“If you don’t look, you don’t know.”
Well, first of all, there is that voice. I always think of my distinctive voice, made possible by decades of pot smoking & 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 Bensonhurst, the son of a handkerchief manufacturer & a school librarian. He attended Pratt & 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 in the late 1970s Torch Song Trilogy that eventually brought him to Broadway, where he has never gone far away. He also starred in the big screen adaptation of Torch Song Trilogy (1988), a rare gay themed film in that era. He has the distinction of winning Tony Awards for both writing & playing the lead role in that long-running play about a gay drag performer & his quest for true love & family. Fierstein knows a lot about Tony Awards.
Fierstein is one of our best celebrity spokespersons & champions 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 gave us the book for the legendary flop Legs Diamond (1988), with the great Peter Allen & already missed Julie Wilson. He also did the books for A Catered Affair, which ran a few weeks in 2008, but it is a show that I adore, & Newsies, which ran for 2 years on Broadway & then toured. The Disney musical brought Fierstein another Tony for his awards shelf. He has been nominated for 12 Tony Awards.
Fierstein has been featured in the films also, & he comes across great on the big screen, including: Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), & Independence Day (1996).
Fierstein’s turn as Edna Turnblatt in the stage musical version of Hairspray earned him a Tony Award in 2003. Fierstein really owns this role, but he was ultimately turned down for film version of Hairspray. My favorite Scientologist & closet case John Travolta, was cast instead.
He played lead role of Tevye in a revival of that old chestnut Fiddler On the Roof in 2004 & he played for 2 seasons on Broadway & then toured the country in the iconic role. His brave, unlikely & open portrayal of a straight father of 3 daughters in the Jewish The Sound Of Music earned him rave reviews everywhere it played. My first professional role was as Motel the tailor in Fiddler On The Roof in 1971. I have a soft spot for this show & I think it would have been nifty to have played Grandma Tzeitel opposite Fierstein in that production.
He appeared in the 2011 season’s popular revival of La Cage Aux Folles. The terrific film Kinky Boots (2005) was begging for adaption into a stage musical & Fierstein was just the one to do it. Kinky Boots, the musical, with a score by Cyndi Lauper is still playing at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on Broadway, where it was nominated for thirteen 2013 Tony Awards, winning 5 & receiving rave reviews. I love this joyous, tuneful show. Kinky Boots is touring the country now.
Last year, Fierstein’s thoughtful dramatic comedy, the 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 4 more Tony nominations, including Best Play. My pal, Broadway actor Kevin C. Loomis, now in rehearsals for Broadway Bares 2015, Top Bottoms Of Burlesque, tells me that Casa Valentina is Fierstein’s best work & that he told him so backstage at last year’s event. Broadway Bares have raised more than $12.6 million for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. This year’s show is June 21st.
As we ready ourselves for the Gay High Holy Days of Tony Award Weekend, I must say that I really love & admire Harvey Fierstein. He has been a vocal gay rights activist before it was cool, speaking out for gay people, queer theater, & AIDS causes. He has been a spokesman for the Services Legal Defense Fund, a group that advocates for the rights of gays & lesbians in the military.
“Time will tell us what we did & didn’t do. The way that I look at it, the only thing that I will definitely take credit for is that Torch Song & La Cage Aux Folles, 2 of my shows, were the first ever gay themed shows to make money on Broadway. I think that counts more than anything.”
The Tony Awards broadcast is tomorrow night. It is a rare year without a Fierstein nomination, maybe he will be there, or maybe he will be polishing his own awards on his 7 acre estate in Connecticut. I would welcome the opportunity to have cocktails & a chat with Fierstein.