Playwright, actor, and gay-rights activist
Born Harvey Forbes Fierstein, June 6, 1954, in Brooklyn, NY; son of Irving (a handkerchief manufacturer) and Jacqueline (a housewife; maiden name, Gilbert) Fierstein. Education: Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY, B.F.A., 1973.
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Actor on stage, including: Pork, La Mama Experimental Theater Club (E.T.C.), New York, NY, 1971; International Stud, La Mama E.T.C., New York, NY, 1972; Fugue in a Nursery and Widows and Children First!, both onstage in New York, NY, 1979; Torch Song Trilogy, 1981–83; Hairspray, Neil Simon Theatre, New York, NY, August 2002—. Television appearances include: The Demon Murder Case (movie), 1983; Miami Vice, 1986; Apology (movie), 1986; Tidy Endings, 1988; The Simpsons (voice), 1990–91; Cheers, 1992; In the Shadow of Love: A Teen AIDS Story (movie), 1992; Murder She Wrote, 1992; Daddy's Girls, 1994; Loving, 1994; Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales For Every Child (voice), 1995; The Larry Sanders Show, 1997; Ellen, 1998; Stories From My Childhood (voice), 1998; Double Platinum (movie), 1999; The Sissy Duckling (movie; voice), 1999; X–Chromosome (voice), 1999; Common Ground (movie), 2000. Film appearances include: The Times of Harvey Milk (narrator), 1984; Garbo Talks, 1984; Torch Song Trilogy, 1988; The Harvest, 1993; Mrs. Doubtfire, 1993; Bullets Over Broadway, 1994; Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde, 1995; The Celluloid Closet, 1996; Everything Relative, 1996; Elmo Saves Christmas, 1996; White Lies, 1996; Independence
OBIE Award, Village Voice, for Torch Song Trilogy, 1982; George Oppenheimer–Newsday Playwriting Award for Torch Song Trilogy, 1982; Fund for Human Dignity Award, 1983; Theatre World Award for outstanding new performer, Torch Song Trilogy, 1983; Drama Desk Award for outstanding new play for Torch Song Trilogy, 1983; Drama Desk Award for outstanding actor in a play for Torch Song Trilogy, 1983; Tony Award for best play for Torch Song Trilogy, 1983; Tony Award for best performance by a leading actor in a play for Torch Song Trilogy, 1983; Tony Award for best book of a musical for La Cage Aux Folles, 1984; L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award for La Cage Aux Folles, 1984; Dramatists Guild Award for La Cage Aux Folles, 1984; Cable ACE Award for best writing in a special drama for Tidy Endings, 1989; GLAAD Award for Visibility, 1994; Humanitas Prize for children's animation for Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child for "The Sissy Duckling" episode, 2000; Tony Award for best performance by a leading actor in a musical for Hairspray, 2003; Drama Desk Award for outstanding actor in a musical, Hairspray, 2003; Drama League Award for distinguished performance for Hairspray, 2003.
As an actor and playwright, Harvey Fierstein has made a career of turning unconventional shows into Broadway sensations. Fierstein (pronounced Fire–steen) first rose to fame in the early 1980s with his smash play Torch Song Trilogy, for which he earned two Tony Awards in 1983, one for Best Actor and one for Best Play. The stage show, which Fierstein wrote and which featured him as a drag queen, was a breakthrough piece because it proved that a gay–themed show could turn a profit on Broadway. In 2002, Fierstein returned to Broadway and became the show–stopping centerpiece of Hairspray, winning another Tony Award. What made his comeback so remarkable was that he won the lead actor Tony Award for playing a woman. Furthermore, Fierstein holds the distinction of being only the second person in history to earn four Tony Awards in different categories.
The youngest of two sons born into a Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York, Fierstein attended the city's public schools. His father, Irving, was a handkerchief manufacturer and his mother, Jackie, stayed home to tend to the kids and the household. The future playwright took creative writing in high school but said he did not do well. What Fierstein did do well in high school was perform in drag. As a 270–pound teenager, Fierstein specialized in impersonations of the brassy–voiced Broadway musical comedy star Ethel Merman. He became a hit in some of New York's lesser–known clubs as he transformed himself into characters with names like Virginia Hamm, Kitty Litter, and Bertha Venation. "But I was living very much of a triple life," Fierstein told Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times. "I had my night life there, I was living at home with my parents in Bensonhurst, and like my mother says, 'Remember to say you were going to school full–time, too.'"
