Scream “OH! [MARY]” for Broadway Star & Nightlife Legend BIANCA LEIGH

A star of New York nightlife, as well as the stage and screen since the ‘90s, Bianca Leigh is currently wowing audiences nightly in the hilarious Broadway hit OH, MARY! 

Jim Silvestri: Hello Bianca! Congrats on the success of OH, MARY!, the wonderfully twisted take on Mary Todd Lincoln, care of playwright and star Cole Escola and a great cast that includes you as the Chaperone! Does it feel very different being on that Lyceum Theatre stage on Broadway, as opposed to where it originated at the Lucille Lortel in the West Village? 

Bianca Leigh: Thank you! Yes, it is exciting. The first production at the Lortel was magical; the space is intimate and there’s not a bad seat in the house – perfect for this type of comedy. After a while, though, the move became necessary in order to accommodate the number of people who wanted tickets. A luxury problem, I know! I’m really psyched to do Mary at the Lyceum; it’s a gorgeous theater that specializes in smaller casts and does lots of cutting edge queer content. It’s perfect. And I saw my dear friends L Morgan Lee and Jason Veasey play there in A Strange Loop, so it has a special place in my heart. 

Photo credit: WILSONMODELS

JS: OH, MARY! is so different than what most folks might experience on Broadway. What is it about the show that is engaging people so much, in your opinion? 

BL: It’s not so different. I mean, Mae West did a play called” Sex”  on Broadway  in 1927! There has always been cutting edge comedy for grown folks on Broadway. Theatergoers are a pretty savvy lot. They’re going to love it. Many people told me that “Oh, Mary!” made them laugh until their face hurt. I’d never heard that about a show before, and I heard it dozens of times at the Lortel. New York is READY for this show. Cole is at the top of their game and it’s a beautiful thing to watch. It’s a very strong ensemble, too, if I may say so myself. 

JS: Do you have a favorite moment in the show? 

BL: I love doing my first scene. Almost all of us are in it and it’s just good old fashioned comic pandemonium. But the play is more than just a farce. Cole has written a lot of seemingly random, delightful silliness, but when the heart of the play emerges, it will hit you over the head. Just gorgeous writing. 

JS: How did you come across this role? Were you friends with Cole? 

BL: I had never met Cole, but they are an absolute sweetheart and one of the best scene partners I have ever had. Sharing the stage with them is exhilarating. It was actually Cole who suggested me for the role; they’d seen me in Transamerica when they were 18. I was…just north of 29…

JS: You are a woman of many roles and talents: actress, writer, singer, drag performer…Can you tell us a bit about where you’re from and how you began as a performer? 

BL: My first show was a production of Gypsy when I was five; our production should have been subtitled “A Ham is Born.” I did a ton of local and high school theater, earned a BFA at Rutgers and came to New York. 

Being Trans, mainstream commercial theater — as well as film and television — was pretty much inaccessible to me. Thank goodness I was able to find work in that small slice of theater that is funded and free from commercial pressure. I worked with wonderful auteurs like Taylor Mac and legendary companies like the Talking Band. I also did some amazing productions with Absolute Theatre and Theatre Askew. I made a nice chunk of change singing in nightclubs. I loved it, but I missed acting… so when more opportunities opened up for Trans actors, I was very happy. 

JS: How did you come to find yourself as a part of New York nightlife…and what was the scene like in those early days? 

BL: You mean the Pleistocene? When I hit the clubs, drag queens had already begun shifting away from celebrity impersonation and were creating their own personas. I saw Lady Bunny and Linda Simpson at the Pyramid and I was blown away. They were tearing each other to shreds, but it was hilarious. I couldn’t get over a drag queen wearing a simple brunette wig and naming herself Linda Simpson, instead of something showbiz like Lana Lagoon. I thought it was absolute genius. Not enough credit goes to the 90s drag queens. The creativity was jaw-dropping. 

JS: What was your drag like then? 

BL: We didn’t really consider what I was doing “drag” at the time, per se. I was just a Trans showgirl on the bill. Jeannie Sol is a woman who has performed for years with drag queens, and it works! Jeannie and I couldn’t schlepp it, though; we had to paint up and wear sequined everything or we’d disappear next to the girls. It took me a while to learn. I was Plain Jane in the beginning: CoverGirl pastel eye shadow — not even a lash. Jesse Volt took me aside and said, “Black eyeshadow — Carbon by M.A.C. — go buy some immediately. And get some lashes!” I didn’t even know they made black eyeshadow. 

My favorite gig in those days was Bar d’O. I was a guest–but a frequent one, like Carol Lawrence on The Carol Burnett Show. I had my own show at Stonewall for a few years and sang in Cherry Grove for over a decade. 

JS: As a Trans woman, did you feel that there was a big difference between yourself and the cis-identifying drag queens in the earlier days of your nightlife career? There is much more of an emphasis on the difference between Trans and cis drag performers these days, I think. 

BL: I personally think of us as one big sissy sisterhood… but that’s just how I see it. There are some differences, of course, but so what? We all throw on a lash and shake a tail feather. Back in the day, I was not part of the downtown scene…I hate that I missed the genius and camaraderie of Boy Bar, etc. 

As a femme queen, I did shows in midtown and above, for the most part. Lips, hips, and fingertips. Things changed a lot when downtown stars like Codie and Candis Transitioned. That’s around the time I started singing in downtown venues. 

JS: I know Peppermint is your girl! How long have you known her? 

BL: I have known Pep for many years — I won’t specify a number. Peppermint’s another amazing human: a fierce talent and a beautiful personality. I learned a lot about positivity from Peppermint. She’s also up for a good goss and a giggle. My kind of gal. 

She’s also up for a good goss and a giggle. My kind of gal. 

