Dorian’s Closet is a musical about the life of the drag performer Dorian Corey, mainstay of the Harlem ball scene and “Mother” of the House of Corey. She died in 1993, just a few years after the documentary Paris Is Burning (the definitive exploration of ball culture) had given her heightened exposure.
After she died, the mummified remains of a murdered man were found in her closet.
Not exactly the typical subject for a musical.
“I think people who come will be surprised with how moved they are by the story, and the characters in the piece. It’s a delicate balance, this musical, because, at times, it’s a whole lot of fun. (I think it’s a whole lot of fun!) But also, it obviously goes into some very dark territory.
“But, I think, at the end of the day, people will be very moved. And (as we often hope with theatre, right?) there’s a universal message for all the strangers in the dark: that we all want to leave something behind, and, no matter how small it is, we want to be remembered for something.”
Joseph Ritsch is co-Artistic Director of Rep Stage and Director of its upcoming world premiere. During a recent interview, I asked him how Dorian’s Closet ended up as part of Rep Stage’s season.
“The book writer/lyricist Richard Mailman and I have been friends for close to thirty years. We met back in the 90s, in our New York City days. He started working on the piece approximately six years ago, in different incarnations, always knowing he wanted it to be a musical.
“About two years ago, he sent me a draft, and I really responded to the material. Richard’s based in Los Angeles now. I said, ‘You know, I want to hear the piece out loud. I’m going to come out to LA. Let’s cast a reading.’ Which we did.
“The interesting and challenging thing, at that point: there was no composer attached. Richard had gone through, I think, about three different composers who just weren’t the right fit. So I said, ‘Let’s do a reading without music. We’ll hear them speak out the songs as if they were monologues.’ And we learned a lot from that.
“I recommended a Baltimore-based composer, Ryan Haase. Richard gave him a few of the song lyrics; he wrote a couple tunes; and Richard and I really liked what he was doing with it, so we brought him on-board, and that’s how the team came together.
“I came back to Rep Stage. It was right around season-planning time. I really wanted to find a way to make it work, and I was able to. It’s big — a big show for a theatre our size. But that’s, in a nutshell, how it started.”
I asked Ritsch how long the writing team, once united, had been working together. “A little over a year. They worked remotely for a bit, and then Ryan and myself went back out to LA, and they pretty much wrote all the music in that week, because the lyrics were already written; the book was – finger-quotes – done. Of course, it’s changed quite a bit.
“I cast it in April, because, as you well know, this community here casts seasons a year in advance. So I had my actors in April. We did a workshop at Rep Stage with the entire cast in June, and then Richard came back just after Thanksgiving this year and we finished everything.
“But it continues to evolve, as new work always does. Richard was with us the first week of rehearsal, and a lot changed that week. He rewrote the ending, a song got cut, an old song from the workshop got put back in, a solo moved from one character to another.”
With rehearsals at about the halfway mark, “We’ve been communicating this past week remotely. He’ll be back for tech.”
I asked whether the material is still in flux. “I think it’s feeling pretty settled. We had a conversation Sunday evening about some minor changes, a word or sentence here or there, just to fine-tune the story-telling. But we’re pretty much set. The actors have to feel solid about what they’re locking into. Except for some detail work, I don’t anticipate more changes.”
I asked what had drawn Ritsch to the material, and, at that point, we got into the notorious story that inspired Dorian’s Closet.
“The story itself is quite interesting. Dorian Corey was a female impersonator, originally from Buffalo, toured for many years with the Pearl Box Revue, a touring drag company. (I call it the vaudeville of drag.) She landed in New York, went to Parsons School of Design and studied dress-making, ended up working at Sally’s, which is a famous drag club in the theatre district, and then got involved in the Harlem ball scene. She was brought to national attention because she was featured in the documentary Paris Is Burning.
“But, a few years after that film came out, she passed away — complications of HIV and AIDS — and when they cleaned out her apartment, they found a fully mummified body in one of her closets.
“That was the part of the story that really interested Richard: the main storyline is Dorian’s relationship with this man who we think she murdered and mummified.
“There’s so many missing and/or conflicting details which, in some way, for a playwright, is great, because Richard’s been able to write his fantasy of what he thinks happened. But, outside of that, Dorian’s Closet is about a lot of things:
“It’s a murder mystery; it’s a love story; but it’s also, in many ways, a historical piece about the gay and trans community, particularly gay and trans people of color, in that era.
“Our play takes place between the early 80s and 1993, when she passed. Richard has played around with the actual timeline of Dorian’s life, but it focuses on that slice: her working at Sally’s, the ball scene, and then the murder and mummification of the victim.”
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The body had been around for awhile. “No one’s been able to pin it down: they put it as between ten and fifteen years that she had the body, and they think she moved apartments with it twice, possibly three times.”
The process of mummification can’t have been easy. “That’s one of the incredible things because, think about this: the mummy was discovered in mid-to-late ’93. If you go back ten to fifteen years (we’re using a time-span of about ten years for dramatic purposes of the musical), that’s the early 80s when the murder would have happened. Obviously, it wasn’t a day and age when you jumped on Google and put in ‘How to Mummify a Body.’ And it was mummified well enough for them to get prints off the body and identify the victim.
