Digging into the archives, we unearth the original articles printed in the Playbills of yesteryear.
On June 10, 1982, Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy opened on Broadway. While Fierstein had been writing his own work and performing his drag club act around the Village, Trilogy put him on the map. In honor of the show's anniversary and the recent, Tony-nominated revival starring Michael Urie, Playbill looks back on this in-depth interview with Fierstein—before he was the theatrical icon he is today.
Though a drag queen is often prized for his femininity, drag queen Arnold Beckoff, the main character of Torch Song Trilogy, is less the “little flower” than the Amazon; not “pretty” beautiful but “mountain” beautiful as another character says. Still, he’s been praised by critics and theatergoers alike, making him just one anomaly of what is already a “wondrous strange” hit for Broadway.
Another is the 28-year-old playwright-star, Harvey Fierstein. Rather than starting his acting career the usual way—as a spear carrier, for instance, in a stock production of Shakespeare—he began professional work as an “asthmatic dyke” in Andy Warhol’s play, Pork. Other roles have included a transvestite in his own Flatbush Tosca (“I sang the whole second act in Italian,” he says), and a 300-year-old woman, Lillian Russell, and 26 other parts in Ronald Tavel’s My Fetus Lived on Amboy Street. He also did a club act impersonating Ethel Merman singing “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun.”
Rather than renounce his campy flamboyance for Broadway’s straighter milieu, he took it with him in Trilogy, which opens as Arnold, a promiscuous drag queen, sets out in search of his ideal man. While this premise may seem daring for Broadway, Arnold turns out to be a staunch conservative at heart. What he wants, we discover, is the stuff of ordinary human happiness—the life his mother had “with a few minor alterations”—home, “husband,” and a child.
One might even call Trilogy a morality tale: the drag queen becomes a symbol for the frightened masquerader hiding behind a “phony name, face, figure, and sex.” As Arnold sheds his mask, he forsakes self-involvement to embrace the large world and become what one reviewer called “the oddest solid citizen in the republic.”
A recent meeting with Fierstein in his dressing room at the Little Theatre replays this disguise-shedding motif. For the first few minutes, he’s elusive, shape shifting from one camp persona to the other. First, the sweet-natured yenta: “Ask me anything!” he says in a whiskey baritone pitched at the rasp in which most people snore (his real voice). Then, turning to his make-up mirror, he examines three scratches his pet rabbit, Arnold, left on his cheek, and plays the vamp: “A scarred woman,” he sighs.
Elusive though he is, he’s disarming; and like Arnold Beckoff, Fierstein manages to walk off with one’s affections without seeming to try. He also seems unaware of assuming a more revealing tone just as he starts to make up his face for the drag scene in Act 1.
“I was a fat little kid leading a double life,” he says of his teenage years. “I lived at home, went to school by day and performed as a drag queen by night.” Since he then weighed 240 pounds (50 more than he does now), he invented names like “Bertha Vanation” and “Virginia Hamm” for the drag character he played in Village clubs.
When asked about his appeal as an oversized transvestite, he shrugs and says, “I don’t know. I guess you could see me from further away.” He flips his electric razor for what turns out to be about a 15-minute shave.
“I’m a real character actor,” he continues, “and playing a woman was just one more element in building a role. And then cross-dressing is a very powerful thing to do. Most men are scared of women and vice versa. Each thinks the other is the more powerful sex. So when you put on women’s clothes, not only are you taking on the power and mystique of the other sex, but you’re hiding yourself too. So you can feel very tough. There’s nothing of you showing. It’s like walking around in a tank.”
These experiences inspired Fierstein’s early plays: Freaky Pussy, In Search of the Cobra Jewels, and Flatbush Tosca. They also prompted Torch Song Trilogy, which began as a single play, The International Stud written in 1977. The tough time Fierstein had getting it produced was merely a foretaste of what was to come. Kenny Hill, of La Mama, brought the play to executive director Ellen Stewart (La Mama herself), who was dead set against it.
“I ain’t gonna do no play about no backroom bar,” Fierstein imitates the formidable Mrs. Stewart, “I know what that bar is, that International Stud, and I ain’t gonna do that. Mr. Fierstein wants to run around on stage in bloomers and I ain’t gonna have that.” And that was that. Or so they all thought.
But Kenny Hill died tragically in a bathhouse fire and Ellen asked Harvey to assist her at La Mama. As repayment, she agreed to put on his play. But the theatre was so booked that it was difficult to set a date. This prompted director Eric Concklin to urge Harvey to “Tell her it’s a trilogy. Tell her it’s a trilogy.”
“Why?” Harvey asked.
“So we don’t have to fight her for the next two years to get the space again.”
“It’s a trilogy,” Harvey told Ellen.
“And so,” he says, beginning to slap whiteface on his newly smooth cheeks, “she was stuck.”
But so was he—he now had to write two more plays. What made him think he could do it?
“I never say no,” he says as though it were a motto, “I always say yes to everything.”
He did come through with two more plays, Fugue in a Nursery (1978) and Widows and Children First! (1979), which continue the saga of Arnold Beckoff. All three works premiered separately at La Mama.