Harvey Fierstein recalls what the late Marian Seldes would say on matinee days: “Aren’t we lucky? We get to try to get it right twice today.”
The constant strive for perfection distinguishes theatre from other creative mediums. “Many artists paint the same subject over and over,” Fierstein notes, “but theatre artists really do that. We go out there with this aim of making this one the best.” And as his Torch Song returns to Broadway (previews begin at the Helen Hayes Theater October 9), he has yet another opportunity to “get it right.” As a writer, at least; when it premiered, he was also the star.
“I still get to have my say, but I get to sit down. It’s the best of both worlds.”
Fierstein “wouldn’t dare” rewrite his younger self while reexamining his semi-autobiographical, 1970s and ’80s–set play. He instead focuses on editing: “I can shape it and make it relevant to the audience now. It feels to me fresh, alive, and strong.”
Helping ensure that freshness is Michael Urie, who assumes the central role of Arnold Beckoff, a gay man navigating romantic, sexual, and familial relationships. The revival is an opportunity for reexamination for him as well, following the Moisés Kaufman–helmed production’s Off-Broadway premiere with Second Stage in 2017.
Over the decades, Arnold has become a paradox. His world is firmly in an era before same-sex marriage or adoption were a reality. His desires, however, are prophetically modern. When the play premiered, Fierstein was criticized for writing a gay man whose family goals were assimilating to hetero-normative ideals.
He questioned that argument then and does now: “What, I no longer care about my family because I’m gay? I personally never wanted to have children. I lived out that fantasy by writing Torch Song. But the point is: I’m a human being. Therefore, I have these choices, and I should be allowed these choices.”
Arnold’s mentality reflects a sentiment he still sees in the queer community: a younger generation taking the reins and asserting a new status quo. “When the gay community began to call itself queer, that was, to my generation a f**king shock,” he says. He likens it to a line he wrote for the stage adaptation of Newsies: “Every generation must, at the height of its power, step aside and invite the young to share the day.”
When Torch Song Trilogy landed on Broadway in 1982, Fierstein paved the way for a community to lay claim to who they were and what they wanted. As a new Torch Song arrives, he sees a new generation poised to do just the same.
“Circumstances change; politics change; human beings do not change. We all have to grow up.”