Despite the demands of his busy life, Fierstein made a name for himself and got his first break in 1971 when he was offered a role in Pork, one of pop icon Andy Warhol's few theater productions. The play, which featured Fierstein as an asthmatic lesbian, made its debut at New York's La Mama Experimental Theater Club in 1971. Soon, Fierstein was writing his own plays, inspired by other La Mama actors who wrote plays for Fierstein to perform. Fierstein returned the favor, writing his colleagues into his plays. Fierstein's first production was a play titled International Stud, which debuted at La Mama in 1972. The play featured a drag queen on a visit to a backroom bar. While the play was well–liked within the gay community, most people did not think Fierstein or his thought–provoking material would ever hit Broadway.
"I don't think I would ever have written again, except that the Village Voice sent a critic who called me the devil come to earth for writing this horrible thing," Fierstein told Peter Stone in an interview for Broadway Song & Story. "So I figured this is a talent I should work on."
Fierstein's parents, however, encouraged him to study art education, figuring it would provide a steady income. He enrolled at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, earning a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1973. Fierstein taught briefly, then returned to the theater and playwriting. Over the next several years, Fierstein continued writing, reworking, and performing his plays. In 1979, he penned and starred in two one–act plays, Fugue in a Nursery and Widows and Children First!. These would one day be combined with International Stud to form Torch Song Trilogy, a trio of amusing yet moving plays that dealt with contemporary gay life.
The main character in Torch Song Trilogy is Arnold Beckoff, a drag queen who yearns for an ordinary life. Arnold wants nothing more than to settle down, adopt a child, and live happily ever after and sees no reason his sexual orientation should hinder that goal. Fierstein, who is gay, acknowledges that some of the plot was inspired by his own life experiences. For instance, both Arnold and Fierstein had lovers who dumped them to get married. Both had friends who were battered and killed, had thought about adopting a child, and were close to their widowed mothers.
Torch Song debuted Off Off Broadway in 1981, featuring Fierstein in the role of Arnold, with John Glines as one of the producers. Glines thought the play would appeal to gay audiences but never figured it would have commercial potential. The play's initial run was scheduled to last eight weeks, but after two weeks, the producers wanted to close it down for lack of interest—and profit. Then came an upbeat review in the New York Times, which resulted in capacity crowds and a move to an Off Broadway theater, where it ran for five months before hitting Broadway in 1982. At every step, Fierstein continued in the part of Arnold, never seeming to wear out, even though the role required him to be on-stage for nearly all of the duration of the four–hour play, up to six performances a week. The hard work, however, paid off in the form of two Tony Awards in 1983, one for Best Play and one for Best Actor in a Play.
The success of Torch Song showed the world that gay–themed shows could be successful. Before Torch Song, playwrights shied away from dealing openly with homosexual characters. Instead, metaphors were used, or perhaps gays and lesbians were referenced indirectly. They were never, however, a significant and sympathetic character. Fierstein was successful because he was able to use laughter and dramatic truth to humanize drag queens, who most often had been portrayed as exotic divas or victims of circumstance. Through his carefully written words and acting, Fierstein made Arnold worthy of empathy from the audience.
Glines said he believed the play was a hit because everyone, gay or straight, could identify with Arnold, who wanted out of life what most people want: a job he liked pretty well, a comfortable life, and someone to share it with. Speaking to Leslie Bennetts of the New York Times, Glines put it this way: "What Harvey proved was that you could use a gay context and a gay experience and speak in universal truths."
Fierstein's success as a playwright prompted him to write a musical adaptation of La Cage Aux Folles, based on the French–Italian film and French play of the same name. Because Torch Song kept his schedule full, Fierstein did most of his writing on the subway, going to or from performances. La Cage Aux Folles opened at New York's Palace Theater in August of 1983 and ran for 1,761 performances, winning Fierstein another Tony Award, this one for Best Book of a Musical. Other plays followed, including Spookhouse, 1984, and Forget Him, 1988. In 1987, Fierstein produced Safe Sex, a set of three one–act plays on gay themes, though it opened and quickly folded. In 1988, he wrote the book for the Broadway musical Legs Diamond.
In 1988, Fierstein returned to the role of Arnold, turning the play into a film. After that, Fierstein quit drag. "I said, 'I've done that for a large part of my career and I do not need to do that anymore,'" he told the Baltimore Sun 's J. Wynn Rousuck. "Drag is a mask that you wear when you don't want people to see who you are."
