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.