June 6, 1954– Harvey Fierstein:
“If you don’t look, you don’t know.“
June 6, 1955 – Sandra Bernhard:
“Love is the only shocking act left on the face of the earth.“
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 Fierstein brings it all to a whole new level, a big man who sounds like he’s been chain-smoking since infancy.
Just this week, I devoured Fierstein’s juicy, raucous new book, I Was Better Last Night: A Memoir, where he looks back on his showbiz life and the struggle of LGBTQ Rights . Very candid, he includes lurid details from New York’s gay scene in the 1970s and 1980s and recounts his battle with alcoholism that ended with a suicide attempt. It is campy, bittersweet, and very funny. Sure, he takes on the successes on Broadway, but Fierstein shared unflinching looks at his artistic development and creative process, including revelations about his gay classic Torch Song Trilogy, and recounting his countless firsts: “first openly gay actor to play an openly gay lead in a Broadway show” and “first openly gay actor to play an openly gay role on a sitcom”. He also includes a hilarious explanation for the pronunciation of his last name.
Fierstein grew up in 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 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 been gone for long. He also starred in the film adaptation of Torch Song Trilogy (1988), a rare gay themed movie of the era.
A new streamlined version of Fierstein’s trilogy, now titled Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song, played on Broadway in the fall of 2018, returning the Tony Award-winning show to The Helen Hayes Theatre, the venue where it premiered in 1982 and ran for three years. The revival starred Michael Urie and Mercedes Ruehl; and it was nominated for a Tony for Best Revival of play.
Fierstein has the distinction of winning Tony Awards for both writing and playing the lead role in that long-running play about a drag performer and his quest for true love and family. Fierstein knows a lot about Tony Awards.
He 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 for Disney’s Newsies, which ran for two years on Broadway and then toured the country. The Disney musical brought Fierstein another Tony Award for his awards shelf. He has been nominated for 12 Tony Awards… so far. Fierstein’s turn as Edna Turnblatt in the stage musical version of John Water‘s Hairspray earned him 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, noted closet case John Travolta, was cast instead. This was a sacrilege akin to Lucille Ball playing the title role in the 1974 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 that has won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, twice, by the way. In 1983 La Cage broke barriers for gay representation by becoming the first hit Broadway musical centered on a homosexual relationship. With a score by gay musical theatre great, Jerry Herman, the show’s Act One finale, I Am What I Am has become a gay anthem.
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 was nominated for thirteen 2013 Tony Awards, winning five and receiving rave reviews. I love this joyous, tuneful show. Kinky Boots ran for six years on Broadway, and played on London’s West End for 1400 performances.
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, confided to me that backstage at 2015’s Broadway Bares, Fierstein chatted him up and that the famous Fierstein could not have been sweeter. Broadway Bares is the event where you can watch your favorite Broadway stars take off their clothes. It was created in 1992 by Tony-winning director / choreographer Jerry Mitchell, at the time a Broadway dancer, as a way to raise awareness and money for those living with HIV/AIDS. After taking some time off because of a new plague, Broadway Bares is back on June 26.
As we ready ourselves for the Gay High Holy Day of The Tony Awards on Sunday evening, June 12, I must say that I really admire Fierstein. He has been a vocal LGBTQ Rights activist before it was cool, speaking out for gay people, queer theater, and HIV/AIDS causes. Fierstein:
“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 shares his birthday with the lovely Sandra Bernhard. I want them both to come for cocktails in my back garden this summer. That would be a whole bunch of Big Jewish Gay fun.
Fierce, tender, confrontational, yet vulnerable, Bernhard is funny, philosophical and always controversial. Isn’t that what we want from our funny women?
I wish that some producer would find the perfect project for Fierstein and Bernhard to do together. A revival of I Do, I Do? Maybe On Golden Pond? Now that revivals of classic musicals like My Fair Lady, Oklahoma! and Carousel are the thing, how about Fierstein, Bernhard and Bette Midler in Show Boat?
Bernhard wasn’t very well known when she appeared as Masha, a crazed fan obsessed with talk-show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) in Martin Scorsese‘s The King Of Comedy (1982), and that only added to the element of surprise in her brilliant performance. Fans of her stand-up knew Bernhard for her disarming stage presence, a persona she brought to lunatic point for the role. In the years that followed, Bernhard became more widely known thanks to her convention-bending stage show, and talk-show appearances, especially her guest spots on Late Night With David Letterman.
Bernhard made quite an impact portraying Nancy Barlett Thomas, an early gay character on a network series, on the ABC sitcom Roseanne from the fourth season (1991) to the end of the show in 1997.
On the FX series Pose (2018-2021, Bernhard’s role of Judy Kubrak from season one was expanded in seasons two and three. That was a very good idea, Ryan Murphy.
Since I opened this #BornThisDay with Firestein’s new memoir, I must add that I am big on my autographed copies of Bernard’s candid, outrageous Confessions Of A Pretty Lady (1989), Love, Love And Love (1993), and May I Kiss You On The Lips, Miss Sandra? (1999).
I think Bernhard spoke for and all of us, when she said:
“I think bravery is when you’re willing to really put yourself on the line and maybe lose out, financially and be able to say exactly what motivates you and what inspires you and what you find completely unacceptable in humanity and in culture.“