September 2003
By Steven M. Housman

Harvey Fierstein: Back to Broadway

This past year, Harvey Fierstein has returned to his roots. He’s been wowing audiences as working-class housewife Edna Turnblad starring in Hairspray, the musical based on the 1988 John Waters film, which is incidentally, the hottest ticket on the Great White Way. Hairspray went on to win eight Tony’s, including one for Best Musical 2003, and Fierstein took home his fourth Tony, this time for Best Actor.

Back between 1976 and 1979, Fierstein wrote three one-act plays that constitute Torch Song Trilogy. In the early 80’s, the production opened on Broadway and his talents were widely recognized. In fact, Fierstein was the first person to win a Tony award for Best Actor and Best Play for the same production. His third Tony was for writing the book for the smash musical La Cage aux Folles. All those groundbreaking events occured in 1983.

Ironically, 1983 was also a year filled with fear amongst the Gay community when AIDS was becoming the forefront of headlines around the world. Harvey was one of the first to jump on the bandwagon, already being a Gay activist and leader of the Gay community.

Other important events of Fierstein’s activism include narrating the 1984 Academy award-winning documentary, The Times of Harvey Milk.

His filmography is also quite impressive; Fierstein has been in dozens of films, most notably his film adaptation of Torch Song Trilogy, Mrs. Doubtfire and Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway. On television, Fierstein earned an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Kirsty Alley’s first love on Cheers. Other TV appearances followed on several hit series and frequent guest appearances on late night, including the Tonight Show, David Letterman and Politically Incorrect.

Recordings weren’t out of reach for this multi-talented performer when he released “This Is Not Going To Be Pretty,” a performance album that was recorded at New York’s Bottom Line displaying a mix of stand-up, dramatic monologues and a blend of his very unique musical style.

Just before Fierstein returned to Broadway this past year, he authored a best-selling children’s book “The Sissy Duckling,” based on his HBO animated feature of the same name, which brought him the prestigious Humanitas Prize in 2000.

Harvey has covered every aspect of the entertainment medium and has always maintained his honesty about his homosexuality, opening doors for many other aspiring talented gay men and women.

I was fortunate enough to catch Fierstein between performances and ask him everything from his “unmerciful life on Broadway” to his “very sexual” process of writing.

I heard that you considered doing Broadway to be an unmerciful life. Is that accurate, and if so, what drew you back to Broadway?

It is an unmerciful life, there is no mercy because there are no holidays. When everybody is having Thanksgiving, you’re at the theatre, when everybody is going to the wedding, you’re at the theatre, when all of your friends are going out to the movies, you’re at the theatre. (Laughs) It’s six days a week, it’s eight performances a week. It’s like owning a Ma & Pa business except (laughing) you don’t get ownership. It’s definitely a life that takes a certain toll on a person and also you have to really, really, really have dedication for this job.

Since it takes such a toll, how do you keep your energy up?

Well, first of all I stayed away for fifteen years, that allowed me to recharge my batteries. Then when I came back, I made sure I came back to something I truly truly loved. That’s the way to do it.

You started out as a successful playwright over 20 years ago. What do you think of the progress of gay culture since you began?

It progresses, sometimes there are giant steps forward, sometimes there are little baby steps, but there’s no going back, you can’t go backwards. Nature doesn’t allow it, it just doesn’t happen. Recently, there were just two major gay plays in New York. One got very bad reviews, one got good reviews, and in fact is moving from Off-Broadway to Broadway, so that’s nice. It’s always nice when there’s a gay-themed Broadway show. Unfortunately, we still have not had a lot of Lesbian voices in the theatre. It seems that there’s more Lesbian voices in film than in theatre and I’m not exactly sure why. Of course, there aren’t enough women’s voices in film. I don’t know why the male voice is heard much more than the Lesbian voice.

Your career has covered most mediums-theatre, film, television, records and now author. Do you have a particular favorite?

Retirement! (Jovial laughter). I am essentially a lazy son-of-a-bitch and given my druthers, I’d rather stay home. Go to the movies, play with my dogs. I’m not that fond of making movies. It’s the medium where the artist has the least to say about what’s done. Stand around for three or four hours while they get the lights right. Then there’s like three or four minutes for you to get the scene right. Then the editor and director come in and they decide what version of the scene they like best, they cut it up and very much manufacture performances. I mean, I know alot of people who are big movie stars who can’t act to save their lives. They look really good on film, and if you do enough takes with them, there’s something to glue together. Film, for me, is the least attractive. I like sitcoms because you perform in front of a live audience and you get it on film at the same time. I don’t like hour-long drama, that’s the worst, I think that’s my least favorite. And probably my favorite thing to do, though it pays the worst, is theatre.

Is it because you like the instant gratification?

Well, I like performing, I like the people who do theatre. I like that the fact that once you step out on the stage, it’s the actor’s who are in charge. It’s not about the lighting people, it’s about you and the audience.

You must be really proud of the success of your children’s book “The Sissy Duckling” which came out a few months ago. You’ve won so many prestigious awards, is there one that means more to you than any other?

I am proud of that book and (pause, sigh) I know this is going to sound bad, but I don’t really think about my awards very much. I know that once you win four Tony awards, you’re always billed as (shouts it out) FOUR-TIME TONY AWARD WINNING, you know, blah blah blah, but awards are like, it’s yesterday. There are people that concentrate on yesterday, I’m not one of them. Today, tomorrow interest me. Yesterday doesn’t interest me all that much.

I heard that while you write, you like to masturbate - Were you joking or were you serious?

Oh, I was serious, and many writers that I know work that way as well. I mean there is something very sexual about writing. Comedy especially, and you do become aroused.

Can we the public expect a book of your memoirs in the near future?

AH! Yes, once everyone is dead! (Big Laughter). Ya know, a couple of years ago Arthur Laurents put out his memoirs and I was so disgusted from it that any plans I ever had for my own memoirs, I said (sigh) ugh, my opinions are my opinions and I’m not sure anyone needs to hear them. But I may someday write stories as opposed to calling it a biography, because I certainly have some very fun stories to tell.

© 2003 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.