Digging into the archives, we unearth the original articles printed in the Playbills of yesteryear.
On this date in 1982, Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy opened on Broadway. While Fierstein had been writing his own work and performing his drag club act around the Village, Trilogy put him on the map. In honor of the June 10 anniversary, and as the 35th Anniversary production of Torch Song starring Michael Urie nears, Playbill looks back on this in-depth interview with Fierstein—before he was the theatrical icon he is today.
Though a drag queen is often prized for his femininity, drag queen Arnold Beckoff, the main character of Torch Song Trilogy, is less the “little flower” than the Amazon; not “pretty” beautiful but “mountain” beautiful as another character says. Still, he’s been praised by critics and theatergoers alike, making him just one anomaly of what is already a “wondrous strange” hit for Broadway.
Another is the 28-year-old playwright-star, Harvey Fierstein. Rather than starting his acting career the usual way—as a spear carrier, for instance, in a stock production of Shakespeare—he began professional work as an “asthmatic dyke” in Andy Warhol’s play, Pork. Other roles have included a transvestite in his own Flatbush Tosca (“I sang the whole second act in Italian,” he says), and a 300-year-old woman, Lillian Russell, and 26 other parts in Ronald Tavel’s My Fetus Lived on Amboy Street. He also did a club act impersonating Ethel Merman singing “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun.”
Rather than renounce his campy flamboyance for Broadway’s straighter milieu, he took it with him in Trilogy, which opens as Arnold, a promiscuous drag queen, sets out in search of his ideal man. While this premise may seem daring for Broadway, Arnold turns out to be a staunch conservative at heart. What he wants, we discover, is the stuff of ordinary human happiness—the life his mother had “with a few minor alterations”—home, “husband,” and a child.
One might even call Trilogy a morality tale: the drag queen becomes a symbol for the frightened masquerader hiding behind a “phony name, face, figure, and sex.” As Arnold sheds his mask, he forsakes self-involvement to embrace the large world and become what one reviewer called “the oddest solid citizen in the republic.”
A recent meeting with Fierstein in his dressing room at the Little Theatre replays this disguise-shedding motif. For the first few minutes, he’s elusive, shape shifting from one camp persona to the other. First, the sweet-natured yenta: “Ask me anything!” he says in a whiskey baritone pitched at the rasp in which most people snore (his real voice). Then, turning to his make-up mirror, he examines three scratches his pet rabbit, Arnold, left on his cheek, and plays the vamp: “A scarred woman,” he sighs.
Elusive though he is, he’s disarming; and like Arnold Beckoff, Fierstein manages to walk off with one’s affections without seeming to try. He also seems unaware of assuming a more revealing tone just as he starts to make up his face for the drag scene in Act 1.
“I was a fat little kid leading a double life,” he says of his teenage years. “I lived at home, went to school by day and performed as a drag queen by night.” Since he then weighed 240 pounds (50 more than he does now), he invented names like “Bertha Vanation” and “Virginia Hamm” for the drag character he played in Village clubs.
When asked about his appeal as an oversized transvestite, he shrugs and says, “I don’t know. I guess you could see me from further away.” He flips his electric razor for what turns out to be about a 15-minute shave.
“I’m a real character actor,” he continues, “and playing a woman was just one more element in building a role. And then cross-dressing is a very powerful thing to do. Most men are scared of women and vice versa. Each thinks the other is the more powerful sex. So when you put on women’s clothes, not only are you taking on the power and mystique of the other sex, but you’re hiding yourself too. So you can feel very tough. There’s nothing of you showing. It’s like walking around in a tank.”
These experiences inspired Fierstein’s early plays: Freaky Pussy, In Search of the Cobra Jewels, and Flatbush Tosca. They also prompted Torch Song Trilogy, which began as a single play, The International Stud written in 1977. The tough time Fierstein had getting it produced was merely a foretaste of what was to come. Kenny Hill, of La Mama, brought the play to executive director Ellen Stewart (La Mama herself), who was dead set against it.
“I ain’t gonna do no play about no backroom bar,” Fierstein imitates the formidable Mrs. Stewart, “I know what that bar is, that International Stud, and I ain’t gonna do that. Mr. Fierstein wants to run around on stage in bloomers and I ain’t gonna have that.” And that was that. Or so they all thought.
