Douglas Carter Beane Talks About Burlesque, Gay History, and Cinderella

We sat down with Beane in the historic Lyceum theater to talk about his works now playing on Broadway.

Douglas Carter Beane Talks About Burlesque, Gay History, and Cinderella
Photo: Carol Rosegg

Playwright Douglas Carter Beane says his inspiration to write The Nance, a Lincoln Center Theater production starring Nathan Lane currently on Broadway, came from a handful of burlesque sketches he once wrote for a benefit; Gay New York, the groundbreaking work by historian George Chauncey; and his screensaver that depicted the Irving Place Theatre, a now-demolished New York burlesque theater landmark. “I had all these things in my head when I was at a Sundance retreat in Wyoming. I wanted to write about gay identity, about self-loathing and about oppression and so I put them all together and came up with this play,” he explains.

Beane’s previous work includes the screenplay for To Woo Fong, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, the Tony-nominated play The Little Dog Laughed, and the librettos for the Broadway musicals Xanadu and Lysistrata Jones. He’s represented this season on Broadway with The Nance as well the current production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, for which he wrote a new book. At the end of this year, Beane will make his Metropolitan Opera debut with a new libretto for Johann Strauss’s Der Fledermaus, and early next year, Lincoln Center will produce his new autobiographical play, Shows for Days. We sat down with Beane in the historic Lyceum theater, one of Broadway’s oldest surviving venues and the current home of The Nance, to talk about his works now playing on Broadway.

Who is “The Nance”?

In the burlesque shows there was always a very effeminate gay character known as the “Nance.” It was the equivalent of black face or a dialect comedian. Nances were usually played by straight men, so I thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if it was done by a gay man?” I wondered what his life was like—this very effeminate, funny man whose life is juxtaposed with this wild comedy he does on stage. I named him Chauncey, after the historian.

How would you describe burlesque?

It’s a certain type of humor that’s pretty much forgotten. It’s a double entendre sense of humor because they legally couldn’t say anything dirty. They had to put the filth in the minds of the audience. I think that burlesque is still an influence on our culture. It’s this crazy world where you never know what’s going to happen next. It’s sort of like a Saturday Night Live sketch, but instead of the guest artist being a rock band, it was women who took their clothes off to music. But they did it incredibly artfully, without really exposing too much. Each of the strippers had a specialty act. We have tried to recreate some of them in the show, based on photographs. One in the second act is based on a stripper named Zorina. She used to do the “Honeymoon Act,” which was so creative and inventive.

The nance tradition continued in movies and television too, didn’t it?

In the movies there was Everett Horton, Franklin Pangborn—also Eric Blauer, who’s less well known. Chauncey in the play could have been either one of those guys if life had gone that certain way. Both Horton and Pangborn were gay and had long-term lovers. Pangborn also lived with his mother. And they were fussy; that was a key word in the 1930s. Tony Randall played that character later, and you could say that Andrew Rannells is that character in The New Normal. When I was a kid, it was the holy trinity of Charles Nelson Reilly, Paul Lynde, and Alan Seuss from Laugh-in.

What’s the historical background of the play?

In the early part of the 1930s there was something called the “Pansy Craze,” and every nightclub, burlesque, vaudeville, and Broadway house had these gay characters. There was an explosion of this particular type of comedy and it was hugely popular. And then by the late 1930s there was a backlash. There was a new mayor of New York and a new administration: Fiorello LaGuardia was probably the best mayor the city ever had, but he was very Catholic and very uptight. He couldn’t stand burlesque. He thought it was cheap and vulgar and so he hired a man named Paul Moss as the commissioner of licenses. You couldn’t perform in New York without having a license first, and Moss basically took it upon himself to shut down burlesque, not only for women stripping, but also for “deviance on stage.” That meant any portrayal of a gay person in a play. You couldn’t make a reference to a gay character even in a Broadway show.

Did that bring about the end of burlesque in New York City?

Yes, 16 theaters were shut down. The theater that’s now the New Victory Theater, the children’s theater on 42nd street, that was the famous Minksy’s. The other theater on 42nd street was the Eltinge, which is now the AMC movie theater. Julian Eltinge was a great drag artist and he had a theater built for him which became a burlesque theater. Each of these burlesque theaters had their own personality. Minsky’s was like the Ziegfeld, very glamorous. They had Gypsy Rose Lee. The Eltinge had Margie Hart, who was a little more risqué—she would take off her g-string.

The Irving Place, where The Nance is set, was located in Union Square. It was torn down to make way for the Zeckendorf Towers, but even now there’s still theater going on in its basement; this is now the location of the Vineyard Theater. Irving Place was known as being very artistic, funny, and cutting edge. The nances at that theater were really smart and funny and the choreographer was known for his very visionary numbers. There is a letter from ee cummings to Ezra Pound saying, “Forget propriety, go to the Irving Place Theater.” The play takes place in 1937; it’s LaGuardia’s second term and the Depression is really at its worst.

How long did the crackdown last?