“We know that it was wrapped in scraps of her dress-making fabrics, particularly a lot of naugahyde, and there was a lot of baking soda. And it was sealed in a garment bag. Some stories say that they found it in a garment bag in a steamer trunk; other stories say it fell out of a closet when they opened the door.
“So, yeah, I can’t imagine how she, number one, decided to do that, and how she went about doing it. Allegedly, none of her friends knew. It seemed to come as quite a surprise, which, of course, again, dealing with the politics of race and the gay community, how does a black gay man, who lives the majority of his life in drag, say, ‘Oh, I shot someone in self-defense,’ back in the 80s? How is that going to land with law enforcement and whatnot?
“The one thing that they found on the body was a note that said (excuse the language), ‘This poor fucker tried to rob me so I shot him.’ But then, allegedly, there was a short story found in Dorian’s diary or journal about a drag queen whose lover asked her to transition and, when she said no, he tried to leave her, so she shot him. That short story and diary has disappeared, so we don’t even know if that is hearsay or whatnot, but the police did find the note on the mummy itself.”
I wondered if the musical accepts either premise, attempted robbery or spurned lover. “Richard’s actually kind of layered in both. We know the victim, Robert Worley, was a petty criminal. He did serve some time for sexual assault, and seemed to have come and gone in and out of her life for a bit. But the playwright also explores this idea of him wanting her to transition.
“You know, Dorian — there’s so many interesting things about her. She had breasts. She got implants very early in her career. There are some fabulous interviews right after the film came out, when Joan Rivers had that daytime talk show, and Joan asks her about that. She said, ‘I got them’ — paraphrasing — ‘I got the breasts for show business, but I regret having them now.’ She identifies as a gay man, not as trans. And, of course, in the 80s, we were living in a very different time, in regards to the trans community, and the gay community, and what that was all about.”
I asked how or if the style of the music reflects the period. “That’s a great question. Early on, the team talked quite a bit about, do we reference musical styles of that era? We ended up letting go of that fairly early and letting Ryan write what was speaking to him, based on song lyrics.
“Richard is a huge fan of old musicals, particularly old movie musicals, so I do think there is a flavor of that throughout, but we also have a young composer who’s got a style of his own, so, I’m hoping that, it’s not easy to label or stamp as, ‘Oh, it’s this,’ or ‘It’s that,’ and more of an exploration of different styles, depending on what the song calls for in the moment — the story-telling.”
Since Ritsch indicated that it was a very different world in the New York of Dorian’s era, I asked if he himself remembered that time. “I was living in New York, going to grad school at Playwrights Horizons, at the time they still had the grad program, so, yeah. I never went to Sally’s, but I actually did drag professionally personally for many years in New York, so, a little bit removed, because I was in my early 20s when I was there, but I was there during that time.”
Of course, nobody reading this wants attitudes to regress, but, at the same time, there was something distinct about being gay in those days, when it meant going to clubs with no windows. It was surreptitious, underground, special…kind of wonderful. With acceptance and visibility, there’s also something that has been lost.
“Oh, absolutely. I was in New York right when Guilliani was coming in and -finger-quotes – cleaning up 42nd Street and the theatre district, so I got to experience the tail-end of exactly what you’re talking about and, yeah, I do think there’s a sadness. I think what you’re describing, too, is a sense of freedom. On one hand, there was the repression going on, but there was a sense of freedom in these communities created in these spaces with no windows, which is very different.
“I talk a little, in my director’s notes for the program, about that. Although a lot has shifted from Dorian’s time till now, unfortunately, with the current political temperature, we have an administration who is threatening the rights of the LGBT Queer community. Since the turn of the year, seven trans women, all of them of color, have been murdered.
“I’m a gay man, married, and my husband is black and I’m white. There are many people in this country that question my marriage. So in some ways, have we come a long way? Yes. And, we have not, at the same time. I do think the piece opens our eyes to that as well.”
The “Mothers” in Paris Is Burning, including Dorian, often speak wistfully about how the ball scene had changed by the time it was chronicled in that film. I asked Ritsch if that attitude was part of her character in the musical.
“Absolutely. There’s a duet titled ‘Mother.’ It takes place between Dorian and a younger character who identifies as a pre-op transexual, who’s one of her children. I think it’s a really beautiful ballad that speaks about Dorian being her mother — getting the type of love and attention that she didn’t get from her biological mother.
“There are references to the younger queens changing their style. Dorian has been quoted quite a bit (and she says it in one of the interviews in the film) about, in her day, it was all about feathers and beads, and these young queens want labels. There’s reference to that in the show as well, that kind of changing of the guard, so to speak, and what was deemed popular or successful in regard to the drag and the ball scene.
“One thing I would like to say is that this is not a musical version of Paris Is Burning. She had such an amazing life, Dorian, and many of those details are not in Paris. Beyond the murder mystery, Richard was really interested in the fact that she was this gay man from Buffalo who moved to New York and went to Parsons and had a whole dress-making business. She made many, many, many of the costumes for the drag and the ball scene, but she had regular clients as well.
