Sylvie, the character played by Cady Huffman in The Nance, is many things, but most notably she is a stripper and a Communist. According to Huffman, neither of those descriptions is as blunt as it might seem. "In 1937, when the play takes place, a stripper was an independent contractor," Huffman told me in her dressing room last Saturday between shows. "It was a tough life, because the burlesque circuit, which most strippers worked, was the bottom rung of the showbiz ladder." She added: "But for someone like Sylvie, the work was at least a chance to support herself."
Huffman, who won a Tony for her unforgettable performance in The Producers, created a back-story for Sylvie as part of her work in The Nance. "I think she was a dancer from a young age. And she had to support people around her. There weren't many options for a woman to earn money during the Depression, so in that sense Sylvie is doing pretty well."
In the 1930s, Huffman said, progress for women was at something of a standstill, and people like Sylvie were, in their own small ways, inching it forward. "Women's right to vote had only been achieved in 1920, and masses of women weren't working outside the home, as they did during the Second World War." Part of the political fervor of Sylvie, Huffman added, "comes from a hard-won awareness of just how difficult it was for a woman to be independent."
Sylvie's social consciousness, Huffman said, had propelled her to become a Communist. "In the 1930s, everybody seemed to be searching for big political explanations, so Sylvie is very much a part of her time." She went on: "Being a Communist then wasn't like being some kind of evil Red Dragon, the way it became 10 years later during the Cold War."
"Part of Sylvie's politics have to do with her awareness of labor and its lack of rights. Burlesque didn't have a union. Its workers weren't organized."
As part of her research for The Nance, Huffman studied the history of burlesque. "There's a great documentary," she said, "called Behind the Burly Q, which you can watch on Netflix." The film spotlights such personalities as Sally Rand, a superstar stripper for decades during the mid-20th century; Robert Alda, (the father of actor Alan Alda), who worked as a 'tit singer': he sang at the side of the burlesque stage while strippers stripped; and Kitty West, aka Evangelina the Oyster Girl.
"A lot of the women in that world," Huffman said, "were from broken homes. Their family was the group of performers with whom they toured." She added: "A lot of them married people they toured with, sometimes only for a season. It made life easier while staying in the cheap hotels on the road." Some of those unions were marriages of convenience for performers whose love lives were unconventional.
Did Sylvie, I asked Huffman, have an unconventional love life? "I suspect that in that department she is also a Communist: she likes both men and women."
Huffman's career in show biz, which includes a Tony nomination for The Will Rogers Follies and ten seasons as a judge on TV's "Iron Chef America," seems to have begun at an even earlier age than that of Sylvie. "My mother," said Huffman, speaking of her early years in Santa Barbara, California, "says that I was born ready for the stage. At the age of three, I was already begging her to let me take dance classes."
"Having fun in my home as a kid meant reading Shakespeare," Huffman continued. "I started ballet at 7, and classical-voice lessons at 9. I was lucky: I had teachers who believed in me." All that training began to pay off when Huffman was 18 and landed her first Broadway gig: in the original production of La Cage aux Folles. She was part of the cross-dressing ensemble, the Cagelles, who pull off their wigs at the curtain to reveal their true genders. "It's true," Huffman said. "I was a teenage drag queen."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com