Inside a frigid, bare, black-box theater on the campus of Howard Community College the other day, a group of men sang ardently about imagining a world where dreams can come true and people can be celebrated for who they are.
Everyone was in street clothes, but it didn't take much to imagine these guys decked out in resplendent drag, portraying participants in "vogue balls," the elaborate subculture documented in the award-winning 1991 film "Paris Is Burning."
Next April, that milieu will be conjured up in the world premiere of "Dorian's Closet," one of the most ambitious projects attempted by Rep Stage. This professional company, long in residence at HCC, held an intensive, three-day workshop to hone the musical, which has a book and lyrics by Los Angeles-based playwright Richard Mailman and music by Baltimore composer Ryan Haase.
"It was the first time we put the music and text together," said Joseph Ritsch, co-producing artistic director of Rep Stage and director of "Dorian's Closet." "Hearing it out loud was a big thing for all of us."
The musical centers on Dorian Corey, a particularly gifted, disarmingly wry female impersonator who thrived in Harlem's ball culture. After her death at 56 of complications from HIV in 1993, more than her splendid wardrobe remained in her modest apartment. A mummified body also turned up, the body of a man with a bullet hole in his head who had been dead for at least 15 years.
"Something about her story is amazing," said Mailman, who started work on the musical a couple years ago. "I did a lot of research. There is a lot of stuff no one will ever know. There have been some investigative pieces and a thesis paper about the case, but there are still a lot of holes in the story. Did she kill the guy? And how could she keep a body in her apartment? I wanted to get into her head."
That's what he's attempting to do in "Dorian's Closet," mixing fact and conjecture to explore Corey's remarkable life, which began in Buffalo, N.Y., and included studies at the Parsons School of Design in New York and a clothing label.
As Corey said in "Paris Is Burning": "Everybody wants to make an impression, some mark upon the world. ... You don't have to bend the whole world. I think it's better just to enjoy it. Pay your dues, and just enjoy it. If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high, hooray for you."
No one, it seems, suspected that Corey would make an extra mark on the world by keeping a corpse wrapped in imitation leather and plastic bags.
After the gruesome discovery, various theories emerged. One posited that Corey killed a would-be robber. But once the body was identified — Robert Worley, last seen by family members in 1968 — there was talk, and some clues, about a previous relationship between the slain man and Corey. "Dorian's Closet" delves into that possibility.
"This may be the first musical to have a love scene for two gay African-American men," Ritsch said. "It's certainly very, very rare. 'Dorian's Closet' is a memoir — her life story and her love affair. "
The multifaceted Haase, artistic director of Baltimore's ambitious Stillpointe Theatre, has composed more than two dozen songs to help tell that story.
The elegant duet he wrote for Dorian and Robert, with its elegant, soft-rock melodic line, made an especially strong impression during the workshop. It sounded like it could gain attention outside the context of the show.
There are harder-driving numbers, some with a retro 1970s or '80s feel, as well as songs with a traditional Broadway vibe, reminiscent of "Cabaret" or maybe "A Chorus Line" at times.
Hasse was recommended by Ritsch to Mailman, who tried out three other composers without success.
"Richard sent some lyrics to me and I wrote a song," Haase said. "He told me he got choked up. I went out to L.A. last December for a week to work with him, and he came here in January."
The collaboration continued through the workshop, which gave the creative team an opportunity to rethink every note and line. Along the way, some songs or reprises of songs were dropped. Haase wrote a replacement for one number only a few days before the workshop began. And by the time the rehearsals were over, there was talk of moving one song in the second act to the first for more impact.
Mailman's lyrics underwent modifications as well. At one point, when he was out of the theater briefly, Haase, Ritsch and music director/orchestrator Stacey Antoine decided that the word "children" would be better changed to "angel" in one song.
"That's what happens when you leave the room," Ritsch told the playwright later with a laugh.
The actors — the show uses eight, five of them handling multiple roles — dug into the material in dynamic fashion, adjusting quickly to any suggestion from Ritsch, Antoine or the others. During a break, Jay Adriel, who plays Robert, and Stephen Scott Wormley, who plays two drag roles in the show, sounded enthusiastic about the venture.
"Seeing YouTube clips of 'Paris Is Burning' opened my eyes to what a ball was," Adriel said, "all the depth. ['Dorian's Closet'] peels away layer after layer of that world."
"Clearly there is a story to be told," Wormley said. "And it's not about that one headline moment — yes, we'll get to the mummy, but there's more to it."
Haase, who wrote music for a show about a gravedigger staged by Stillpointe Theatre a few years ago, was quickly drawn to the Corey case.
"I like dark, weird story lines," he said. "And I kind of like the mummy. It is part of the show, but Dorian is the focus."
That focus is expected to remain as "Dorian's Closet" undergoes more tweaking in the months ahead, some of it triggered by reactions from an invited audience that heard a run-through of the show on the last day of the workshop.
"We got really great feedback," Ritsch said. "It was a chance to see what the audience was engaged with, when they leaned in and when they leaned out. People responded most positively to the murder-mystery element of the story, as well as some of the history of ball culture."
Mailman, now back in California, is revising the text. A more or less final version is expected when he returns this winter for more fine-tuning with Ritsch and Haase. Rehearsals are set to begin in late March. (The creative team decided to recast the title role after the workshop; the search for a new Dorian is underway.)
The finished product is likely to stay true to Mailman's original intention.
"It's about people craving to be seen, noticed and loved, to have fame," he said. "You don't have to know anything about the ball culture to get that. The Kardashians do absolutely nothing and are famous. If anyone deserves to be famous, it's Dorian. She kept a mummy in her closet."