Mamma Mia!

Mamma Mia! Yes, Harvey Fierstein affirmed — by moving his large head magisterially up and down — yes, he would be wearing a wig as Edna Turnblad, mama of Tracy Turnblad, in Hairspray, the new Broadway musical spawned from the John Waters 1988 film that became a cultsensation.
Harvey Fierstein in Hairspray.
Harvey Fierstein in Hairspray. (Photo by Photo by Paul Kolnik)

Yes, Harvey Fierstein affirmed — by moving his large head magisterially up and down — yes, he would be wearing a wig as Edna Turnblad, mama of Tracy Turnblad, in Hairspray, the new Broadway musical spawned from the John Waters 1988 film that became a cultsensation.

"A very expensive wig," Fierstein said, "and a body stocking that adds breasts, hips and ass." He bit down on a king-sized hamburger. "It would, of course, be wonderful to do without all these trappings," said the frog-voiced star who had first donned such trappings onstage as a kid out of Brooklyn at age 15 — and whose considerable torso was at the moment housed in a Japanese-patterned Harry Truman sports shirt — "but I'm afraid they're needed for the illusion. William Ivey Long has designed some really wild stuff for me."

Not to flog the obvious, but doesn't that relate right back to those early years as a drag queen?

"Yes," said the creator of Torch Song Trilogy, "and that's the danger. Not to have Edna seen as a drag queen. You have to take her as a woman. That's my character," Fierstein said of his role in the musical that was on that day still in deep rehearsal for its world premiere in Seattle, from where it would bounce back to open in August at the Neil Simon Theatre. "A lot of times I'd like to do something funny and campy, but I mustn't. I have to be very careful. I have to keep that balance. Last night," the show's mama Edna said, "we did a performance for some group-sales people. Little old Jewish ladies. We did that scene where Edna dances with her husband [actor Dick Latessa], only there was no room to waltz, so we just sang to each other. And they totally bought it! That's what I want — that reality."

Sure, Fierstein had, at the time of its release, seen and enjoyed the John Waters film — starring Ricki Lake as Tracy Turnblad, Jerry Stiller as her father and, in the Edna Turnblad role, Divine, who died unexpectedly and tragically just as the movie was about to break him out of drag-queen mold into wider stardom. "I knew Divine a little," Fierstein said now. "I once ran into him on Christopher Street. He was lugging his laundry to the launderette. We sat together there and just talked about the people we knew. Who's using who. Who's trying to make his career over who."

One of the people they'd talked about was the director Tom O'Horgan. In the Times Square chili and hamburger joint, Fierstein gave a chuckle as he said: "Remember when Tom O'Horgan was doing something called The Leaf People? Well, at the time I was starving, and my unemployment had run out. I called Tom and asked if he could put me in the chorus. He said: 'Harvey, I put you in the chorus, there is no more chorus.'"

It may have been somewhat less than solicitous, but it wasn't far off the mark. It is hard to take eyes and ears off Harvey Fierstein in any work of stage or screen in any role large or small; this moviegoer still remembers his impact in a minor supporting role of Fire Islanding Fierstein in Sidney Lumet's 1984 Garbo Talks.

To Fierstein, the Broadway show Hairspray, like the movie before it, is about innocence; in specific, the innocence of John Waters's Baltimore — and by extension, the whole United States — as the 1950's were turning into the 1960's. "These kids is kids," said the 48-year-old ever-young Fierstein. "

In the fifties, in this country, the teenagers were still kids. When the sixties came in, the Summer of Love, rock 'n' roll, all that, teenagers became the leaders. John Waters caught that era when it was just changing, and I think this show does, too. It's like when Tracy sings to her mother: 'Mama, I'm a big girl now!'"

Tracy Turnblad is, of course, the short little teenager with lots of avoirdupois, lots of hair and lots of voltage who's bound and determined to bust her way onto a local TV dance show while muscling out her rival and integrating Baltimore television in the bargain. The movie put Ricki Lake on the map and the musical may do as well for Marissa Jaret Winokur, who comes to Hairspray from a telling bit as Kevin Spacey's drive-thru supervisor in "American Beauty."

In a manner of speaking, Fierstein — whose works for the theatre include Torch Song Trilogy, Spookhouse and the book of Broadway's La Cage aux Folles — comes to his present employment in self-defense. "My agent, Richie Jackson — I've known him since he was 18 years old — has been trying to get me to write a new play again for a long time. I'm just not that interested. I was doing a lot of concerts, which were filling my need to perform. He's always yelling at me that I belong onstage, not on screen. 'Movies don't do for you what you need to do.' So I told him: 'Know what I want? A Broadway musical.'"

Fierstein finished his hamburger, wiped his lips, leaned forward and said: "You know, my parents took me and my brother Ron, as kids, to see theatre every weekend." Then, as if excavating a Buried Truth: "I always wanted to do Fiddler. Wouldn't I be a great Tevye? Or Oliver! I thought I'd be a great Fagin."

Indeed so. Meanwhile the innocent among us might well take relish in watching Edna Turnblad, at her ironing board, inform daughter Tracy, in a heart to heart: "Oh, you have a lot to learn from the mistakes of Debbie Reynolds."