LGBT history, from burlesque to drag

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The coming-of-age of gay society is in full view on Broadway in two different shows — a block-and-a-half away from each other, but nearly 80 years apart.

In what should be considered both the most dramatic and comedic role of his life, Nathan Lane stars in “The Nance,” the story about a 1930s self-hating, second-rate burlesque comedian who plays, as the show’s title suggests, a stereotypical, effeminate house pansy, sashaying about with limp wrists and a lisp. Most “nances” were played by straight actors who went home to their wives after the curtain call. But Chauncey is a gay man, one who heartbreakingly projects society’s hatred for him onto himself. The show sheds light on the darker days when all gay guys had to do to get arrested was sit down together at a Greenwich Village automat. This is not fiction. Gays would find secret places to meet. And once police got word, the secret was out and those places were raided. Yes, even mom-and-pop diners were raided at night to arrest pansies. When two people have to evade police just to have a simple conversation, imagine how hard it is to create a real relationship.

The show is two histories in one. It’s about the lively world of burlesques, old-fashioned comedy skits and stripteases, and at the same time it’s the story of gay oppression, and how it slowly imprisoned and destroyed people. Chauncey holds on to the idea that freedom of speech and expression will win the day. He’s a proud Republican who hates Roosevelt, and isn’t afraid to shout it out loud. But he soon finds that if you’re a nance on stage but a real pansy off, you’re not afforded free speech or the right to assemble in public, and you’re not allowed to love.

A block-and-a-half away on 45th Street is the musical “Kinky Boots,” a celebration of the acceptance of drag queens that has the audience standing in applause every night. It’s about a shoe factory whose outdated fashions are quickly putting it out of business, forcing the owner to find a niche market to save the worker’s jobs. Since this is an upbeat musical in the vein of “Mamma Mia!” a drag queen arrives to save the day by transforming the factory into one that makes shoes for drag queens. To make it even more outrageous, it’s based on a true story about WJ Brooks shoes.

In “Kinky Boots” — and remember this is a musical — the factory owner discovers the world of drag performers and realizes that men who are dressing in women’s clothing can’t wear women’s shoes since the shoes aren’t built to hold a man’s body weight. So, he produces women’s shoes for men and saves the factory. Along the way, the blue-collar workers learn to accept the drag queens for who they are. The high-energy show puts drag queens on a pedestal. You leave the theater with a smile on your face and Cyndi Lauper’s tunes in your head.

Meanwhile, back in “The Nance’s”1937, the burlesque show is raided by a political campaign to put an end to degenerates in preparation for the New York World’s Fair. The theater is put out of business, Chancey is arrested for kissing a man and, in a final blow, he is reduced to playing drag in burlesques, at that time, the bottom of the bottom of show business, even below a nance.

Not since Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy,” not even Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” has there been such an emotionally packed play on Broadway about oppression of the gay community. And, at its core, even though this play takes place in 1937, it carries an appropriate message for today’s marriage debate. It’s about how society has taught gay men that they don’t deserve to be loved. As Lane laments as he forces away the love of his life, “This is not for me, it’s not what I should be having.”

Mark Segal, PGN publisher, is the nation’s most-award-winning commentator in LGBT media. He can be reached at [email protected].