My Second Star to the Right // by Charles Busch
The Iconic Charles Busch gets the opportunity to play an unlikely dream role.
On August 15, 2016, I finally got to play Peter Pan. Thank you, Transport Group. I’d long been an admirer of their work. Their innovative production of I Remember Mama is on my list of all-time favorite theatrical experiences. So, it was a lovely surprise when Transport Group’s Artistic Director, Jack Cummings, asked me to narrate a one-night concert staging of the 1954 Broadway musical adaptation of Peter Pan. He assembled an impressive line-up of leading ladies to share the title role, including (among many) Carolee Carmello, Mary Testa, Ann Harada, Rachel Bay Jones, and Ruthie Ann Miles, each of whom agreed to perform one of Peter’s many musical numbers. I was delighted to participate in any way.
Peter Pan has been a part of my life since I can remember. I’m of the generation who grew up ritualistically watching every year Mary Martin’s TV production shown in living color. One particularly intriguing viewing was in the early sixties when I was six and my sister Margaret was nine. At our house in Westchester, we were stuck with our crummy old Magnavox black and white television set. My Aunt Lil lived in Manhattan and in the apartment next door to her resided a pair of shy “bachelors.” These two young men were among the first to possess that new luxury item, a color TV. Aunt Lil, who had only the barest acquaintanceship with the gentlemen, inveighed upon them to allow my sister Margaret and me to watch Peter Pan at their home. I have very few visual memories of my early childhood, but I remember that shadowy dark living room as if I entered it yesterday. Unlike Aunt Lil’s lively faux French provincial avec Chinese accents décor, this place was shrouded in somber shades of brown. The furniture wasn’t chosen for comfort but for its sleek minimalist style. The few table lamps cast a faintly sinister glow. Our hosts sat hunched together in the far corner of the room, while Margaret and I sprawled on the floor in front of the big box of a TV. As enchanted as I was with Mary Martin’s charismatic Broadway diva/middle-aged tomboy performance, I was also fascinated by the two pale, effeminate men silently enjoying the show behind us. It’s possible that I’m projecting my current awareness on to my six-year-old self, but I believe I was feeling a strange identification with their “otherness.” Were we part of the same magical tribe of lost boys? And I wonder if later, alone, the couple remarked on the androgynous youngster who stared at them so intently.
Back to 2016. Jack came up with a new idea. Not only would I sit far stage right narrating the story, but I’d also provide a kind of live commentary track that would periodically fill the audience in on the musical’s complicated production history. Like most performers, I was delighted to have my part made bigger. Jack then began to feel the need to have the most important dialogue spoken before and after each song. The actresses balked. It was enough of a challenge to quickly learn and memorize an elaborate musical arrangement with staging and choreography. Each woman responded with variations of, “Nope, sorry, no dialogue.” This was my lucky break and I seized it. I piped up, “Jack, um…I can read Peter Pan’s scenes.” I’d been waiting for this chance for more than half a century. And so, I did. And oh, I also volunteered to read some of Wendy’s lines as well.
Because of my career playing classic movie inspired heroines in a flamboyant larger-than-life style, I think the assumption was that I would add an element of knowing camp to the proceedings. No, sir. I read the role of Peter without the slightest wink or post-modernist irony. That night I was Peter Pan; the boy who never grew up. When it came to the emotional peak of the show where Peter pleads with the audience to clap their hands to save Tinker Bell’s life, I played the moment with total emotional commitment. It was a night I won’t forget.
Fade out, fade in. Around two years later, I showed up at a book signing at Barnes & Noble to support my friend, the Broadway musical director/producer/radio personality/humanitarian/author, Seth Rudetsky. Seth had compiled a volume of his interviews of which I was one. A shy nine-year-old boy approached me to sign his book. He seemed a bit young to be familiar with my theatrical oeuvre. Rather grandly, I asked if he’d ever seen me on the stage. He replied in a quiet studious manner, “Oh yes. I have. And you’re my favorite Peter Pan.” I was at a loss for words. He’d been there that special night. I could only lean forward and respond with absolute sincerity. “Thank you.” You know something else? (And, folks, you can’t make this stuff up.) His name was Charles. And we’ve become friends.
About the author: