Interview with Torch Song legend Harvey Fierstein

Harvey Fierstein

The word 'legend' is thrown around a lot these days, but when it comes to theatre and, equally as important, the campaigning of rights for the LGBTQ community, one name always springs to mind... Harvey Fierstein.

From humble beginnings in 1978, Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song has been on quite the journey. International Stud premiered at La Mama and then the Players Theatre in 1978, followed by Fugue in a Nursery in 1979 and, with the addition of Widows and Children First!, Torch Song Trilogy was born, premiering at the Richard Allen Center in 1981 and then the Actors' Playhouse in 1982. Unbelievably, Fierstein was in his early 20s when he began writing this seminal piece of theatrical history that also astonishingly prophesized what would thankfully become somewhat normalized in gay culture in the decades to come: the importance of a gay family unit and the ability for gay couples to adopt. The production moved to Broadway in the summer of 1982, playing the Little Theatre (now known as The Hayes Theater) and earning Fierstein two Tony Awards in 1983 (for "Best Play" and "Best Actor in a Play"). A star was born with a signature gravelly voice to boot. Torch Song Trilogy ran for almost three years on Broadway and has since been produced all over the world, including a West End premiere in 1985. It even spawned a 1988 film adaptation, with Fierstein starring and adapting his book for the screenplay.

Estelle Getty & Harvey Fierstein in Torch Song Trilogy

Now, a shortened version under the name Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song has been revived rather fittingly at the exact same Broadway theatre, following its acclaimed run at Second Stage Theater's Tony Kiser Theater last fall, with Michael Urie stepping into the shoes (of fluffy slippers) of Arnold Beckoff - the role made famous by Fierstein, of course.

Michael Urie & Mercedes Ruehl in Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song
(Photo by Matthew Murphy)

Despite celebrated Broadway turns in shows such as Hairspray (winning the 2003 Tony Award for "Best Actor in a Musical"), La Cage aux Folles and Fiddler on the Roof, it's safe to say that Arnold Beckoff will forever more be the role most associated with Fierstein. And that's certainly a legacy to be proud of.

We recently caught up with the man himself to talk about a symbolic passing of the torch to Michael Urie and how Torch Song resonates in 2018...

Director Moisés Kaufman & Harvey Fierstein
(Photo by Austin Yang)

Do you regard this Broadway production of Torch Song as a passing of the torch in a way from yourself to Michael Urie?

Well, I do. But the show ran for six years on Broadway, so I saw lots of different people do it. We had tours and then Tony Sher… Sir Antony Sher [in an esteemed British accent] played it in London. So, I’ve seen a lot of Arnolds in my time. It’s not a shock for me to see other people play the role. It’s kinda wonderful.

So, it’s not surreal at all to see someone playing a role that you wrote, played for so long and made famous?

No. I mean, right from the beginning I only did six shows a week. I only did the evenings and there was somebody else that did the matinees because the show was a lot longer back then. It was an hour longer [than it is today]. So, right from the beginning, I used to watch somebody else do it. It’s not a weird thing at all. It’s a lovely thing to sit in a chair and watch somebody else work so hard. That’s a lovely thing [laughs]. It’s like asking: “Do you like to do your own laundry?” Yes, I do. But if you wanna do it for me, I will not fight you.

You mentioned this version is a lot shorter than previous ones. How was the editing process for you?

When the plays were all written, right from the beginning, I had to make some cuts. And then we came to Broadway, because of the union rules, the show had to end by 11pm. So we started early. We started at 7pm. But we still had to be out by 11pm, so I had to make some cuts. So, I got used to that. Then when I wrote the movie, the movie is so completely different. I just said to myself: “Well, the book is published. So, anybody who wants to read that version of it, the book is there. It will always exist. And I gave myself the freedom to… because theatre is a living thing. It has to be a living thing. Even when they do Shakespeare, they chop it up all the time, right?

And sometimes for good reason…

Well, exactly! That’s exactly it. Different times call for different things. I mean, I would never re-write it because I’m not that person anymore. You know, I left the show before I turned 30.

And when you wrote the play back in your twenties, you were so prophetic about what would eventually become normalized in gay culture. Obviously, the play will resonate differently in today’s society, but what are those main differences for you in 2018?

Well, back then the audiences were like 95% heterosexual and the gay people used to sneak in. They wouldn’t want to be seen. Now they walk in proudly and they embrace it and it’s theirs. And that really is a lovely thing.

Matthew Broderick & Harvey Fierstein
(Photo by Tom Millward)

Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Tickets are available now for performances through to February 24, 2019.