“Dorian’s Closet,” a new musical based on the life of legendary female impersonator Dorian Corey, runs April 27 – May 14 at Rep Stage, a regional theatre in residence at Howard Community College. Directed by Co-Artistic Director Joseph Ritsch, with book and lyrics by Richard Mailman and music by Ryan Haase, “Dorian’s Closet” is a fictionalized account of Dorian’s life and what leads to the discovery of a mummified body in her Harlem apartment after her death in the early 1990s.
Confronted with ridicule and prejudice, Dorian persisted in her lifelong quest for love and fame. From Dorian’s early days in New York City, through her rise to the heights of the Harlem ball scene and Mother of the House of Corey, “Dorian’s Closet” takes us on a musical journey that explores just how far we will go to make our dreams a reality.
During a workshop for Rep Stage’s world premiere musical “Dorian’s Closet,” the creative team discussed the journey this production has taken from concept to development. The following questions and answers are excerpts from that conversation with Richard Mailman, book writer and the lyricist; Ryan Haase, composer; Joseph Ritsch, co-producing artistic director of Rep Stage and director; Stacey Antoine, musical director; and Rachel Dolan, choreographer.
Q: What inspired you to write this show?
Richard Mailman, playwright: “Seeing ‘Paris is Burning’ when I was a youngster in New York and that whole subculture downtown and going to clubs and seeing drag queens and stuff. I saw that movie, and I think—for lot of people that have—Dorian is the one person in that movie that everyone remembered. A couple of years after I saw it, I read a piece in New York Magazine after she had died about the mummy in her closet, and I just have been obsessed with it ever since. It’s challenging to write a musical about someone who's real instead of a fictional character because people have this impression of her from the movie, but at the same time, there are a lot of people that don't know who she is. That's kind of the exciting part about it, bringing attention to her because, in a weird kind of way, that's exactly what she wanted and didn't really get that in a huge way. She got it, sort of in that community of drag queens and performers, of that time but, she’s not widely known. It's kind of fun to think that maybe we will have a chance at giving her something that she really, really wanted that she didn't really have.”
Q: You made a deliberate choice to make “Dorian’s Closet” a musical rather than a play. Why a musical?
Mailman: “I think it needed to be told through music because of the whole show business aspect, it just called for that. So it took a while for me to really get to feeling that I actually have enough confidence to sit down and do it, but once I did, once I started doing it, there was no turning back. And I wrote the book first thinking that someone else would write the lyrics because I didn't think I could do it, but the more I thought about it, I mean it obviously makes more since for me to write the… lyrics, so... I did it. And once that was done, we went through a series of readings, and it took it took a while to find the right team, until Joseph (Joseph Ritsch, the director) came on and brought Ryan (Ryan Haase, the composer), and then Stacey (Stacey Antoine, the music director), and then Rachel (Rachel Dolan, the choreographer). It took about four years.”
Q: How did the team come together?
Joseph Ritsch, director: “Richard and I have known each other for 25 years, from our New York City days, and had worked together in New York and remained good friends. When he told me about the project, I was really interested in it and came on board about a year and a half ago. I read it and said, you know what, I want to come out to LA, where Richard's based, I want to do a reading, so I can hear it out loud. We did that without music because there was no composer attached to it at the time. After a series of difficult attempts to find one on Richard's end, I said I know this young composer in Baltimore who is super talented. I’ll see if he's interested and give him a shot. We did, and it was a great fit. And then he (Ryan) has a colleague and a friend who's a musical director and an arranger, and that was a great fit. I had worked with Rachel before, and that was a great fit. I think it really shows that, in this industry, that relationships are really what it's about at the end of the day.”
Q: How did you take Richard’s lyrics and create the tone for the show?
