In March of 2019, Tony Award-winning writer and performer Harvey Fierstein let Playbill in on a little secret: He was writing a play about Bella Abzug. Depending on your age, you reaction ranges from an “ooooooh” or “who?” Abzug was the first Jewish woman to earn a seat in Congress (Margo Martindale recently portrayed her on Mrs. America). Her campaign slogan is one often cried at rallies today: “This woman’s place is in the House … the House of Representatives!”
But after serving in Congress and leading a feminist presence in the legislative branch, she ran for Senate. “She gave up her seat in Congress, to run to be a Senator. And the Democratic Party actually killed her. Went out and destroyed her chances. She lost the primary by less than 1 percent and it was them that did it,” Fierstein said at the time. “As Gloria [Steinem] said to me, ‘Had she not run for Senate, she could have been the first woman President. She definitely would have been the first woman Speaker of the House.’”
A few months later, Fierstein was up on the stage clad in a black button-down and black slacks. Barefoot. Yet fully Bella. “The play takes place on the night of the Senate primary,” he explains. “They’re waiting for the returns to come in, and she starts seeing that the numbers are not right, and so she goes into the bathroom to sort of be alone. And it's 90 minutes in the bathroom going through, ‘What the fuck did I do?’”
Now, Fierstein’s personal performance of his Bella Bella comes to Audible. Released August 4 (the same day as the release of Vanessa Redgrave in The Year of Magical Thinking), the solo show goes beyond the public politician and no-nonsense advocate to the young Jewish girl in the Bronx and the emotional woman behind her ambition.
“I had family there all the time,” Fierstein says of writing and rehearsing a play to capture Abzug’s essence. “Her two daughters would come by. I had her press secretary, Harold Holzer. I had Gloria Steinem. I had Marlo Thomas and Lily Tomlin. I had a bunch of my friends come by to the rehearsal and add their voices to what we were doing.”
Before you listen, Fierstein lets us in on his process, what went on in his head playing Bella, why he knew he had to be the one to premiere the show, his hopes for using the play as activist theatre, Jewish identity, and his unusual choice in dressing room decoration.
What did you learn from doing it live that you incorporated into this audio version?
Harvey Fierstein: Well, obviously getting to do it—I don't know how many times—a hundred times, it's like the greatest rehearsal. When I was doing it in the theatre, which I really loved, I loved that little theatre in City Center, it's so intimate and you can see every face and every face can see you—which is also sort of fun. You're doing it directly to the audience, talking to them. The idea of my playing the role and the way Kimberly [Senior] directed it and the way that we presented it was that there was no artifice.
This is like: I am Harvey Fierstein doing Bella. I'm not in drag, I'm speaking directly to you. And yet there is this dramatic construct here. But I wanted it to feel as real and as connected as could be. I want it to feel every person, but instead I was talking directly to them and some nights. So taking it from that to Audible, the idea was to feel that I'm talking into the ear of that one person who's listening.
Did you picture any one person in particular as you were recording this?
No. Because at the same time you're in her head. It's this woman going through this very important moment in her life. She had never lost an election before and she never won an election after that night. It's this real turning point in her career. And she's really very much into trying to figure out, “What the f*ck, how did I get here? And, where do we go from here?” So yes, she's talking to herself or she's talking to this person who's listening to her, but it's almost as intimate as talking to the mirror.
I know you knew Bella, but what do you appreciate even more after inhabiting her in being inside her head in that way?
Well, you know, I always sort of go back to the politician; that's always the way she'd been presented in my life. Going back through her papers and going back through her career, talking to her friends, talking to her family, I really found the early part of her life unbelievably fascinating. The years as a lawyer, both working for women's rights and working for the anti-war movement and in the Civil Rights movement. What's left on the cutting room floor, there's like three times more of these incredible adventures of hers. She knew everyone. She influenced unbelievable amounts of things. The one that everybody talks about is that women couldn't have credit cards until she came along. That’s shocking that, in our lifetime, women couldn't have credit cards on their own. Or going back to: After Malcolm X was assassinated, Betty Shabazz, his wife, and children needed a safe place to live and she sold them her home. I actually had to take that out of the play because there was just so much. The woman did incredible things in her life beyond the politics and I wanted to make sure that people knew. For her, it was just doing what's right.