Over the next several years, Fierstein appeared in some 30 films in supporting roles, including Mrs. Doubtfire, Independence Day, Playing Mona Lisa, and Duplex. He also starred on several television shows, including Miami Vice, Murder She Wrote, and The Larry Sanders Show . In 1992, he earned an Emmy nomination for his supporting role on the smash hit Cheers, playing Rebecca's lover. Fierstein also added his voice to many shows, including The Simpsons, where his distinctively gravelly voice became Homer's executive secretary in 1990–91. He also did the voice of Yao for Disney's animated film Mulan in 1998.
Fierstein returned to Broadway in 2002, accepting a part in the quirky musical Hairspray, based on John Waters' 1988 cult movie of the same name. Fierstein quickly became the star of the show in his role as Edna Turnblad, mother of the heroine, Tracy. The musical, which takes place in 1962 Baltimore, is about Tracy, a sizeable teen with large hair and big dreams. Though Fierstein was once again donning dresses on Broadway, this time he was not playing a drag queen; rather, he was playing a real woman. Director Jack O'Brien told the Baltimore Sun that Fierstein was so good that the audience readily accepted him as a woman. "I contend that there are certain factions of our audiences who totally believe that he is Edna.… They accept that relationship of being mother–daughter."
For Fierstein, playing Turnblad was a grueling experience. His performance–night dressing ritual included more than 90 minutes of shaving, make–up application, and body wrapping for womanly curves. In addition, he attached bouffant wigs and 35–pound breasts, then stepped onto the stage to sing and dance, though he had never been in a musical before. So brilliant was his performance that he captured his fourth Tony Award in 2003, for Best Actor in a Musical. The musical itself won eight Tonys, including Best Musical. Hairspray itself was an unlikely candidate for a Broadway hit, but the cast pulled it off, garnering rave reviews from the New York Times and New Yorker. The show, which cost $10.5 million to produce, turned a profit after only nine months due to the sellout crowds.
As a gay activist, Fierstein realizes that he must be sensitive to the roles he takes because they will influence people's opinions about gay people. As he told Scottie Campbell in an interview for Watermark posted on Walt Disney World's Gayday 2004 website, "There are times when I don't take roles because I don't want to be perceived a certain way. For example, I was offered the role as the monster in Stephen King's It —a clown who ate children. I wouldn't do it. Even though it was a great role, I felt that I didn't want to be perceived in that way because of the horrible lie that gay people want children. I wasn't even going to put that in the back of people's minds."
Over the years, Fierstein has been a vocal gay–rights activist, speaking out for gay people, queer theater, and AIDS causes. He has been a spokesman for the Services Legal Defense Fund, a group that advocates for the rights of gays and lesbians in the military. As far as his legacy is concerned, Fierstein told Campbell: "Time will tell us what we did and didn't do. The way that I look at it, the only thing that I will definitely take credit for is that Torch Song and La Cage Aux Folles —two of my shows—were the first ever gay–themed shows to make money on Broadway. And I think that counts more than anything."
International Stud (play), 1972.
In Search of the Cobra Jewels (play), 1973.
Feaky Pussy (play), 1975.
Flatbush Tosca (play), 1976.
Cannibals Just Don't Know Better (play), 1978.
Fugue in a Nursery (play), 1979.
Widows and Children First! (play), 1979.
Torch Song Trilogy (play), 1981.
La Cage Aux Folles (musical), 1983.
Spookhouse (play), 1984.
Safe Sex (play), 1987.
Forget Him (play), 1988.
Legs Diamond (play), 1988.
Botto, Louis, At This Theatre: 100 Years of Broadway Shows, Stories and Stars, Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, 2002.
Guernsey, Otis L., Jr., ed., Broadway Song & Story, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1985.
New York Times, July 14, 1982, p. C17; June 26, 1983.
Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), August 11, 2002, p. 3E; June 9, 2003, p. 1A.
USA Today, September 5, 2002, p. 2D.
"Color Me Harvey," Gayday 2004, http://www.gayday.com/news/2000/watermark_000525b.asp (November 14, 2003).
"Harvey Fierstein," E! Online, http://www.eonline.com/facts/people/0,12,5340,00.html?celfact2 (November 10, 2003).
— Lisa Frick
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