There's poetic justice in the fact that Douglas Carter Beane's play "The Nance" is being produced by Lincoln Center Theater: right next door, at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts, is where the writer did early research for the project.
"It all began about 8 years ago," the playwright told me the other day as we sat in the Beaumont lobby around lunchtime. "I was the artistic head of the Drama Dept.," he continued, referring to a lively, now-defunct theater organization in New York. "For a benefit, we decided to do an evening of burlesque." At the library, Beane read several sketches from the art form's heyday, the 1920s and 1930s. "I kept coming across the word 'nance' or 'the nance.' It turned out that it referred to a stock figure at the time, who was gay or gay-seeming. Nances were extremely popular, and even though they could be effeminate they usually got the better of their sketch counterpart. They were not usually an object of ridicule."
In the Drama Dept. benefit, Bryan Batt, now of "Mad Men" fame, played the nance roles, to the rich amusement of the audience. "I could immediately see why the figure was so popular," Beane explained. "His jokes were pure burlesque - they make you groan even as you're laughing - but they gave the audience permission to find such a man funny, and the fact that he usually triumphed keeps us in our own time from finding the nance purely pathetic." The type, Beane added, has been entertaining audiences for centuries. "There's a direct line to him from the fop in Restoration comedy."
Around the same time Beane was doing his early library research he was also reading "Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1994,", a volume which was written by George Chauncey, now chair of the history department at Yale, and which will form the basis of a future blog entry. For now, all I will say about the book is that Beane tips his hat to the historian by naming the main character, played by Nathan Lane, Chauncey.
Beane began writing "The Nance" in earnest at a playwrights retreat in Wyoming sponsored by the Sundance Institute. "I had brought along the Chauncey book with me," the writer said, "and the sketches from the benefit were on my computer." While in Wyoming, with the sound of lowing cows out his window, Beane wrote the first act and first section of the second act. He finished the second act on a plane back from London, where his hit play, "The Little Dog Laughed," was being produced.
Beane had written the main role with Nathan Lane in mind, and as soon as the actor read "The Nance" he was enthusiastic about starring in it. "That was a thrill," Beane said. Another pleasure along the way - "The Nance" had the benefit of several development readings - was the opportunity it gave the writer to do further digging into the history of burlesque: on YouTube and in books - including "Striptease: The Untold Story of the Girlie Show," by Rachel Shteir.
"I wrote contemporary stories for so long," Beane said, "that it has been great to be able finally to engage in my love of research." He has continued to indulge the passion for period projects in recent years: for an upcoming New Year's eve performance at the Metropolitan Opera he rewrote the libretto for the 1874 Johann Strauss II opera "Die Fledermaus, and for an upcoming play, "Shows for Days," he utilizes elements of his childhood in Reading, Pennsylvania.
But the big event for the moment, besides "The Nance," is the production opening on Broadway this Sunday of Rodgers & Hammerstein's musical "Cinderella." Beane wrote a new book for the production. So glass slippers, like burlesque, are back? "Yes," Beane replied.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com