Douglas Carter Beane is aflutter these days, flitting from one fairyland to another like a hummingbird in heat. These are fairylands of his own making or, in the case of his Cinderella, which is bowing March 3 at the Broadway Theatre, remaking; his from-the-ground-up original play The Nance follows suit April 15 at the Lyceum.
Both efforts have been research-intensive. For the lady with the glass slipper, he went back three centuries to the French source; for the effete theatrical stereotype known during the last gasps of vaudeville as the nance, he canvassed gay history of the previous century and came up with a Nathan Lane vehicle that’s tailor-made for the actor’s sad-clown Emmett Kelly side.
“I like researching,” Mr. Beane insisted in a recent interview, “which is funny, because I have been considered Mr. Topical Humor, Mr. Contemporary, Mr. What’s-in-the-News-Today-and-How-Can-I-Get-It-Into-the-Theater? for so long.”
He was speaking to The Observer by phone last week from the bowels of Lincoln Center while director Jack O’Brien was prepping The Nance for a place on Broadway.
Surprisingly, there wasn’t a trace of weariness in his description of the hectic life he’s been leading in the past few weeks. “I write rewrites for Cinderella till noon,” he said, “and then I come to The Nance rehearsal in the afternoon, and then I see Cinderella at night, and then after midnight I do rewrites for The Nance. I have a multiple-personality disorder, so it’s all fine.”
So what, precisely, is a nance? “A nance,” he explained, “is a burlesque term for a gay comic character—the worst type of stereotype of an effeminate gay man. Think Franklin Pangborn in the movies. In burlesque, it was much more risqué and bawdy. Often, nance acts were called ‘pansy acts.’ They were very much a part of the late ’20s/early ’30s. By the late ’30s, they were out of favor.”
(Even Pangborn saw fit to douse his flamboyance. Notice how sensitive, subtle and sneakily funny he is tailoring Gary Cooper’s suit in 1936’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.)
Several planets had to align for Mr. Beane to write The Nance, starting with his communal pride. He lives near Irving Place and East 15th Street, the former site of the Irving Place Theatre, a big Broadway-sized house built in 1860 for concerts, balls and lectures. It subsequently played host to Amberg’s German Theater, Yiddish Art Theatre, burlesque, union meetings, theatrical presentations and cinema.
Mr. Beane zeroed in on the burlesque period, and in 2005 he did a benefit evening of burlesque for the theater company he ran, The Drama Dept., filling out the bill of fare with sketches he uncovered at Lincoln Center Library. A recurring character was identified as The Nance, but Mr. Beane didn’t really connect with it until he read George Chauncey’s book Gay New York.
All these particles were floating in the air five years ago, when he went to Sundance’s Ucross Writers’ Retreat in Wyoming. “They literally throw you in a cabin for three weeks,” he said. “You can’t have anything ready to go in the beginning. You just have to do something, so I sat there, put it all together and started writing—with Nathan Lane in mind. I wrote the first act and one scene of the second act. Then I took some time and finished it and sent it off to Nathan. He was doing The Addams Family. I said, ‘I wrote something for you. I think it’s special.’ I sent it to him at 5, and he called me at 9 the next day to say he read it, loved it and wanted to do it. Highlight of my career!”
Although a nance was usually played by a straight, the one played by Mr. Lane—named (please note) Chauncey Miles—is gay. “It’s a sexual story, a romantic story. It’s about the quality of self-loathing that many gay men have in their lives: what causes that, how it’s going away to some degree and how it remains to another degree.
“I think what The Nance is most like is John Osborne’s The Entertainer, in that it’s very dramatic, then it flips and goes into these comedy sketches—a bittersweet love story juxtaposed with outrageous burlesque performances. It’s an incredible spectrum Nathan would have to bring to the part. I knew he could do it and knew from conversations I’ve had with him that he’d connect with scenes in the play.”
Mr. Beane’s second adventure in fairyland this season has Rodgers and Hammerstein as collaborators, in what will be their last Broadway show—Cinderella, the stage version of their 90-minute TV show that CBS aired live March 31, 1957.
Julie Andrews was the first Cinderella, Lesley Ann Warren the second in 1965, Brandy the third in 1997—and the law of diminishing returns was very much in effect. This stage edition is an attempt to “take out the improvements,” as Mr. Beane puts it, and return to home base—in particular to Robert Russell Bennett’s orchestrations, which have been lovingly preserved by David Chase, Andy Einhorn and Bruce Coughlin.
