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
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
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
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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