NYTG at the Opening Night of Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song on Broadway

A passing of the torch from Harvey Fierstein to Michael Urie...

Michael Urie & Mercedes Ruehl

There are certain roles in the world of theatre, film and television that are synonymous with the actors who originated them. They have become almost untouchable due to their iconic status. One such role is Arnold Beckoff - our protagonist who guides us through the trilogy of plays that has simply become known as Torch Song. And the man who created this icon of gay culture - both on the page and the stage - is, of course, the incomparable Harvey Fierstein. Many actors have stepped up to the plate before - either as replacements in the original run, on tour or overseas - but for the first time, a brave actor has taken on the task of originating the role in a new Broadway revival. And kudos to you, Michael Urie!

The New York Theatre Guide was invited to attend the Official Opening of Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song at the Hayes Theater on Broadway last night - fittingly at the same building it celebrated its original Broadway premiere in 1982 - and at the after-party at Sony Hall on 46th Street. We caught up with the genius that is Harvey Fierstein, as well as the show's leading man Michael Urie, the divine Tony & Academy Award winner Merecedes Ruehl (who plays Arnold's mother, Ma Beckoff) and director Moisés Kaufman to get their thoughts on what might be regarded as a passing of the torch and a Torch Song for audiences of 2018.

So, how does Mr. Fierstein feel when he witnesses other actors taking on the role of Arnold? It's a feeling he's grown accustomed to over the past 35 years or so, he tells me: "I saw lots of different people do it. We had tours and then Tony Sher… Sir Antony Sher [in a faux 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."

"It’s a lovely thing to sit in a chair and watch somebody else do all the work," he continues. "It’s like asking: “Do you like to do your own laundry?” Yes, I do. But if you wanna do it for me, I would not fight you."

This sort of jovial nature, as you'd only expect from Mr. Fierstein, has apparently been one of the most positive aspects of the journey for the entire cast, having grown strong bonds with each other throughout the off-Broadway run at Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theater in the fall of 2017 and now rekindling their onstage and backstage chemistry for the Broadway venture.

"I mean I’ve worked with Edward Albee and Neil Simon and other wonderful writers like Richard Greenberg, but the one I felt the least pressure with was Harvey," Mercedes Ruehl reveals. "He always maintained such a bonhomie – a wonderful up-spirit. “Show me what you got!” “Oh, that’s new. I’ve never seen it!” “Oh, that’s wonderful!” He’s very positive. He’s very alive. He’s like a geyser of good feelings, jokes, silliness and hugs."

The man of the hour, Michael Urie, was also full of praise for the original Arnold: "He’s given me so much liberty and so much freedom and yet been so available to me and helpful," he exuded. "If I need anything, he’s there. If I ever have a question or ever need advice, he’s always right there. He lets me do my version and I never expected anything different. That’s a gift and the role is a gift. That he has such faith in me is a gift. And he gives me great compliments!"

Indeed, Mr. Urie has been showered with praise as well as critical acclaim for the re-invention of Arnold, successfully allowing audiences to identify with a new, unique version of the character with his deep-rooted pain and longings. The key to a successful portrayal and, indeed, a successful mounting might surprise you, however. Although all the usual ingredients have to be in place - compelling, intuitive writing, a great director at the helm, actors who can breathe life into the words on the page, etc. - the secret ingredient in Urie's eyes is actually... embarrassment.

"If you ever meet Harvey, he will embarrass you," Urie tells me. "He will embarrass you within minutes. But that’s what makes him so special because he’s willing to be embarrassed himself at any point and demands that from everyone around him. What he said to us at the first day of rehearsal was: “If this play doesn’t embarrass you, then you’re not doing it right.”

"I first thought: “Oh, he means all the sex stuff.” But it isn’t the sex stuff," he continued. "It’s the true guts. It’s the heart. It’s the absolute pain the characters go through. That’s what he meant. And that has been very embarrassing. I know that it means a lot to people that we are willing to go there - all of us in the cast. And he was willing to go there, when he wrote it."

Mr. Fierstein's play about the desires of a unique individual - a Jewish, drag performer, in this case - for the normal things in life such as a loving partner, a mother's unconditional acceptance and a family of his own, were regarded perhaps as a sort of sad science fiction in the early 1980s. Astonishingly, Fierstein's writing was so prophetic and so groundbreaking back then that it gave countless unique individuals hope. Today, homosexual couples adopting children, for example, is no longer a sad science fiction, but a reality for many. The play's effects on those human beings searching for meaning at that time are epitmozed by director Moisés Kaufman.

"When I was 20 years old, I saw the play," Mr. Kaufman confided. "I was a Yeshiva Boy from Venezuela. Not only was I an Orthodox Jew, but I came from a catholic “machista” country where to call homosexuality a taboo would be an understatement. The worst thing that you could possibly be was to be a homosexual. I was fortunate enough that I was in San Francisco on a trip and I got to see the original production on tour. I remember thinking: “Oh, my goodness. My life may be possible, after all.” There’s a way in which we continue to aspire to that which makes our lives possible."

Times have changed, we know, but the spirit of Torch Song, nurtered by this fine cast for the next generation of theatregoers, remains the same. 

"The thing that’s amazing about Torch Song is that as a play, it’s still not only relevant but it also speaks about what happens when you’re unique and you need to survive in the world," says Kaufman. "Anybody who is unique – and I believe we all are unique – can come and see this play and see themselves represented in the fabric of this play."

So, what's the main difference between the Broadway premiere in 1982 and this revival - both a period piece and a timeless observation? There's no other way to end this article but to let Harvey Fierstein himself have the final word: "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."

Thank you and Amen to that, Mr. Fierstein.

Check out all of our shots of the cast, creative team and special guests who celebrated last night's official opening.

Michael Urie & Mercedes Ruehl

Director Moisés Kaufman & Playwright Harvey Fierstein

Ward Hotron, who plays Ed

Roxanna Hope Radja, who plays Laurel

Michael Hsu Rosen, who plays Alan

Jack DiFalco, who plays David

Special Guest Matthew Broderick with Harvey Fierstein

Harvey Fierstein with Special Guest Larry Kramer and partner William David Webster

Special Guests Neil Patrick Harris & David Burtka

Special Guest Anna Wintour

Special Guest Vanessa Williams

Special Guest Bernadette Peters

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

(Photos by Austin Yang / Tom Millward)