Harvey Fierstein and Moisés Kaufman on the Eternal Message of ‘Torch Song’

Harvey Fierstein and Moisés Kaufman on the Eternal Message of ‘Torch Song’

December 9, 2018

Over 40 years ago, Harvey Fierstein did something that seemed impossible. He shared a story of a gay man, a drag queen, who was looking for love and a “normal” life. His three plays, originally called Torch Song Trilogy, ended up being produced on Broadway and earned him Tonys for Best Actor and Best Play in 1983, beating out Marsha Norman’s ‘Night, Mother.

The original production closed on Broadway in May 1985 and was was later made into a movie, which also starred Matthew Broderick. Last year, Torch Song was revived (with a truncated title and running time) Off-Broadway, starring Michael Urie in the lead role and Mercedes Ruhl as his mother under the direction of Moisés Kaufman — known for “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” and “The Laramie Project” — before it transferred to Broadway this fall. Its message of love and acceptance has resonated with a contemporary audience in ways that have felt shockingly relevant.

“When I first wrote the plays, especially that second act, basically I just wanted to say, ‘I don’t care if you’re gay, you’re straight, whatever. Relationships are difficult,” Fierstein says. “They’re all the same, and it doesn’t matter if it’s two women together, two men together, a man and a woman, a younger man, an older one, it doesn’t matter! They’re difficult! Two people coming together are always difficult, and it’s always interesting. It’s always worthwhile is the other thing that I wanted to say. You grow by opening yourself up to other people.”

Torch Song is set to close on January 6th, 2019 and it will kickoff a national tour later next year. Rolling Stone spoke with Fierstein and Kaufman, about why the play has such profound resonance — the same year that pre-Stonewall play Boys in the Band and Tony Kushner’s masterpiece, Angels in America, were also revived on Broadway.

Is Torch Song a history play and what do you both think it means to have it in front of a new audience, a young audience, with people discovering it for the first time?
Harvey Fierstein: Well it’s not a history play, obviously, because it’s about human beings, and human beings don’t change. It’s about family, and family dynamics don’t change. Somebody wrote that, of course, these days mothers and their gay sons get along very well, and I look and see that there’s this movie opening called Boy Erased [about gay conversion therapy], and I said “Oh yeah, Torch Song’s really, really old fashioned.” As long as there are parents who look at their own babies and dream of what that child will be — whether it’s gay or a dancer or a crook — children don’t grow up to what the parents want them to grow up to. That’s just the way it is with parents and children. So no, there’s nothing about Torch Song that doesn’t exist in everyday life as far as that goes. As far as relationships go, it’s a play about relationships. Moises, take it away!

Moises Kaufman: I think one of the things that we have witnessed in the audiences is that, especially for the younger generation, this play speaks to them incredibly loudly. I’ve had young people say, “That’s my mother,” or, “This is my boyfriend.” I think one of the things that all the members of the LGBT community have in common is that there comes a time in life when you have to tell someone, and that encounter of your innermost identity with the world at large is always ripe with conflict — even when it goes perfectly well. The great thing about this play for me is that it’s the true biography of one man’s search for himself. Yes, he’s gay, but he’s trying to figure out how to live the life that most closely resembles what he imagines. I think it’s a very personal and emotional play, and I think that’s why it resonates, because Harvey found this incredible depth and truth in human nature and how we confront growing up and becoming who we are.

Michael Urie stars as Arnold. How is it having a younger person inhabit a role that you defined, Harvey? And Moises, what was it like working with Michael?
Kaufman: The wonderful thing about working with Michael is that he’s very, very open. I think we were all exhilarated to be able to tackle this text, but we were also terrified because we all loved this play so much. I know I felt that pressure, and for Michael it was double pressure because we were doing this play but he was also taking this very iconic role that Harvey had made his own. I think that Michael approached it with a great deal of humility and a great deal of curiosity, and I think that those two qualities are the things that made it possible for him to do such a beautiful job.

