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A musical about a drag queen who keeps a mummified corpse in her closet for 15 years may ring too farfetched to be true. But again — as is so often the case — fact proves stranger than fiction.
Rep Stage is currently premiering the musical “Dorian’s Closet,” by Richard Mailman (book and lyrics) and Ryan Haase (music), and directed by the company’s co-producing Artistic Director Joseph Ritsch. It’s the story of legendary female impersonator Dorian Corey who gained fame from Jennie Livingston’s seminal 1990 documentary “Paris Is Burning” about New York City’s gay and transgender black and Latino ball culture.
“When I saw the documentary, I was captivated by Dorian,” recalls Mailman, a playwright and TV writer based in Los Angeles. “By sheer force of personality she pulls focus. She’s the one character that seemed level headed about life’s limitations and where she fits. I thought she’d be the perfect subject for a musical not about the documentary but about her life.”
Though she was already renowned in certain circles, the wider public first met Corey as a world weary, unflappable queen and loved her. She was also quotable. In explaining “shade,” she simply said: “”Shade is, I don’t have to tell you you’re ugly, because you know you’re ugly.”
Her life philosophy struck a chord with audiences too. “I always had hopes of being a big star. But as you get older, you aim a little lower. Everybody wants to make an impression, some mark upon the world. Then you think, you’ve a made a mark on the world if you just get through it, and a few people remember your name. Then you’ve left a mark. You don’t have to bend the whole world. I think it’s better to just enjoy it. Pay your dues and just enjoy it. If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you.”
When Corey died at 56 from complications related to AIDS in 1993, it came out that she’d been harboring a dead man’s mummified remains in her closet for years. Competing theories say he was either an intruder or former flame who Corey has shot in the head. Mailman says the mummy revelation sparked a long creative journey for him. He was determined to tell Dorian’s story.
Though Rep Stage didn’t commission the work, director Ritsch has been involved with “Dorian’s Closet” since its inception. He and Mailman had been friends for 30 years, having known each other in New York when Ritsch worked in some plays Mailman had written. Ritsch is a former drag performer himself.
He went to Los Angeles for a reading of the play and introduced Mailman to Baltimore composer Ryan Hasse. He says the two “clicked” and created a score that’s both traditional and contemporary.
“When I got a real feel that the show knew where it was going, I decided to include it in Rep Stage’s season,” he says.
There were some challenges, Ritsch says. Winnowing down which years to cover proved tricky. Born Frederick Legg in Buffalo, Dorian left for Manhattan to study art at the prestigious Parsons School of Design. She became involved in the drag scene as a performer and clothing designer. Though Dorian never identified as transgender, she had breast implants and probably dabbled in hormones. In the end, they focused on the years 1980 through Dorian’s death.
Also, Ritsch says, “I did my best to treat the story in a sensitive way. As a director I’m fascinated with what motivated her to hold onto a body, the psychological aspects of that, more so than the sensational details.”
Rep Stage’s production’s mostly African-American eight-man cast stars Stephen Scott Wormley as Dorian. Dwayne Washington plays fellow Harlem ball diva Pepper Labeija. It’s in part a backstage story about drag queens and the places where they performed.
“I have to remind the actors that things were different back then,” Mailman says. “ Drag wasn’t so mainstream then. Nobody would have had their own hit TV show like RuPaul.”
Ritsch calls the piece a murder mystery and love story that still resonates with gays.
“We’ve come a long way, but this current administration threatens our gains,” he says. “We have to remain vigilant. That’s the politics. It’s also a really entertaining show.”