JS: Are you a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race and how that show portrays drag today? 

BL: Yes! I Love to watch RPDR with my friend Pickles and some of our nearest and dearest. Drag may not be a contact sport, but it is a spectator sport. I could watch Ru all day: “I’m sorry my dear, BUT…” 

JS: You were cast in Duncan Tucker’s groundbreaking film Transamerica back in 2005; that was one of the first modern Trans stories in cinema. Felicity Huffman was Oscar nominated for playing the main character, a Trans woman. In a key sequence, your character led a group of people played by real Trans actors who welcomed her and her son (the super cute Kevin Zegers) into their group’s party. Did you realize immediately what an important film this was? 

BL: Transamerica was a huge opportunity for me. I loved working with Duncan, Felicity, Kevin, and all the gals in the party scene. Felicity was very generous, and between takes showed me how to work better with the camera. She said that Kelsey Grammer had helped her when she was on Frasier, so she was passing it on. She also insisted that we do two setups for a particular scene. “No. There are two people in this scene. We have to see Bianca’s face, not just the back of her head.” Prior to Transamerica, I was usually treated like some kind of exotic animal act on set. 

JS: In this current, more representational era of filmmaking, do you think only Trans actors should be playing Trans roles? 

BL: I said this back in 2015, and I’ll repeat it: Until Trans actors are cast in non-Trans roles on a regular basis, the lion’s share of Trans roles should go to Trans actors. We need the work! There are always exceptions, though, such as Vanessa Redgrave in Second Serve. And most Trans actors want to play all kinds of roles, so I never say never. Since 2015, the pool of Trans talent has gotten much wider and deeper. I think many producers would be happy to be involved with a project starring one of the many successful Trans actors of today. I started to list them all, but the list got very long, which is a good sign! 

JS: Another (arguably) just-as-important, Oscar-worthy film you’ve been a part of: Hurricane Bianca, starring that other Bianca [del Rio], lol! This is a comedy classic! You were so great in it as Karma, Other Bianca’s wise drag mother of sorts. I bet all the baby gays recognize you from that! 

BL: Sometimes I am recognized as Karma. Usually it’s, “Wait, don’t I know you… from somewhere…?” Karma was a labor of love. She brought a bit of gravitas to the fun, which is always a good thing. Matt Kugelman knew what he was doing with that script, and he’s a fabulous director. I had a ball doing scenes with Bianca; I absolutely adore her. 

She’s the hardest working gal in show business. During filming, Bianca was in and out of wigs and makeup constantly (during summer in Texas), but she always knew her lines, and hit her mark. Other than that, she was a real bitch, lol! Something people may not know: Bianca del Rio is also one of the most generous gals in show business. She’s truly an angel under all that…that… exterior! 

I was in holding all day with Shangela, Alyssa Edwards, Joslyn Fox, and Willam. That was a Gay old time! While we waited, Alyssa kept saying, “Ask me a pageant question! Ask me a pageant question!” Someone would throw one at her, and she’d slowly approach an imaginary microphone and answer the question with deadly seriousness. It always involved world peace. We howled! 

JS: You also created and starred in an autobiographical show at the Laurie Beechman Theatre called Busted about a decade ago. How cathartic was it to write and perform in that show… and might we see a revival or even a sequel someday? 

BL: I’m dusting off the Busted script as we speak! I took a couple of writing classes with the fabulous comic and actress Kate Rigg, and I’m using everything I learned (good writing is good cutting) and creating a leaner, meaner script. The experience of writing BUSTED was empowering and freeing, as well as cathartic. I love writing my own material. 

JS: We are in strange times, as queer folks continue to break ground in various roles and become more visible and accepted throughout society… but pushback is on the rise, as we see with a growing number of hate crimes and proposed anti-queer legislation. Do you feel either optimistic or pessimistic about how things are going for our community? 

BL: Both! I am horrified at the huge wave of anti-LGBT legislation–these people don’t just want us back in the closet, they want us under a rock–but I truly believe most it of it will be struck down by the courts. 

JS: Are there any grand dames of comedy or music or fashion, etc. that you’ve idolized? 

BL: Oh, absolutely. I watched I Love Lucy religiously as a kid and I saw every Carole Lombard movie on the late show. I’m also a huge fan of Barbara Stanwyck, who could do drama and screwball equally well. Fashion? Pat Cleveland and Marisa Berenson. I saw Ms. Berenson coming out of the elevator in Bergdorf’s once, and I almost fainted. Regal. Music? Oh, all the divas, but Patti LaBelle holds a very special place in my heart. 

JS: When you’re not super busy, do you still like to bar hop in the city at all? And, is nightlife in NYC still fun? 

BL: That is a tough question. I’m not much of a club girl these days; I’ve spent so many years performing in bars and nightclubs; it’s kind of a busman’s holiday for me. I’m more of a restaurant gal these days. If I had a lot of dough, I’d open up a gay pub: no televisions, no pumping bassline… just a place to let down your hair, have a pint, and kiki with your good Judys. The closest I have found to that is Julius: a convivial atmosphere and the best cheeseburgers and fries in New York. 

JS: What else is coming up for you this summer and beyond? 

BL: Well, it will be all about “Mary!“ for a while, and I couldn’t be happier. I recently auditioned for a cable pilot, and did a reading of a new musical based upon one of my favorite books as a kid. I’m also going to do my cabaret show, “Transvestigation”, again once we’ve been up and running for a while.  

JS: Finally…What’s your go-to song to perform when you’re on stage these days? 

BL: “Blues in the Night” is always a winner, as well as “Sister” from A Color Purple, which I sang many times over the years with Raven and Sade at Bar d’O. 

Jim Silvestri

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