Rep Stage Brings Dorian Corey to Life in World Premiere Show
Thinking back to his early days in New York, Los Angeles-based playwright Richard Mailman recalled watching the documentary “Paris is Burning” and how much one of the film’s stars, legendary female impersonator Dorian Corey, stood out to him.
Years later, Mailman read a piece about Dorian in New York Magazine. The article detailed the days following Dorian’s death and a mysterious mummified body found in her closet.
“I’ve been obsessed with it ever since,” he said.
The tale of Dorian’s secretly stashed corpse inspired Mailman to write the book and lyrics that have developed into Rep Stage’s world premiere of the musical “Dorian’s Closet,” opening in April 2017. Rep Stage is a regional theatre in residence at Howard Community College, and the production of “Dorian’s Closet” is developed and directed by Joseph Ritsch, co-producing director of Rep Stage, with music written by Baltimore-based composer Ryan Haase.
“Dorian’s Closet” is a fictionalized account of Dorian’s life and what led to the discovery of the body in the closet of her Harlem apartment after her death in the early 1990s. Confronted with ridicule and prejudice, she persisted in her quest for love and fame. From Dorian’s early days in New York City, through her rise in the NYC underground drag and ball scene in the 1980s and beyond, “Dorian’s Closet” will take the audience on a musical journey that explores how far some will go to make their dreams a reality.
“It’s always exciting to premier new work and to be involved in the development process,” Ritsch said. “We are creating something new, and something is only new once. The creative team gets to collaborate in a way that is very different from when you produce work that already exists and has been produced several times. The work is super personal and we all come together to bring out the best in each other.”
Writing the musical proved to be challenging and exciting for Mailman. He admits “Paris is Burning” is a documentary that many have not seen.
“It was big for its time, but there are just as many people that don’t know who she [Dorian] is,” he said. “But that’s kind of the exciting part about it – bringing attention to her, because in a weird way, that’s what she wanted and didn’t really get.
“It’s kind of fun to think that maybe we will have a chance at giving her something that she really, really wanted, but she didn’t really have.”
Mailman had never tackled a musical before, but could not see telling Dorian’s story any other way.
“I think it needed to be told through music because of the whole show business aspect of it,” he said. “Once I started doing it, there was no turning back.”
After the lyrics were written, Mailman set out to find the right team to piece the play together. Mailman and Ritsch go back 25 years, remaining friends after working together in New York.
“When he told me about the project, I was really interested in it,” Ritsch said. “I read it and said, ‘You know what. I want to come out to LA [where Mailman is based] and do a reading so I can hear it out loud.’
“So we did that, but without music, because there was no composer attached to it at the time.”
After a series of difficult attempts to find a composer, a light bulb went off for Ritsch. It was time to connect Mailman with Ryan Haase.
“I said, ‘There’s a composer in Baltimore who’s super talented. Let’s see if he’s interested and give it a shot,’ ” Ritsch said. “We did, and it was a great fit.”
Fast forward to summer 2016. By that time, music director Stacey Antoine and choreographer Rachel Dolan had joined the team, and they sat together for the first time in Howard Community College’s Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center as actors brought “Dorian’s Closet” to life.
“I think the music is very strong,” Haase said, following the read-through. “It was amazing to hear it out loud and sung by these actors. I sat there and I cried during one of the numbers.”
Haase enjoys writing ballads – and there are plenty of them in “Dorian’s Closet” – but there are upbeat songs intertwined.
While composing the songs, Haase gave characters their own style and melody.
“I personally love writing songs where people emote basically, and Dorian does that a lot in the show,” he said. “I just like dark storylines – storylines about love and storylines about death are my favorite. And this show has them both.”
“You’re getting a lot of different genres of music,” said Antoine. “You’ll go from a ballad number into something like disco. Then from disco to something that’s almost like pop. Throwing all these different genres of music into one show to tell a fully realized story – that’s what’s really great about this.”
“Dorian’s Closet” is scheduled to run April 27* to May 14, 2017, in the Studio Theatre at Howard Community College’s Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center.
*The April 26 pay-what-you-can performance was canceled.