Harvey Fierstein wants to get one thing straight. "I did not get hurt when I fell off the platform last night at Spider-Man," he says, his signature gravelly voice oozing mock seriousness.
The former Hairspray star is famous for his stiletto-sharp humor, but one thing he is genuinely serious about is La Cage aux Folles, the musical he wrote with composer Jerry Herman that won six 1984 Tony Awards (including one for Fierstein's libretto), two 2005 Tonys (including Best Revival) and three 2010 Tonys for the current revival, which Fierstein joins on Feb. 15 as the super-sensitive drag queen Zaza.
"This is the production I asked for," Fierstein says. "In 1983, attitudes were different. To paint a picture: When AIDS hit, people said things like, 'I'm not going to a restaurant in New York because they all have gay waiters and I'll get AIDS.' So because of the times, the original [La Cage] was done in, shall we say, a softer way. It was a little whitewashed." The protagonists — club owner Georges and his partner Albin (aka Zaza) — never kissed, notes Fierstein. Currently, at the Longacre Theatre, they lock lips eight times a week. "We're no longer glossing over the story. A gay couple that's married isn't a joke anymore. But neither is it a reality."
Back in 1984, he remembers, there were two women mixed into the otherwise all-male chorus line of Cagelles — "so that if a guy thought the drag queens were hot, he could say, 'Oh no, I was looking at the real girl.'" (Now they're all men... svelte, enviably sculpted men.) "The drag show was this huge Folies Bergère number with the kind of costumes that no drag show I saw ever had," he says. "Those shows had a level of tackiness to them." Don't get Fierstein wrong — he's not trashing the original. He simply never envisioned such a "gigantic extravaganza." So when David Babani asked to produce a revival at his 150-seat Menier Chocolate Factory in London, "I said, 'I will only give you permission if this is what you give me,'" Fierstein says of his grittier, smaller initial vision. Coincidentally, that's exactly what Babani wanted. "I said, 'Go ahead, cookie.'"
What Fierstein hadn't envisioned was donning Zaza's tiara and mascara. Over the years he's been "pointed to," but, he says, "I don't think anybody actually had the balls [to ask]!"
The same night he belts out his first rendition of "I Am What I Am," he'll share his first kiss with Jeffrey Tambor (last seen on Broadway in the 2005 revival of Glengarry Glen Ross), who's stepping into the role of Georges. [Since the posting of this feature, Tambor left the production.] "I'm excited to see what Harvey the actor does," Fierstein muses. "When you're a writer you have a clear picture of what you're writing." (Speaking of writing, Fierstein has not one but two musicals in the works: Newsies with Alan Menken and Kinky Boots with Cyndi Lauper.)
"I definitely have Zaza in the incubator," says Fierstein. "The costumes, the wigs — all of that stuff is being redesigned for me. God knows what she's going to come out like!"