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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