount of research for this play.

Charles Busch:  Well you know it’s an odd thing, ‘cause I’m not a research kind of person, I mean I really have phobias about going into libraries and those awful librarians who are so nice to other people but they smell, you know, fear when I walk in!  And thank God for Google, you know!  But anyway I…

Michael Riedel:  You get near a card catalogue and break out in hives!

Charles Busch:  Oh, they’re so mean to me!  Librarians are just…they…

Kate Mulgrew:  Why are they mean to you, Charles?!

Charles Busch:  I don’t know why!  And I read… you know I read …I intentionally never read a biography – you know I look in the acknowledgements … they… and I thank the wonderful librarians from the Lincoln Center …   when I walk in say, ‘Yeah?’  You might as well be in Duane Reade.

Susan Haskins:  Oh, they’re very nice over there at Lincoln Center!

Charles Busch:  I don’t know…

Kate Mulgrew:  You just don’t like the must smell!  And libraries are complicated!

Michael Riedel:  I’ve never heard of anyone who was afraid of a librarian before!

Charles Busch:  All my life!  No, they’re so mean to me!

Kate Mulgrew:  Do you think they’re suspicious of you?  What do they think you’re going to look up?!

Susan Haskins:  Because you don’t bring the books back, Charles! That’s why!

Kate Mulgrew:  You don’t return, Charles!

Michael Riedel:  So you did it on Google, all this research?

Charles Busch:  No, no, no…I read books. No, I really did. I really…  But on eBay I could buy the books, that’s the thing… so…

Susan Haskins:  With your earnings from “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife”!

Charles Busch:  Oh… now Susan, are you making advances!?

Kate Mulgrew:  And do go on!

Charles Bush:  Susan – you’re too much!

Michael Riedel:  But how closely…

Charles Busch:  Anyways, yeah, that’s the point… but say your question.

Michael Riedel:  How closely did you stick to the actual events? 

Charles Busch:  Yes. Well I did all this research.  And then I was paralyzed because I just didn’t know how to somehow take all this research and turn it into a linear plot.  And I put it away for a while.  And then I came back to it and thought I’m just going to write this as a fictional piece, and who cares if it bears any resemblance to the truth.  And then surprisingly I think, just by osmosis, so many facts came in, and when I reread the play I thought, you know most of this is really quite true.  You know I invented basically, the relationships within the company…

Michael Riedel:  Yeah…

Charles Busch:  … and those other actors, but you know the young understudy did go on that night.  Some of the wackier things that you would be sure that I would have made up actually are the historic fact.

Susan Haskins:  One of the things that I love the most about this play, is you really informed me about that whole culture of the theatre at that time – of these touring companies and the kind of people who were actors at that time…

Kate Mulgrew:  And how austere it was.  That’s what Charles has taught me. They were austere.  They were Spartan.  They were practical people. 

Charles Busch:  Yeah.

Kate Mulgrew:  I mean these troupes knew what was going on.  I always thought it would be… I mean I thought it would be far more glamorous.

Susan Haskins:  No, this was not glamorous.

Kate Mulgrew:  Of course we’re talking directly after the war.  But that element of it…

Charles Busch:  Yeah.  Yeah. 

Kate Mulgrew:  That…

Michael Riedel:  Well I find what’s interesting too about your character is… you know the whole idea of a director is a Twentieth Century concept.

Kate Mulgrew:  That’s right. Yeah.

Michael Riedel:  There were no directors before.  They were actor/managers.

Kate Mulgrew:  Uh huh.

Michael Riedel:  And you had those wonderful bits … in the beginning I remember, you come out, and you say, ‘Now if you’ll just sort of like stand over here when I come out to give my speech…’  That’s the…

Kate Mulgrew:  Let alone the (lady?) And that is in fact what she fought.  And that was her great triumph, was it not … until the assassination? Laura Keene stood alone.  Her gender did - among managers of that.... Can you imagine? We’re talking about the mid Nineteenth Century.

Susan Haskins:  And she came from nothing.  Wasn’t she a servant from England…

Kate Mulgrew/Charles Busch:  laughing together.

Kate Mulgrew:  I’m going to (laughing…) plead the fifth on this one…

Susan Haskins: (to Busch) …Or did you make that up?

Kate Mulgrew:  Beaucoup conversa…Well… because certain license was taken, but it was theatrical and it was very effective… and what else did you want to ask me about my… my religious… I (much laughter among the four)!!?

Michael Riedel:  Mrs. Columbo, that was amazing!

Kate Mulgrew:  Wonderful, wonderful…

Charles Busch:  Well, I do take liberties, and you know she was … she was from somewhat humble beginnings but she… I made her … I brought her down to the gutter! As many of my heroines, you know… my proletarian heroines.  But yes, I think I exaggerated a bit.  But she did work at a pub at a point.  (to Kate Mulgrew) No?  Yes?

Susan Haskins:  But didn’t we all?!  Now Charles, what made you think to bring in the fabulous Kate Mulgrew and not do the part yourself?

Charles Busch:  Oh gosh.  You know I thought about it, certainly…

Susan Haskins:  Yeah.