Bella seems to generally be back in the zeitgeist. She came up in Off-Broadway’s Gloria: A Life, your play, Margo Martindale’s Emmy-nominated portrayal of her in Mrs. America…
I would have loved for [Margo] to do the play. She was somebody I wanted to do the play, and then I heard she was doing Mrs. America. They're a bunch of women who would be fabulous in that role, which is part of the reason I decided to do it myself because: I knew Margo was doing it in Mrs. America, Bette Midler just played her in Julie Taymor’s new movie [The Glorias: A Life on the Road]. Like you say, Gloria: A Life, [Joann Glushak] playing her in that. My feeling was, did I want my play just to be another thing where a woman puts on a dress and a red hat and says, look at me, I'm Bella Abzug? ’Cause people are learning about Bella that way, but I thought, “How do I do this in a way that's totally different? How do I do this in a way where you have to listen to her words?” As a male playwright, even though I'm using Bella's words, I'm still a man putting words in the mouth of a woman, which felt very much a betrayal when you're sitting at rehearsal with Gloria Steinem. You feel very much like why, why is a man shoving words into a woman's mouth? And I said, "If I'm not brave enough to stand up there and say this myself, then why should I ask a woman to do it?" So we made that decision. And once again, I did it not in drag. I did it not imitate Bella, but in presenting her, I was channeling her. And for most people after two or three minutes, when you got into the play, you just sort of forgot what you were watching and just got into what was being said. Down the road I had always hoped that we would [have women perform it]. I got the play on as soon as I could because I thought this spring and going into the fall with the elections coming, I would have wanted in the plan to have a bunch of Bella's friends present the play in a sort of concert version—friends of hers like Shirley MacLaine and Gloria and Marlo Thomas—to let them read the play to raise money for women running for election. Unfortunately, along came COVID and messed up the plan.
At the same time, with Audible, it’s still out there for this election season. You could have communities putting this on akin to The Vagina Monologues.
That's what I'm hoping happens. That once this [Audible recording] is out and we're publishing the acting version, people will do it. It's a fun evening whether you memorize it and do it in a full production as I did, or you do it as a reading.
Our conversations right now in the industry are heavily and rightfully focused on people who are underrepresented and BIPOC folx who have suffered for a very long time. Jewish representation is often lost as well and even when a Jewish person is in the mix, their Jewishness is often pushed off to the side or not recognized at all. How did it feel for you to be able to bring that identity to the stage?
That was a very important part of the story to me. As you can hear in the recording and you saw on stage, I use a little bit more of a Jewish accent than Bella did, and the reason was that back then everyone would have been aware of her Jewishness. Jewishness was still something that was foreign. You had to change your name if you wanted to go into show business; you had to get a nose job if you wanted to go into show business. There's plenty of anti-Semitism around now, but you were even more aware of it back then, because people hid.
You had Jewish comedians—Danny Kaye— that would sort of hide their Jewishness a little bit. When I was a kid, it was sort of a shock that Barbara Streisand wouldn't change her name. So the idea [here] was to push that Jewishness in the face of an audience. So they were constantly reminded, “I'm not like you,” meaning the white audience. You know, Jewish is not white and if you don't believe that, ask any KKK member. Ask our President, he’ll tell you: Jewish is not white.
Jews have such a history in Civil Rights and fighting McCarthy. We have such a great American history, that is to easily fold it in with the rest, you know? Buffy Sainte-Marie, who I adore, the Cree Indigenous singer, in one of her first albums she says, “Now that my life's to be known as your heritage.” It's [like saying,] “If you like me, you make me part of you. And I lose my heritage.” That happened to Jews. When they were truly accepted, it's like, “Oh, I know he's Jewish, but he's one of us.” But you need your identity as well. And Bella certainly was one of those people. And one of those people who, because of her Jewishness, was rejected. She was the Jewish woman in Congress.
Exactly. It was a huge deal for JFK to be Catholic.
I remember the talk around my house was: Is the Pope going to tell him what to do?
When Joe Lieberman was Al Gore’s running mate, it was humongous. It was like, “Oh my God, we might get a Jew near the White House.”
But I was busy screaming at Joe. He came backstage to see me, and in front of his kids I'm screaming at him [about gay marriage]. One of those cute moments though… In my dressing room for Bella, which took place all in a bathroom, as you remember, I had a photograph on the wall of two men peeing in a urinal in JFK airport. And the two men were me and Joe Lieberman. We had been on a flight coming in from D.C. We ran into each other in the bathroom, and we're talking because we know each othe,r and somebody took a photograph of the two of us peeing together. All of a sudden my phone rang [with an Airdrop] and it said, "Accept a picture." There was that photograph of me and Joe. And so I thought that would be an appropriate decoration for my dressing room at City Center.
Well, now everyone can have the image of the bathroom while they listen on Audible!
Yes. Tell the people to listen up!