Playwright Douglas Carter Beane is Back On Broadway With ‘The Nance:’ INTERVIEW
BY NAVEEN KUMAR
It’s been a busy season on Broadway for playwright Douglas Carter Beane. In addition to penning the new adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella that opened last month, his new play The Nance, starring Nathan Lane in the title role, opened on Monday in a Lincoln Center Theatre production directed by Jack O'Brien at the Lyceum Theatre.
Also the writer behind cult movie classic To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar, as well as Broadway cult hit Xanadu, Beane has a distinct way of crafting campy humor with a wry and clever hand. The Nance marks his first non-musical outing on Broadway since his much-acclaimed play The Little Dog Laughed in 2007.
Set in 1930’s New York, the play stars Nathan Lane as Chauncey, a burlesque performer whose stage specialty is the ‘nance’ routine. One of about a dozen different standard sketches common to burlesque, the nance is a caricature of an effeminate man, who is goofy, endearing, and speaks in rapid-fire double entendres.
Lane’s character Chauncey also happens to be gay himself, which not many nance performers would’ve been necessarily—certainly not openly. In the play’s first scene, Chauncey meets a young man named Ned (Jonny Orsini) with whom he develops a tenuous, restless bond. The play follows their relationship through the tumultuous politics of the time, and the pressures put on the burlesque scene during mayor LaGuardia’s tenure.
I talked to Doug about his process writing the play, how politics can affect one’s sex life, and what’s next on the writer’s plate.
NAVEEN KUMAR: What inspired you to write this play? Did you know much about 1930’s burlesque before you started?
DOUG CARTER BEANE: I didn’t. I knew a little bit, because when I was a kid this was a big part of variety shows, like The Carol Burnett Show and Jackie Gleason and all those guys. That was my first encounter with it, and then it was back in vogue about ten years ago. There was a club in Los Angeles called Forty Deuce, and there were places in New York doing nights of burlesque.
We were doing a benefit [at my theatre company called Drama Department] and somebody suggested that we do an evening of burlesque. There are ten basic forms of each sketch; there’s a vague outline of a plot and then they would just insert jokes in. So [when] I would meet men over the age of seventy, I would ask, ‘Did you ever go to see burlesque when you were a kid, and do you remember any of the routines?’ They would remember these lines verbatim.
There’s one joke that Robert Altman remembered, there’s a joke that Herb Ross remembered—everyone’s dead now who gave me these jokes! So I put them in my versions of these sketches, and the benefit was very successful.
Then I went to a writers’ retreat, and I brought along the George Chauncey book [Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940]. I also had a Berenice Abbott photograph of the Irving Place Theatre, which is around the corner from my house, and I thought that was really beautiful (though it was torn down in the 80s). So it was the photograph, a book I was reading, and I had these sketches in my computer. It all pulled together into one story.
I wrote the first scene and I thought, who is ever going to be able to play this? The first person I thought of was Nathan Lane, and I thought, well, that’s never going to happen so come up with another list and keep writing. When I finally finished it years later, the first thing I did was to send it to Nathan Lane and he said, ‘I love this, when can we do it?’ We did a reading the next week and here we are now.
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NK: Can you talk a bit about how you wrote your ‘nance’ routines? Were there common stereotypes they generally played off historically?
DCB: In the 30s sketches, he’s very innocent. He doesn’t know why the audience is laughing at him, which I thought was theatrically very exciting because it requires the character to say something very dirty but not know he just said something dirty. Then he’s always looking at the audience going, ‘Why are you laughing at me? What? Stop it! Oh, behave! You’re brutes! You’re terrible!’ and that I thought was a delightful energy because it forces the actor to engage with the audience constantly. It also lets the audience be ahead of the actor in an interesting way.
NK: Right, and the nance routines you’ve written have a certain affection for the character built into them, but was that always the case or is this a sort of reclaiming of the form?
DCB: They do, and if you watch the sketches, they start to turn on the nance. As I did research, in 40s and 50s burlesque, the nance is less and less tolerated and rejoiced in, and by the 60s, he’s an object of ridicule and he’s mocked, and they say horrible things about him. Whereas in the 30s, the common punch line is that he winds up getting the guy to sleep with him, or has [already] slept with the guy, the straight man.
I would think, I can’t believe they just said that, when I read these old sketches. So I would take jokes or come up with ones that I remembered, or write something similar in style. With some of these jokes, not until you read them out loud did you realize the double entendre, it was so subtle.
NK: Chauncey is a gay Republican—an interesting combo in any era—what made you choose to write the character that way?
DCB: A Republican then is very different from what a Republican is now, but there was something about the Republican line in that period, which was, you’ve got to get through it on your own and you can’t be relying on everyone to take care of each other. I thought well that’s an interesting point of view for a character, and how does one’s politics manifest itself into one’s personal life and into one’s sex life?
I have a place in Pennsylvania and it is very Republican. I was watching a television special about voting habits [there], and the center part of northern Pennsylvania has voted Republican for hundreds of years. Suddenly I’m thinking, 1932—the depths of the Depression, and you’re not going to give Roosevelt the benefit of the doubt? I thought that was really fascinating—someone who’s sticking to their guns, who’s going to vote against their interest.
What I’m proud of about the play is that [Chauncey] is a moral person, he’s a good person and that comes out at the end, and the far left wing characters wind up getting burned as much as he does.
NK: It’s interesting what you said about how his values play out in his sex life. I was going to ask, what do you think are the major roadblocks for him accepting himself, and accepting Ned’s love (his romantic interest in the play)? Is it his conservative mindset of ‘you’re on your own?’
DCB: No, I think that’s one part of it. Also, gay life as it has been explained to him does not make sense with what gay life was going to be in the next ten years, in terms of gay history. He has been taught a certain way. Ned represents the next generation, World War II gay men, which is filled with just as much discrimination, but there began to be real people having relationships—saying, ‘We’re going to be quiet about it, but we’re doing it.’ But really, there was a much greater sense of sexual freedom, as part of what being gay was [before then] was to have sex with straight men only in a passive role.
So it’s a little snapshot of that period, but it’s also what I see happening today with gay men in their 20s in conversation with gay men in their 50s.
NK: You mean how much more comfortable younger men are?
DCB: Yes, guys I know who are in their 20s are looking for husbands. That was not even to be considered. When I was young and gay, what older people believed [about homosexuality] was much more in line with Chauncey’s generation.
You know there’s that book, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask). I remember I read it when I was really young, like twelve or thirteen. The view on homosexuality is just so appalling. It’s all in Q & A form and I remember one of the questions, ‘But can’t two gay men or two gay women have a lasting relationship?’ and the answer is, ‘No, not really!’ and on to the next question.
I think that was 1972, that was a doctor dispensing wisdom in a book. So I read that as a kid, and I said, ‘OK, got it. I have to go to bowling alley bathrooms now to meet guys. I don’t really like bowling alleys or bathrooms, but I guess that’s what I have to do.’ It was just awful, really hilariously bad. In fact, he’s still alive and I haven’t heard him apologize for that!
But that’s just one little example—how society views you affects how you view yourself.
NK: So what’s next for you? Any projects on the horizon you can discuss?
DCB: Well, I did two shows this season and that just about killed me! But the next big project will be for the Metropolitan Opera, I’m doing Die Fledermaus next season, a new book adaptation with a new take on it. That opens on New Years Eve and will run through January and February.
I loved writing history so much that the next couple things will involve research. I’m going to do a new musical with my partner Lewis Flinn, who I did Lysistrata Jones with. We’re beginning research right now on a new musical, which we’ll probably announce soon.
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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: joan marcus)