“In the initial drafts of the musical, there was a whole sequence at the beginning with Dorian joining the Pearl Box Revue and touring different cities with the Revue that landed her in New York, and it was really, really interesting. But, after the workshop, we realized it was another story, a play or musical on its own. So we ended up cutting that, with heavy hearts, because there was a lot about it we liked.
“The good thing was that three major songs in that sequence we were able to repurpose and move into the existing version. But it was too much. We were trying to do too much. So he focused on her New York days: starting working at Sally’s, meeting Robert, the murder, and her climb through the ball scene.
“I’m really interested to see how audiences respond. I’m imagining we’re going to get audiences for this that Rep Stage typically doesn’t see, because of the subject matter. We got kind of an explosion of national press when we first announced the project, so I think we’re gonna see people in our audience very specifically coming because they have a love for Dorian and/or Paris Is Burning, and her story outside of that, mixed, of course, with our subscriber base, which is the typical demographic of most, if not all, theatre. So, we’ll see. The post-show discussions — I’m really looking forward to those.”
I asked Ritsch if it was likely that this musical would have happened outside of the context of the mainstreaming of drag, following, as it does, the success of Hedvig and the Angry Inch and RuPaul’s Drag Race.
“I’m not sure. Something that we keep referencing, particularly with the designers, the costume designer in particular, is that the drag of Dorian’s era was not RuPaul’s Drag Race. It was very, very different. So I’m interested to see, particularly with younger members of the audience who might be big Drag Race fans; hoping that they’re not expecting to see what they’re seeing on television, because that was not the community and what was going on aesthetically back then.
“I consider our theatre a mid-size regional theatre and, although that, of course, has its challenges, in some ways, I’m able to take more risks with new work, and new work is very, very important to me as an Artistic Director. Doing Dorian here, particularly with the relationship to the playwright and the composer, was somewhat of a no-brainer, although I do think that it possibly has a commercial appeal because of the time we’re producing it.
“You know, there’s also Kinky Boots on Broadway right now, which is a huge smash. Of course, that had a film behind it, but here’s a musical about a black drag queen, on Broadway, that’s a Tony-winner and continues to sell tickets.”
Paris Is Burning “just had an anniversary recently, so it kind of had a resurgence. Dorian was out there in the ethos again. I think the timing’s really right for it.”
The brass ring for any theatre, of course, is a show that doesn’t close after its run, but has a future elsewhere. “Absolutely, it’s something we’ve been thinking about. And hoping for. You learn so much from a first production, and we’ll continue to learn, as the show has it’s run, so I can’t imagine us not going back to the drawing board one more time with it, but, yeah, there certainly is a hope that it moves beyond Rep Stage. New York would be fabulous!
“I think it’s a piece, commercially, that could be very successful in New York, so we want to make sure that we’ve got it to where it needs to be before inviting those type of people to see it who could help us bring it to the next level.”
I went back to Ritsch’s remark that the show was big for Rep Stage, and asked him to talk about that in the context of his relatively recent arrival in his job.
“Well, with regards to Dorian being big, you know, a musical is always big. You’re dealing with (usually, not always) larger casts. And then, of course, musicians.” The cast numbers eight, the band five.
“And this is a musical about drag, so there’s costumes and wigs; on top of that, set design and multiple locations; all those things, so that’s what I mean when I say big for us. It’s the biggest budget of the season.
“In regards to Rep Stage, I will be going into my fifth year as Artistic Director next season. Things are great. I’m starting to feel settled. I think our patrons are starting to feel settled with me.
“When I was hired, they actually hired two of us. I’ve had an artistic partner, Suzanne Beal, and she’s retiring at the end of the season, so it’ll just be myself, moving forward. It’s been a great relationship and I’m sad to see her go, but, on the flip side, I’m looking forward to driving things with my vision, although, again, we had a very, very similar vision.
“You know, word on the street is, they say it takes about five years with new artistic leadership for your audiences to feel comfortable and get what you’re trying to do, and I am starting to feel that we’re getting really good responses to the programming we’ve been doing since Suzanne and I got here.
“This’ll be the second world premiere we’ve produced in two years, and we’ve got a third world premiere slated for next season, so people seem to be really responding to new work. For me, it’s an opportunity to bring something to this community that they can’t see anywhere else.”
With that, Ritsch returned to what he sees as the takeaway theme from Dorian’s Closet, that “we all want to leave something behind, we want to be remembered for something. How do we navigate life with that in mind?”
I remembered someone in Paris Is Burning talking about leaving a mark. Was that Dorian, or someone else?
“It’s Dorian. She talks about shooting an arrow and, if it goes really high, hooray for you. And there’s a ballad in the piece called, ‘I Shot an Arrow,’ so, that theme is definitely in there. For sure.
“There’s something very touching to me about that, and how that’s handled in the musical that I think would be surprising. And that someone should give that a chance and come see it.”