PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Harvey Fierstein

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Harvey Fierstein
 
Harvey Fierstein is one of the great multiple-hat-wearers of the theatre.
Harvey Fierstein.
Harvey Fierstein. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

This fact is aptly illustrated by his Tony Award record. He has won in four different categories: Best Actor in a Musical for Hairspray; Best Actor in a Play for Torch Song Trilogy; Best Play for Torch Song Trilogy, which he wrote; and Best Book of a Musical for La Cage aux Folles. With his latest show, A Catered Affair, he is once again doing double duty, playing Uncle Winston in a musical for which he wrote the book. He can also take credit for the original conception of the project. The ever-voluble Fierstein talked to Playbill.com on an off day, while doing his laundry.

Playbill.com: How does it feel to be back on Broadway with a musical you helped to write? It's been many years.
Harvey Fierstein: Musicals are always fun. My last one was Hairspray. That one I didn't get the credit on, but it's the same thing to me if I'm a ghostwriter on it. The last one before that was Legs Diamond, which wasn't really my idea. So this is really the first show that was conceived by me and everything else since Safe Sex.

Playbill.com: From what I understand, you got the idea for the show quite some time ago. Was it 25 years ago?
HF: Possibly around then. Then it sat there for a while. Finally, I said, "OK, it's time to do something with it." I acquired the rights ten years ago and then went through the process of putting together a team. It's never fast! It never really is. And then when you want to do something completely different — because I knew I wanted to do a chamber musical; I didn't want to do a conventional musical. It's funny. I was thinking about it. After an opening night, you hear people say different things to you, and you think "Did they get what you were trying to do?" And I was thinking, we kind of are like a foreign film, as opposed to an American film. American films, the audience has nothing to do but sit there. All the ideas are fed to you. All of the emotions are fed to you. You're told who the hero is. You're told who the villain is. In moves along in a very metered pattern of act one, act two, act three. Nothing is really asked of you. And the characters are no longer based on human beings these days. American tastemakers and producers don't really like to take chances with their audience. They don't really have respect for their audience. With foreign films, they seem to trust their audience more. They tell their stories as honestly as they can. They don't go by normal structure. They don't have clearly cut heroes and villains. And they don't shove the emotions down your throat. And I think that's kind of what A Catered Affair does. I think A Catered Affair is a European show. (Laughs)

Harvey Fierstein in A Catered Affair.
photo by Jim Cox

Playbill.com: Perhaps you could put that line in the ads.
HF: No, because thankfully we got enough critics who did get what we were doing to not have to do that. I think it's not a bad thing to tell the audience, "Don't dumb down before you come see A Catered Affair. You're going to see a show that going to make you think and feel. If you come in unwilling to open your heart, you're going to be bored." Playbill.com: The show is based, obviously, on the Paddy Chayefsky story. Also this season we have a revival by Clifford Odets, who, like Chayefsky, wrote about the lives of everyday people, small people with small lives. Do you think today's Broadway has forgotten about these people? Does Broadway still have a place for the stories of small people?
HF: I don't think it's regular, small people — I don't think that's what we've forgotten. I think we've forgotten who we are. We've forgotten our own lives. We're all regular, small people. Listen, you're talking to somebody that's doing his laundry right now. I'm not necessarily sure that I want to watch somebody just do their laundry. Drama does need to be taken to a climax or a moment of struggle. But we are all regular people. Very few of us are going to need to fight off an asteroid that is plummeting to the Earth. Very few of us are going to run into a superhero. We go to theatre to enlighten our lives. We go to theatre to let us know we're not alone in this world. We go to theatre to feel a part of humanity. We come together. You experience something together. We [A Catered Affair] give the audience something that's very much a part of their lives. There are people losing sons and daughters and husbands right now. There are people who are feeling the pinch of money and are making decisions where to spend the money right now. There are certainly people living in relationships that they're not really sure are working for them. The stuff of A Catered Affair is the stuff of everyday life. That doesn't make it unimportant. That makes it important. That, to me, is what theatre is. Playbill.com: You very often appear in you own material. Does that pose certain challenges for you as an artist?
HF: It doesn't pose a challenge on my side. It poses a challenge on some viewers' side. I'm not the central figure in this show. But the show is told through my eyes. The show opens with me walking out on stage to this suitcase which kind of represents the rest of his life. He's lived with his sister or his mother all his life. He's finally moving out. But before I walk off to start my life, I have this flashback of the last three days. I walk out on stage and people immediately think I'm going to be Harvey. Some people. Most people go along with whatever you're going to give them. But there are some people who say, "Oh, it's Harvey, and blah, blah, blah." I actually heard somebody told a friend of mine, "Well, Harvey obviously built up his role and had himself standing in other scenes just to make his role bigger." I thought, "Oh, my God. They totally missed the fact that I'm watching those scenes." I'm watching them because that's how he learns to live his life. We didn't waste any scenes in this show. There are no dumb musical numbers. There is no wasted time. Everything that's on that stage needs to be on that stage.

Playbill.com: There's a wide variety of musicals on Broadway this season, shows taking many different approaches to the genre.
HF: Isn't that great? I think theatre is in the same place — it's always looking for a new way to express itself. As long as there are new musical artists, we will always be looking for that next way to tell a story. I find that so exciting about theatre.

<i>A Catered Affair</i> stars: (clockwise from front) Matt Cavenaugh, Leslie Kritzer, Lori Wilner, Harvey Fierstein, Philip Hoffman, Tom Wopat and Faith Prince.
A Catered Affair stars: (clockwise from front) Matt Cavenaugh, Leslie Kritzer, Lori Wilner, Harvey Fierstein, Philip Hoffman, Tom Wopat and Faith Prince. Photo by Jim Cox
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