It came to an impasse 10 years later with a lesbian drama called Trio at the Belasco Theatre in 1944. At the time, LaGuardia had just purchased the Shriner Auditorium to create the New York City Center and he was putting together a theater wing for the new Center. But all the theater people said they were not going to participate in City Center if this play was banned. So Paul Moss was humiliated and his power was taken away. What’s interesting is that when Moss first started his campaign, the theater people rallied behind burlesque, but then caved at the last minute and allowed the burlesque theaters to be closed. So The Nance is a New York story about censorship and freedom of expression juxtaposed with this gay love story.

What happens in the love story?

In his book, George Chauncey talks about how there were rules about what a gay person was and what a straight person was at that time. If you were the “top” in the relationship you were straight, if you were the “bottom” you were gay. So if a homosexual act was being performed in a park, the gay man would be arrested, but the “straight man” was allowed to go free. In the play, Chauncey represents that viewpoint. What happens is that a young man named Ned comes along and he wants, what we consider now as, a gay relationship, and that forces Chauncey to try to change his viewpoint. Can he do it or not? So the play is also about that kind of repression which creates self-loathing, which destroys people’s lives.

You explored the gay closet in When Bees in Honey Drown and The Little Dog Laughed as well.

I keep going back to the same well, but each time it is a different context. There are parallels to the relationship in Little Dog and these two guys in The Nance, but I wanted to do something of a period. There seems to be a myth that gayness somehow just began around the Stonewall riots. I work with a lot of young gay men and women in their 20s and I wanted them to know where I came from and where the people before me came from—what our history was and why we are the way we are. And how, as free and wonderful as we are, there was something amazing about the sense of humor that came out of that oppression, that self-loathing.

How did you steep yourself in the period of The Nance?

I have always loved history. I love reading authors I call the bastard children of E.L. Doctorow, where you get to go into a world, a period. For instance, I’ll read Eric Larson, whether it’s the Chicago World’s Fair or the Weimar Republic. And I’ve always loved research. First you start with the history books. Then I really wanted to sound like the period, so I listened to a lot of radio shows, interviews if I could get them. Movies of the period were a huge help as well. Then I started reading the newspapers to see what was happening in 1937 and I began to uncover things that helped this play so much.

Paul Moss became really interesting. He was a failed theater producer. Everything that I would read about him made me hate him. Then suddenly I started seeing some of the period code words: A Time magazine article said he was a confirmed bachelor notable for his dapper dress. I went, okay, what’s going on here? And his obituary said, “He never married.” Interesting—someone who never married who was so concerned about family life. He never appears in the play, but he’s a presence off stage. And here is the crazy thing, his brother, B.S. Moss, was a successful producer and built the building across the street from the Lyceum Theater which used to be Bonds clothing store. He also built the Broadway Theater, which is where Cinderella is now playing. It is weird how the past is so much a part of who we are now.

Thank you, that’s a great segue to your other show on Broadway! How did you set about “fixing” Oscar Hammerstein’s book for Cinderella?

You don’t fix it! You sort of know who Hammerstein was as a person. He was committed to social change and social awareness, so I started from that angle. It was announced in Variety in 1957 that Rodgers and Hammerstein were going to bring Cinderella to Broadway, but they never did. I said if Oscar were around and was doing a Broadway show, he would want it to be about social responsibility. I read the original French version by Charles Perrault and it absolutely threw me for a loop in a really exciting way. Perrault was the inventor of the fairy tale and he also wrote Mother Goose, Sleeping Beauty, and Puss in Boots. But he was a member of the court writing social satire. The glass slipper was a satirical comment on Venetian glass, which was hugely popular at that period. The court was sarcastic and filled with ridicule; Cinderella was kind and her appearance in the court changed the whole court around. She also had a series of meetings with the prince. So that was my beginning. I went to the Rodgers and Hammerstein people and said this is what I want to do with it and they were enthusiastic about that. And within two years it was on stage, which was pretty fast for a project like this.

Of course, you still had to keep it a story for children.

Well, I am a parent. My partner [composer Lewis Flinn] and I have two kids. I was interested in writing a story for my daughter, Gabrielle. I originally passed on the project when it was offered to me because I knew, in terms of women’s issues, the story is a real minefield. I saw what Cinderella books and different movie versions of it were like and I thought I just don’t want my daughter seeing that. I wanted to do a story for her where Cinderella was a real heroine. And one of the things in the original French version is that one of Cinderella’s step-sisters ends up being her friend and helps her go to another event to meet the prince.

Most people seem to think you invented all this stuff for the production.

Well, I’ll take it on the chin. No, I took everything from a classical source. I just put a contemporary feel to it because I knew that if it didn’t have an American sensibility, audiences would tune out. The bag lady being the fairy godmother—I got that from the Prokofiev ballet version, which I’m sure was invented so the ballerina would have a little more to do. But I thought it a really powerful idea—that Cinderella is kind to the bag lady that everyone ignores and her reward is that she gets to go to the ball. It was a wonderful experience doing this show. I remember the best meeting we ever had was when we talked about how to do the magic and [costume designer] William Ivey Long said, “I think it is better if we see it done just in front of us.” So we use a lot of old-school tricks, which really makes it a theater piece. When you just see someone do it right there on stage, it’s magical beyond belief.

Gerard Raymond

Gerard Raymond is a travel and arts writer based in New York City. His writing has appeared in Broadway Direct, TDF Stages, The New York Times, The Village Voice, and other publications.

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