For over a year before it premiered this past weekend at the Rep Stage regional theatre outside Baltimore, the musical “Dorian’s Closet” was sparking buzz in the media, from Out magazine and the LGBT press to the Baltimore Sun and theater journals. Playwright Richard Mailman, who wrote the book and lyrics, fielded interviews while the show was in rehearsals over those long months, awaiting its debut.
The intense interest isn’t at all surprising. With music by Ryan Hasse and directed by Joseph W. Ritsch, “Dorian’s Closet” is based on the life of Dorian Corey, a prominent subject of Jennie Livingston’s groundbreaking 1990 documentary film, “Paris Is Burning,” about the remarkable Harlem drag balls of the 1980s and the powerfully-bonded community of black and Latino gay and trans people who created them. “Dorian’s Closet” has all of the glamour and the sequin ball gowns and the show-stopping numbers one would expect, relaying the story of a legendary figure on the Harlem ball scene who became internationally famous as a star in the beloved documentary.
Corey, who used female pronouns and was the “mother” of the House of Corey, succumbed to AIDS in 1993. Soon after, her notoriety shot even higher, when police found a mummy in the closet of her Harlem apartment ― a dead, preserved body of a man who was killed by a gunshot wound, likely 15 years earlier. “Dorian’s Closet,” via musical numbers performed by a grippingly talented cast, follows that story, taking us first back to Corey’s early years in Manhattan. Mailman, who’s worked on many stage and television productions ― but for whom this is his first musical ― discussed the show, the storyline and where it’s all going, in an interview with me on SiriusXM Progress. This is an edited version of that conversation.
Michelangelo Signorile: Looking at Dorian Corey’s story, what made you decide, ‘This would be a great musical’?
Richard Mailman: Why wouldn’t a mummy in the closet make the best musical ever? [Laughter] You know, all those years ago when I saw “Paris is Burning,” it screamed out to be a musical. Obviously this isn’t a musical version of “Paris is Burning.” But just the whole world ― the balls, the drag queens, their performing, that’s definitely ripe for a musical. But I was always a fan of theatrical backstage stories. There’s totally that element of Dorian’s career ― how she ended up in New York, working at [the drag bar] Sal’s in Times Square, and in the Harlem balls. But throw in what they found in the closet after she left it there and, you know, that’s a fabulous number! When I first saw the movie, I was totally intrigued by her.
She was the mother of the House of Corey. These were [queer] families [of choice], these houses [which competed in runway walking and voguing against one another at the balls].
There’s all of those elements as well [in “Dorian’s Closet”]. The stories of all of those children ― a lot of them tragic ― that were part of those houses and hers... just what was going on in New York at that time and around that community. I really think that right now, especially with what’s going on politically in the world right now, particularly in this country ― obviously we’ve taken a real slide backward. But I think in a way the story now becomes even more important ― for people to remember what we went through and the struggle we went through. And do we really want to go back there? There’s a lot of that in there too.
For over a year before it premiered, the show was getting this incredible buzz and it just keeps increasing and increasing right up to today. You’ve been doing interviews for about a year.
A lot of that has to do with the fact that people know “Paris Is Burning.” I think we’ve forgotten about how much of an impact that movie had. For a small documentary, how many people remember it. And it still holds up well. It’s still relevant. People remember Dorian. About a year ago when Rep Stage announced their season, and we were included in that, word got out and it just exploded. When people heard about it, they went crazy about it. It made me nervous at first. But it really made me feel good. I started getting so many emails from people who remember Dorian and really, really wanted to see her story told. I should preface the whole thing by saying it is somewhat a fictional account of her life because there’s a lot we don’t know.
There’s a lot we don’t know about the man she purportedly killed and mummified and put in the closet. Was it a boyfriend? Was it a robber? Was it both ― a scammer? There are so many different theories that are out there about what transpired. You had to take [one] narrative and run with it.
The scary part was not knowing the truth. But there was a moment when I realized that the story we really wanted to tell was not so much who he was and how it happened. But how someone could keep a body in their closet for over 15 years and what would make a person do that. By the time you get to the end of the story you understand what these people were going through and what they were faced with.
Stephen Scott Wormley, who plays Dorian Corey is spectacular and James Thomas Frisbee, who plays Jesse Torres, another drag performer, is also amazing.
Doing a musical is not easy. Getting even just a small production out there is very difficult and takes a long time and there are a lot of elements involved. This show rests really on Dorian’s shoulders. During almost the entire show she’s onstage. So you’ve got to have a performer not only who can carry that vocally but also who can create this character that people can fall in love with. And I have to say, this [past] weekend [audiences] took to him ― it was amazing. He does a beautiful job with [Dorian].
It has already received some great reviews after the premiere. That’s got to feel good.
It feels really, really good. You kind of lose perspective. You’re locked in a theater, trying to bring it together. You don’t know how it will fly with people. But it was kind of amazing [opening night]. All of a sudden it hit me ― they’re really, really getting it. The thing that I’m just so thrilled about more than anything is that people are walking out, feeling really [good.] This is not a happy story ―
No, but it is kind of uplifting at the end.
When I first saw Dorian, there was something about her ― to quote a song in the show. She does have this optimistic outlook in life.
Where does the show [performed at Rep Stage in Maryland until May 14] go from here?
From everything that everyone’s been saying to us, they really feel there’s a way bigger life for this show. It could happen any number of ways. I’m ready for whatever anyone wants to do with it. I’m ready.