But Kenny Hill died tragically in a bathhouse fire and Ellen asked Harvey to assist her at La Mama. As repayment, she agreed to put on his play. But the theatre was so booked that it was difficult to set a date. This prompted director Eric Concklin to urge Harvey to “Tell her it’s a trilogy. Tell her it’s a trilogy.”
“Why?” Harvey asked.
“So we don’t have to fight her for the next two years to get the space again.”
“It’s a trilogy,” Harvey told Ellen.
“And so,” he says, beginning to slap whiteface on his newly smooth cheeks, “she was stuck.”
But so was he—he now had to write two more plays. What made him think he could do it?
“I never say no,” he says as though it were a motto, “I always say yes to everything.”
He did come through with two more plays, Fugue in a Nursery (1978) and Widows and Children First! (1979), which continue the saga of Arnold Beckoff. All three works premiered separately at La Mama.
But it took two years to find someone to produce the three together. “People would say, ‘Fabulous writer. Fabulous play. But gay. Goodbye.’ The idea that a gay play couldn’t make money,” he says, beginning to outline an exaggerated bow on his upper lip.
Finally an outfit called The Glines agreed to produced the whole Trilogy in October 1981 for an eight-week Off-Off-Broadway run. “People were still calling it ‘Harvey’s Folly,’” Fierstein says.
For the first two weeks, nobody came. “We couldn’t even give tickets away to friends,” he says. But then deliverance came in the unlikely form of Mel Gussow, theatre critic for the New York Times, who’d given Stud a less than lukewarm review when it played alone Off-Broadway. Harvey thought that all was surely lost now. But in one of those odd reversals that not only attends theatre but life as well, Gussow came forth with glowing praise and so reversed the show’s fortune.
Suddenly you couldn’t get seats, Harvey says, and the play moved Off-Broadway to the Actor’s Playhouse for an extended run.
Did the sudden acclaim surprise him? He pauses while filling in his bottom lip with a lustrous red lipstick and says, “Every good thing you get in this world is a gift. And all the bad stuff (pause) you deserve.” A rueful smile, then, “I guess I’m very Jewish.”
While Broadway offers arrived, some producers wanted to cut the four-and-a-half-hour show while others insisted on “judicial editing.” Finally, The Glines offered to move the plays intact to Broadway, and Trilogy arrived in June 1982, five years after Fierstein began to write it.
There, according to Harvey, the play is “educating people every night. After you see Torch Song you can’t put down gays in quite the same way you might have wanted to before,” he says. “You see real people who want real things. They’re not self-pitying. They’re real people. People who want to live.”
Indeed, while most plays these days celebrate the exotic orphans, prodigies, demented nuns—the characters here aspire to simple domesticity: an ideal rarely upheld since Father Knows Best.
Of course, there are, as said before, minor alterations. Arnold becomes the matriarch, his lover, a bisexual schoolteacher, the “father,” and an adopted gay teenager, the son. It’s just one irony of many that it has taken an openly gay play to successfully praise traditionally straight values.
Amidst the general praise for his work, there have been some dissenting voices. Some early reviewers criticized Fierstein for creating a drag queen as the lead—not a particularly dignified image of a homosexual.
How does he defend this?
“I don’t,” he says. “Arnold Beckoff is not a Greek god walking out onstage saying ‘All right everybody, try to emulate me now.’ He’s a human being who happens to work as a drag queen…I don’t like those TV shows where the gay character is always the football player, the most macho guy there….the idea is to look beyond these types.”
While some have faulted the plays for tending toward the maudlin, others have praised Fierstein’s gift for undercutting mawkishness with humor. At the top of Act 1, for instance, Arnold, in his satin dress, peacock kimono, and thick false lashes wistfully says, “There are easier things in this life than being a drag queen.” Pause, then, “But I ain’t got no choice. Try as I may, I just can’t walk in flats.” Self-pity quickly turns into comic self-mockery.
“If you take out the jokes, the situation is just mawkish,” Fierstein says. “Of course, Shakespeare is the master of that device,” he says, “an incredibly funny man even in his most serious scenes.”
While acknowledging this debt to the Bard, he notes other debts as well—like that to his own past for providing material for this partly autobiographical work. He did work as a drag queen and was once in love with a bisexual schoolteacher who left him to get married.
“When we broke up, it was a choice between committing suicide and writing,” he says with a lick of self-mockery. “But then, I suppose I should be grateful to him. If it weren’t for him, I would have had to go to work. He’s got his wife while I’ve got all these lovely awards and Faye Dunaway’s old dressing room.”