Harvey said a brilliant thing at the beginning of rehearsal. “I wrote this play. I acted on it for four years. I know every answer. I know everything, but I’ll only tell you guys if you ask.” That was such an act of generosity on his part because it allowed us to have our own conversation with the text.

Fierstein: And I wanted him to own the role! You have to own the role! I like acting in other people’s plays much more than I like acting in my own. I want to get into somebody else’s head, and I want someone else to get into my head that way. I played the role for a long time. I finished the backroom scene in 1975! I played Arnold from 1975 until I made the movie in ’86. It’s been 200 years since then, but in that time, I’ve watched so many actors ’cause I’ve had understudies. There were tours of the show; we did it in London; we’ve done it in other countries. I’ve seen lots and lots of Arnolds, and it delights me to see people do it well. It bothers me to see people do it badly, but I feel badly for them because I know what that role can do for you if you’re doing it right onstage. I’ll tell you, the biggest problem is that a lot of guys in their fifties and sixties finally get brave enough to play Arnold, but it’s young man’s role. I’m sorry it took you that long to come out of the closet but, honey, go find something else to do. I’ve actually said that to actors who’ve said to me, “I want to play Arnold,” and I say go do Staircase instead.

One question many people have asked me is about the references to body size and Michael is obviously—
Fierstein: You know, I’m going to stop this right now because I had heard people say that! I heard several people say that there’s stuff about him being fat. First of all, when I played the role, look at the photographs! I was not fat! I’ve gotten fat, but look at the photographs. I wasn’t! The only remarks are: “You’ve lost a little weight, I see!” Now what gay man doesn’t say that to another gay men?

But isn’t there a reference to being a mountain, mountain of a man or something like that?
Fierstein: No, no, no! Mountain beautiful, not like pretty beautiful, like mountain beautiful. Towering beautiful! Like if I had written skyscraper beautiful instead, it didn’t mean mountain like it’s a big lump of fat!

Alright we’re going to clear this up then!
Fierstein: I mean, that is the dumbest thing! I do know that was said in several of the reviews and I said this shows you how stupid people can be! But also, I read in one review that in this version I cut out Alan being killed, but that’s in the movie, you asshole! It’s not in the play! So people can be a little silly, but I want to end that right now. Arnold never had to be fat, never was fat, and if you’re fat, you probably shouldn’t be playing it because you take up too much room in the bed. 

What about how drag has changed? Back in the day, it seemed like this exotic fringe thing and now people have it in their living rooms and women are obsessed with drag queens. It’s become part of their daily routine. What did you guys discuss or think about that and how that’s changed over the years?
Fierstein: It’s still a way to hide yourself. Drag is still armor. I started with Andy Warhol, so my friends were Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling and Marsha Johnson — those are my friends that I grew up with. They’re the people who raised me, and they used it as a shield against the world. Of course it has to do with sexuality; it has to do with gender, your gender warriors and all that, but it also is the greatest shield. No one can see beyond this fabulous mask, and if you ask a drag queen now, they would tell you the same. That hasn’t changed. The acceptance of it has like anything in fashion ’cause drag queens were really big in the 1920s and 30s. They didn’t have their own TV show but we didn’t have TVs!

Kaufman: You look at RuPaul’s Drag Race, that kind of drag queen is very very different from what Harvey and what other drag queens were doing back in the ‘70s. It was much more, Harvey correct me if I’m wrong, but it was much more crude and much more raw. I think that, now, it’s become so commercialized, so acceptable. I think one of the things that Michael and I talked a lot about was that there was a very subversive element in doing drag back then and now it has become part of the mainstream. It has lost some of that. 

Fierstein: We would leave La MaMa in 1971 and walk down the street — go from the East Village to the West Village — and you could be arrested if a cop was in the mood for just having eyeliner. We would take off our makeup, but there was always some stain on your lips and some black around your eyes and you could be arrested for that. That’s where I came up with that thing in La Cage Aux Folles where you’re allowed to perform as a woman but at the end you must take off your wig and show the audience that you’re a man. I was arrested in Montreal when I was a kid for performing and I used my own hair — I had long hair — and they told me, “You have to take off your wig.” I said, “I’m not wearing a wig!”

