Harvey Fierstein, the Gay Torchbearer, Could Be Queen of the Tonys

UPDATED 06/06/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/06/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT

A beefy man in an embroidered turquoise kimono adjusts a pair of falsies and addresses the audience. "There are easier things in this life than being a drag queen, " he says plaintively. "But I ain't got no choice. Try as I may, I just can't walk in flats."

Suddenly, an outraged whisper from the third row. "Whadidya bring me to see a show about a queer for?" a middle-aged man hisses to his wife. He ain't seen nothin' yet. Three scenes later, the drag queen has changed into denims and is simulating having sex in the back room of a gay bar. Shocking? Yes, but the show is sassy, sweet and moving too. By the end of this three-hour-and-40-minute Broadway spectacle, the stunned couple in the third row are standing and cheering with the rest of the audience.

Torch Song Trilogy has a way of doing that to even the most skeptical crowds, gay or straight. No one is more astonished than playwright Harvey Fierstein, 28, who also happens to be the show's vampish leading man/leading lady. Last year Fierstein had slim hopes for his play about a Jewish homosexual who works as a female impersonator and aspires to middle-class domesticity as the parent of an adopted gay teenager. When Torch Song moved to Broadway last June after a five-month off-Broadway run, even Fierstein admits, "I thought it would close."

Instead, the critics and public embraced it. Next Sunday TV viewers just might see Harvey pick up two Tony awards—one for Best Actor, the other for Best Play. Fierstein's hottest competition and his biggest booster is Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha ('Night, Mother) Norman, who ranks Torch Song with Thornton Wilder's Our Town and the dramas of Sophocles. Harvey's world, admits Norman, is one she knows nothing about. "But the play," she says, "gave me a sense of privilege about having been given that information."

Fierstein's twin Tony nominations are appropriate, since he and his significantly autobiographical play are irrevocably intertwined. Like Arnold Beckoff, his character in Torch Song, Fierstein rasps in a voice that sounds like a cross between Tallulah Bankhead and a malfunctioning Cuisinart. "It's the family voice. My father had it too," Harvey explains. Fierstein also worked as a drag queen and prowled Manhattan's gay bars. "I've been in love with 100 men and slept with a few thousand," he says. "Now I look back upon that as promiscuous and very stupid." One of Fierstein's true loves was a bisexual schoolteacher who left him to marry a woman, a situation that parallels one in the play.

Fierstein's unlikely roots were in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, which was the home of Jackie Gleason's The Honeymooners. Harvey, the son of a handkerchief manufacturer, learned early on that his sexual yearnings were light-years removed from Ralph Kramden's. "I had a crush on another boy at age 6," he recalls. "By 13, I had begun the search for the perfect man." By the time he was 16, he recalls, his worried father was offering to buy him a prostitute. "I said, 'No, thanks,' " Harvey remembers. Ultimately his parents proved stoical. "If they screamed and cried 'Where did we go wrong?' they did it in private," says Fierstein.

Nor did they try to stop Fierstein's blossoming career as a drag queen in Greenwich Village or his forays into acting off-Broadway. By 1973, the same year Harvey earned his degree in fine arts from Brooklyn's Pratt Institute, he had graduated to writing plays like Flatbush Tosca, about an Italian drag queen diva. Torch Song, by far Fierstein's most impressive effort, was an emotionally intense labor of three years.

Humor appears to be Fierstein's chief defense against hurt. When his mother calls his Torch Song role merely "a creation," Harvey blithely chirps, "Isn't Mama wonderful." Now hell-bent on middle-class gay respectability, Fierstein just bought an apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which he shares with his dogs, Bubie and George ("both female," he reports). His new lover, an actor and writer, doesn't live in. "I like my privacy," Harvey explains.

In his more reclusive moments, Fierstein has written the book of a new musical version of the popular movie La Cage aux Folles, which will begin a pre-Broadway run in Boston this month. His new play, Spookhouse, about the effect of a gay social worker on a desolate family, is scheduled to debut off-Broadway this fall. "Yeah, I guess I'm tagged as a gay playwright and gay actor," Fierstein reflects. "But it doesn't bother me." Even if it did, he wouldn't let it show. "Oh, I guess I could play King Lear," he says loftily, "but I'd rather play Lady Macbeth."

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