Ryan Haase, composer: “He had sent me lyrics, and I made up a song and sang it. I sent it back to him, and he got choked up and said this is the song for the show, like we needed to work together. Usually I force myself to listen to music of the time, just to start falling in to some sort of a theme and trying to stylistically stay within the world. I think the best part about writing it was when we were all in the room, and we were writing a ton of it at one time because then it was like our minds were percolating. Because of that, every song that we started coming up with at that point was only making the storyline stronger and stronger. When we were on separate coasts, it was a little bit harder. It's easier when you can just look across the room and be ‘well what do you think?’
I love writing ballads, and you can ask him (Richard) this is a ballads show. I mean there are upbeat numbers in it, but there’s a lot of times when you're getting every little ounce that's inside of the characters, they're bringing to the lyrics. It's always these like little subtle side moments where you're actually getting to look inside this character and that's a lot of the songs in this show. I just like dark storylines, storylines about love, and storylines about death are my favorite things, and this show has them both.”
Q: What is unique about the music?
Stacey Antoine, musical director: “For the Rep Stage production, we'll be using two keyboards, cello, violin, and percussion. Cello gives you that yearning that you want. Cello's just such a powerful instrument and beautiful, and I think that's very Dorian. Also heartwarming and tender. I mean a lot of instruments can, but I think the cello specifically has a place in this piece.”
Q: How did you approach the choreography?
Rachel Dolan, choreographer: “Everything that they're talking about regarding the style of music, referencing whether it's a time period, or it's a genre of musical theatre, movement does the same thing. But from my point of view, for choreography, I want it to be a time capsule, like we're watching something that feels antiquated, but feels as current as the music feels. So even though we are referencing different time periods, like there's disco, feels there's that 90's kind of R & B feel in some of the songs. All these things that I love that sort of feels true to the show, true to these characters, and developing a vocabulary of movement that tells story in the same way that the vocabulary of music tells the story. I tell my students that the definition of musical theatre is when you're feeling too many emotions and the only thing you can do is sing them, and then when that's not enough, the only thing you can do is dance them. So it's singing, acting, and dancing all happening in a show.”
Q: Why “Dorian’s Closet” for Rep Stage?
Ritsch: “Suzanne Beal, my artistic partner, and I have been really committed to new work. We talked about how entertaining and how moving this show is. I think there's a level of politics to this musical that's really important in this very moment, particularly with the progression of where the LGBTQ community has landed and where they've come from Dorian's time. I think it's the right story at the right time.”
Mailman: “For me, it's much more than that … It's this relationship between child and mother, it's a relationship between friends, feeling like you don't belong, it's about love, it's about death, it's about all of these things that everybody can relate to. It's not just gays and lesbians, it's anybody who has been pushed to the fringes or you know has been treated in a certain way, in a way that they shouldn't been treated or not respected, or that they don't have the rights; it’s everybody.”
“Dorian’s Closet” runs April 27–May 14, 2017, in the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center, located on the campus of Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, Maryland.
Tickets are $40 for general admission, $35 for seniors and the military, and $15 for students with a current ID. Wednesdays and the first Thursday are pay-what-you-can performances. For tickets and additional information, visit http://www.repstage.org or call the box office at 443-518-1500.
* Members Actor’s Equity Association
** Equity Membership Candidate
++ Member of United Scenic Artists, IATSE
ABOUT REP STAGE
Rep Stage, a professional regional theatre in residence at Howard Community College, is celebrating its 24th season. The company is a member of the League of Washington Theatres, the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance and Theatre Communications Group. Rep Stage is recognized by Theatre Washington as a professional DC metro area theatre company and is eligible to be nominated for the Helen Hayes Awards. Performances are made possible by Howard Arts Council, Howard County Government and the Maryland State Arts Council, an agency funded by the Stage of Maryland and National Endowment of the Arts, as well as through generous individual contributions. Rep Stage is proud to be a partner of Howard County Tourism and promotion. Rep Stage’s artistic leadership is helmed by co-producing artistic directors Suzanne Beal and Joseph Ritsch.