June 6, 1954– Harvey Fierstein:
“If you don’t look, you don’t know.”
Well, first of all, there is that voice. I always think of my voice as distinctive, made possible by decades of pot smoking and whiskey drinking, but Harvey Fierstein brings it all to a whole new level, a big man who sounds like he’s been chain-smoking since infancy.
Fierstein grew up in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, the son of a handkerchief manufacturer and a school librarian. He attended Pratt Institute and then began his career in the mid-1970s performing in drag bars under the smart drag-name Virginia Hamm. Fierstein made his acting debut in Andy Warhol‘s only play, Pork at LaMaMa in 1971.
It was Fierstein’s own collection of interconnected, semi-autobiographical one-act plays written in the late 1970s, Torch Song Trilogy, that eventually took him all the way to Broadway, where he has never gone far away. He also starred in the film adaptation of Torch Song Trilogy (1988), a rare gay themed movie in that era. He has the distinction of winning Tony Awards for both writing and playing the lead role in that long-running play about a gay drag performer and his quest for true love and family. Fierstein knows a lot about Tony Awards.
Fierstein is one of our best, most creative, smartest celebrity spokespersons for Gay Civil Rights. He describes himself as:
“The first real, live, out-of-the-closet queer on Broadway”.
In 1983, he wrote the book for the hit musical La Cage Aux Folles. He also provided the book for the legendary musical flop Legs Diamond (1988), with a score by the late, great Peter Allen, who also starred. Fierstein also did the books for A Catered Affair, which ran a few weeks in 2008, but it is a show that I adore, and Disney’s Newsies, which ran for two years on Broadway and then toured the country. The Disney musical brought Fierstein another Tony for his awards shelf. He has been nominated for 12 Tony Awards… so far.
Fierstein has been featured in the films also, and he comes across great on the big screen. His credits includw: Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), and Independence Day (1996).
Fierstein’s turn as Edna Turnblatt in the stage musical version of John Water’s Hairspray earned him another one of those Tony Awards in 2003. Fierstein really owns this role, but he was shockingly turned down for film version of the musical Hairspray. My favorite Scientologist and noted closet case John Travolta was cast instead. This was a sacrilege akin to Lucille Ball playing the title role in the film version of Mame.
Fierstein played the lead role of Tevye in a revival of that old chestnut Fiddler On The Roof in 2004. He played it for two seasons on Broadway and then toured our once great country in the iconic role. His brave, unlikely and emotionally open portrayal of a straight father of five daughters in the Jewish The Sound Of Music earned him rave reviews everywhere it played. My own first professional role was as Motel the tailor in Fiddler On The Roof in 1971, so I have a soft spot for this show. I think it would have been nifty to have played Grandma Tzeitel opposite Fierstein in his production.
He appeared in the 2011 season’s popular revival of La Cage Aux Folles. La Cage Aux Folles is the first musical which has won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, twice, by the way.
The terrific film Kinky Boots (2005) was just begging for adaption into a stage musical and Fierstein was just the one to do it. Kinky Boots, the musical, with a score by Gay Icon Cyndi Lauper is still playing at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on Broadway, where it was nominated for thirteen 2013 Tony Awards, winning five and receiving rave reviews. I love this joyous, tuneful show. Kinky Boots looks like it will be playing forever. It is touring the country now.
In 2014, Fierstein’s thoughtful dramatic comedy, a true story of a Catskills summer camp for cross dressers in the 1960s, Casa Valentina, played at The Manhattan Theatre Club, directed by Joe Mantello, with four more Tony nominations, including Best Play. My pal, Broadway actor Kevin C. Loomis, currently starring in West Side Story at the Paper Mill Playhouse, tells me that Casa Valentina is Fierstein’s finest play. Loomis also confided that backstage at last year’s Broadway Bares, Fierstein chatted him up & that the famous gay celebraity could not have been sweeter. Broadway Bares has raised more than $14 million for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. This year it is on June 19th.
As we ready ourselves for the Gay High Holy Day of The Tony Awards next week, I must say that I really love and admire Fierstein. He has been a vocal gay rights activist before it was cool, speaking out for gay people, queer theater, and HIV/AIDS causes. He has been a longtime spokesman for the Services Legal Defense Fund, a group that advocates for the rights of gays in the military.
“Time will tell us what we did and didn’t do. The way that I look at it, the only thing that I will definitely take credit for is that Torch Song and La Cage Aux Folles, two of my shows, were the first ever gay themed shows to make money on Broadway. I think that counts more than anything.”
Fierstein, along with Jennifer Hudson have signed on to NBC’s Hairspray Live!, the network’s next live Broadway musical to air in December. At least the producers got this one right. Fierstein is also providing the teleplay.
The Tony Awards broadcast are this Sunday. It is a rare year without a Fierstein nomination, maybe he will be there, or maybe he will be polishing his own Tony statues on his seven acre estate in Connecticut. I would welcome the opportunity to have cocktails and chat with Fierstein. Have his people call my people.
“Obviously, thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race and other things, Drag reached every corner of the population. It can be used sexually, politically; it can be used to challenge. And it can be used to hide behind.”