The whole score is represented, even “Royal Dressing Room Scene” (“Your Majesties”), which the King and Queen (Howard Lindsay and Dorothy Stickney) sang. These majesties—the characters—didn’t make the stage cut, but their melody lingers on as background music while people line up for the royal banquet.
The standards survived: the plaintive “In My Own Little Corner,” the buoyant “A Lovely Night” and “Impossible; It’s Possible,” the wistful “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?” and the exquisitely lilting “Ten Minutes Ago.” Has television ever had a more tuneful hour and a half? For that matter, has Broadway of late?
When people say they know the Cinderella story, what they usually know is The Fable According to Walt Disney, circa 1950, but there’s considerably more bibbidy-bobbidi-boo where that came from, as Mr. Beane learned when he tracked it back to Charles Perrault’s original 1697 French version.
“He’s the guy who came up with the whole glass-slipper idea—Venetian glass was very posh in those days—as well as Mother Goose, Puss in Boots, Little Red Riding Hood. He even came up with the expression ‘fairy tale.’ When I read the original, I thought, ‘That’s amazing! Why don’t we ever get to see this version?’ There’s so much more to the story. Cinderella was kind in a world that was sarcastic and full of ridicule. She saw the prince more than one time—she saw him a series of times, in fact. She had a sister who was actually a friend and had a beau of her own.”
His biggest discovery came about because he has a partner—Lewis Finn, who wrote the songs for Mr. Beane’s Lysistrata Jones—who happens to speak French. “Lewis read the original French version and said, ‘Oh, my God! The first time she loses the shoe, then retrieves it. The second time she leaves the shoe.’ The actual French verb was ‘leave.’ I was like, ‘Wow! People will think I’m the most controversial, forward-thinking writer of my generation—and it’s really from 1697!’”
In this production, the climatic slipper-fitting contest seems somewhat superfluous, since Cinderella and her prince—elegantly represented here by Laura Osnes and Santino Fontana—always recognize each other, thanks to costume designer William Ivey Long’s having made sure they’re color-coordinated. And he has engineered for her a couple of spectacular on-stage presto changos.
He works comparable wardrobe wonders on Victoria Clark’s Crazy Marie, who instantaneously turns on a dime from a beggar lady into the Fairy Godmother—a transformation trick Mr. Beane took from Prokofiev’s ballet version.
In the Beane reimagining, the big difference is that Cinderella and the prince are both orphans. While the prince is away at school, the kingdom is being run (into the ground) by his superciliously sinister secretary of protocol, played by Peter Bartlett via Cyril Ritchard. Upon his return, the prince is offered up for marital sacrifice, and high jinks ensue, with Mr. Bartlett forming a comically unholy alliance with Harriet Harris, Cinderella’s nasty stepmother, to tip the scales toward her other daughters.
Democratically, the Rodgers and Hammerstein wealth is spread around. “I like to do that—I think it comes from my days with The Drama Dept.,” said Mr. Beane. “When you have really wonderful actors like Marla Mindelle and Greg Hildreth [Sister Mary Robert of Sister Act and Alf of Peter and the Starcatcher], you want to give them stuff to do.”
What these two are given to do is songs from other Rodgers and Hammersteins: Ms. Mindelle, as the good stepsister, tra-las with Mr. Hildreth, her rabble-rousing true love, “I Haven’t Got a Worry in the World,” which Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote for an Anita Loos-Helen Hayes vehicle that they produced, Happy Birthday. (This 1946 play will be revived from March 12 through April 13 by The Acting Company Theater—sans that song.) Mr. Hildreth’s social conscience is expressed early on in a song, “Now Is the Time,” which was nearly Emile de Becque’s and still lingers on somewhere in South Pacific just as music. Cut from the second act of Me and Juliet, “Me, Who Am I?” is used here to introduce the prince in an identity crisis.
“Additional lyrics” are credited to Mr. Chase and Mr. Beane, who got a ghostly assist. “Because it was written while Oscar Hammerstein was in Australia and Richard Rodgers was in New York, a lot of the development process was written by letter,” explained Mr. Beane. “I got to read these letters, see a bit of a lyric idea here, something they abandoned there. It was like forensics lyric-writing. Everything in the show is pretty much an idea they had. We just formulated them into the show.”