“It sounds like I’m singing in the bathroom and you’re singing way over in the kitchen,” says Scott Townsend — better known as the drag queen and Cher impersonator Thirsty Burlington — to Mark Meehan. Meehan, a local musician, will be backing up Thirsty with vocals and piano for “One Night Only With Cher,” opening at the Crown & Anchor poolside on Memorial Day weekend and running through the summer.
Townsend and Meehan are not, in fact, in separate rooms — they’re actually close together in a cramped basement space of the Provincetown Commons. Townsend’s point is that they aren’t clicking. They’ve just attempted a new song — the playlist for the show has changed frequently in rehearsal, which the Independent is observing — and it didn’t land quite the way it should. But that’s exactly why Townsend rehearses months in advance. By the time they’re prepping onstage at the Crown, it will be right.
“That way, I get to boss other people around, rather than them bossing me,” he says, raising his eyebrows, a devilish twinkle in his eye, looking far more youthful than his actual age, 53.
Back in March, their room in the Commons was empty and Townsend, clad in a knee-length cardigan, had the entire floor to glide around on as he sang, often pulling at the sides of his cardigan as if it were an evening gown. He says that, when he’s rehearsing, he’s simply himself, not his drag persona.
“Right now, I’m researching that bitch I call Thirsty Burlington,” he says. Now, there are two people present: Townsend the man and the queen he’ll become when all is said and done. With each week of work, the latter eclipses the former.
“I have so many people inside me,” he says, taking a big swig of water between songs. “I often feel like I’m fighting with different sides of myself.”
Since March, the rehearsal room has been co-functioning as an artist studio, full of tapestries, paintings, and photographs, and Townsend and Meehan have been squeezed into a corner.
There, helter skelter, is a construction ladder, a stack of folding chairs, and a vintage door off its hinges. Townsend’s belongings are in a neat heap on a shelf: reading glasses, a paisley folder that matches his outfit, an herbal vocal spray (“to lubricate the windpipes,” Townsend says after a spritz), and a bejeweled tambourine, which he’ll start using once the vocals are down pat.
“Why can’t I just lip-synch, like the other kids?” Townsend laments, fanning himself with a music sheet.
Thirsty sings in her own voice. She’s a powerhouse, her voice smooth and heavy, dark and deep. During rehearsal, Townsend always belts, displaying a vocal stamina that’s almost athletic. He floats seamlessly from one note to the next in his wide range. His voice is even audible outdoors, roaring up from the basement, thick and welcoming.
Townsend has been singing since he was six years old, when he was living in affordable housing in Cambridge. In 2016, a musical biopic, Thirsty, was released about Townsend’s life, from his youth, when he was bullied for being a “girly boy,” to his drag days. He’s dyslexic — “You know Cher is a dyslexic, too?” he says; they also share a birthday, May 20. He began doing drag in 1991 and moved to Provincetown soon after.
Last summer, Townsend’s entire season was canceled due to Covid. Because he’d had pneumonia in late 2019, his doctors advised him to play it safe and lie low during the pandemic.
This year brought additional medical complications. A routine colonoscopy produced a cancer diagnosis. He’s going in for surgery this month and is hopeful that will be that. “I intend on not missing one single day of my show,” he says.
Thirsty will be performing covers that Cher has done in the past, by the Eagles, Marc Cohn, U2, and Eddie Money. During rehearsal, Townsend occasionally mimes his costume changes. Nothing’s set in stone, but he’s thinking lots of leather and sequins and maybe some suspenders and a cape with a hood that he’ll tear off at some point. “Of course, there will be an evening gown,” he says. “Because when you’re doing drag, there’s got to be at least one gown.”
Townsend describes the show as more “age appropriate” than what he’s done in the past. He’s referencing his own age, but he may as well be talking about the country at large. There’s a notion circulating that this summer will be more vibrant than ever, that the change will be like flicking a switch, instantly different. But Thirsty’s show, pared down and elegant and, most important, outdoors, anticipates a transition to normalcy that’s more like a slow burn — a stream as slow and steady as Townsend’s molasses-like voice.