Charles Busch:  But I… you know, there’s a big part of the play is the relationship between Laura and her dresser – female dresser.  And there’s a wonderful intimacy between these two women when they’re so…  Laura Keene is so sort of stripped of her affectations and illusions about herself, and these two women are so honest with each other.  And I really did think that that had to be…

Michael Riedel:  Had to be a woman.

Charles Busch:  Had to be two women playing it. You know, because no matter how real I may play it, there’s still going to be a separation between actor and role. So I thought that was important and then of course, when, you know…

Kate Mulgrew:  Act Two.

Charles Busch:  … when the heavens brought Kate Mulgrew into our lives it was just so… so fantastic, that I wasn’t at all…

Kate Mulgrew:  Oh, no, no. Lucky me.

Michael Riedel:  Because there’s something you do in the performance I found really quite brilliant.  From the moment…

Kate Mulgrew:  Be specific and take your time!

Michael Riedel:  (laughing) Yes!  I don’t want to… I don’t want to give away… It’s almost like a Walter Kerr review where he would isolate something an actress does and then she couldn’t ever do it again!

Kate Mulgrew:  (Unintelligible)

Michael Riedel:  From the moment you come on, you’re always in motion. I mean you’re always… you just kind of are bobbing around like that, you know - you never stop.

Kate Mulgrew:  The sweep of the train…

Michael Riedel:  Yes, exactly.  There’s … there’s never any stillness with her, you know.  She’s just sliding in and out and moving around, and jumping and it’s a kind of a remarkable physical …

Kate Mulgrew:  Well ambition is constantly moving, isn’t it?

Michael Riedel:  And it’s something you decide deliberately to do – ‘I’m going to make this statement…’

Kate Mulgrew:  And more and more so.  It’s driven.  It’s driven. I… my… I’ve got to get this done.  Everybody’s got to get me… this person, that person.  Yes, it is a motor, which then becomes very still in Act Two. 

Michael Riedel:  Yeah. Yeah.

Charles Busch:  And Laura Keene really was, from what I read, this … one of these women who are sort of … one of these people who are kind of over achievers.  She started a fine arts magazine.  She, you know, was creating … very ahead of her time, but she had a lot of failures, too, because she was kind of over ambitious, but she tried to create a central booking system for touring companies all over the country.

Michael Riedel:  Really?

Charles Busch:  You know…

Michael Riedel:  She was a Shubert before there were Shuberts.

Charles Busch:  Yes.  She was trying to do what the Shuberts later did, and failed at it.  But … this constant motion I think, really would be very accurate to the kind of lady she is – just so energized. 

Michael Riedel:  Yeah.  What happened to her, ultimately?

Kate Mulgrew:  She died of Tuberculosis.

Charles Busch:  Nine years later. 

Michael Riedel:  Nine years later.  Broken?

Charles Busch:  No…

Kate Mulgrew:  No. She herself would never have said that she was broken.

Charles Busch:  She was indomitable.

Kate Mulgrew:  She died in a beautiful house that her husband had bought for her on the river … her love… and her daughters were at her side.  And I think that she felt that she lived a very complete life … with the sorrow of Lincoln’s…

Charles Busch:  Yeah.  I think she… I do believe that her reputation was tarnished. 

Kate Mulgrew:  It was.

Charles Busch:  But that certainly wouldn’t stop a person like that.

Michael Riedel:  I think this play is very interesting in your work, Charles, because, I mean you know, you’re thought of as a comic writer, you know. 'Tale of the Allergist’s Wife' in the great tradition of the Neil Simon Broadway comedies.  This is a very funny play, but it’s a lot more poignant, I think, than some of past things of yours…

Charles Busch:  Yeah.

Michael Riedel:  … I’ve seen.  Is that a fair…

Charles Busch:  Yes. Yes.  Well I think it’s certainly the most extended dramatic scenes that I’ve written before.  But I felt I sort of had to, to be you know, when this char… this lady who’s so myopic and self absorbed and then this … finds herself in the midst of this terrible tragedy that’s not only affecting the whole country, but … but devastates her… you know I didn’t think she could just start doing cart wheels in the next scene.  I thought you’d have to have her … her response.

Susan Haskins:  And he bled out on her dress and…

Kate Mulgrew:  It’s beautiful…

Susan Haskins: …they still auction that off.  And it’s highly educational and so it should be licensed by theatre companies all over America.

Michael Riedel:  And we can next look forward to your… your Long Day’s Journey Into Night, right, now that you’re in a more serious mode of writing. 

Charles Busch:  Yes, yes.  My intention is to write a completely humorless play.  (all four laugh)  Devoid of any humor. 

Kate Mulgrew:  Oh, is there anything in it for me, darling?!

Charles Busch:  Yes, my dear.  Except the first three hours will be in ancient Yiddish!

Michael Riedel:  This is a scene right out of Our Leading Lady, you two!  All right.  It’s a great play at the Manhattan Theatre Club, running until?

Kate Mulgrew:  We don’t know!

Charles Busch:  We don’t know.

Kate Mulgrew:  Undetermined.  Extended!  Yes!

Michael Riedel:  Great performance by Kate Mulgrew as Laura Keene and very fine play by Charles Busch.  Thank you very much for being our guests.

Kate Mulgrew:  Thank you for having us. 

Michael Riedel:  Great fun.  Thank you.

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