The idea that the plays are about discovering how people love still feels revolutionary.
Fierstein: It’s just as basic as that. How do we relate to other people? Fugue in the Nursery takes place in a giant bed because, in the long run, you act all grown up and sophisticated, like, “Oh, look at us! We have sex and we have boyfriends and girlfriends and all that,” and still, they’re a bunch of babies. They don’t know anything. Just because you complete a certain age doesn’t mean you have any sort of emotional or sexual maturity, and the four of them are just crawling around, trying to make-believe they’re grown up and they don’t know — because relationships are hard.

Mercedes Ruehl and Michael Urie in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song.

Some people may not realize that 40 years ago, when the plays are set, when you told somebody you were gay they automatically thought you’re going to be alone, said — that you’re not going to have a life. Torch Song was a milestone for explaining that gay men can love each other. Is that true?
Fierstein: It was not the world I grew up in. Look, I was a painting student from like seve or eight years old, so I was always shoved into an art world. But, when I was 13 or 14, I joined with a bunch of adults and created a community theater. I became a founding member of this community theater called the Gallery Players [in Park Slope, Brooklyn], which actually still exists, and it was run by a man named Bruce Wyatt and his lover Bud Sherman. So the very first gay couple I knew was a couple that had been together for thirty-something years! I didn’t know all this other bullshit until I was older and actually went out into the world and found out, “Oh you’re supposed to be sad!”  

Kaufman: I had a very different experience; I grew up in a very orthodox Jewish home in Venezuela, inside a very Catholic and machista country. There was no representation for gays in any media that I was consuming so, for the longest time, I thought I was the only gay man in the world. When I finally found the word “homosexual” in the dictionary, I thought “Oh my god, that’s wonderful! There must be one other person that’s gay!” because there’s a word for it. Finally, when I was in my teens and I started hearing about “gay,” it was always in a very pejorative, demeaning manner. The first gay person that I met in the real world was an old transvestite prostitute who used to always work one specific corner in Caracas. I didn’t have any role models to identify with, and one of the things that happened when I first saw Torch Song is that it profoundly changed me because, on that stage, there are so many representations of gay man and how all the kinds of gay man that you can see. You can be a drag queen; you can be a gay kid; you can be a gay model; you can be a confused gay person. I remember sitting in the theater and having a real cathartic experience thinking, “Oh my god, my life may be possible! There may be a way in which I can survive!” I thought was the greatest malady I had been cursed with. So, for me, the play really did exactly what you’re talking about and, furthermore, it said theater can be a platform where you can have the most beautiful illuminating art but also an art that addresses contemporary life and the intersection of the political and the personal. A lot of my work, like The Laramie Project, I learned from Harvey! I send him royalty checks every month. [Laughs]

Both The Boys in the Band and Angels in America were both produced this year as well. Does that feel significant?
Fierstein: Joe Mantello, who directed Boys in the Band, and I are friends and we talked a lot about what we wanted out of these revivals. I’m just a radical, an old leftie, so what I really wanted was a festival. Instead of doing just these three, what if we could do Staircase, The Haunted Host, if we could do Tea and Sympathy and The Children’s Hour and really show our battle out of the closet and into the world. It’s almost as if someone said gay people were invented in 1969. It’s not true! We’ve been there. We’ve been part of it. I think that’s a wonderful thing that there were those three productions this year, don’t you think Moises?

Kaufman: I do! I also think that it gives us the opportunity, since, for the longest time, a gay play was a gay play. Now, we’re able to look at these pieces of writing and evaluate them in their own merit and say, “OK, Torch Song, for a long time people thought it was an issue play. No, it’s not an issue play, it’s a magnificent piece of writing that deserves its kind amongst the great American plays!” I think that’s what excites me about this revisiting of these classics is you can really see them in the context of great American plays. Not only great gay American plays, just great American plays. I would venture to say that Arnold’s pursuit in his life is a very American pursuit. 

I agree, and in some ways Torch Song had a lot to do with that. I was looking back at old reviews, and there was this idea that this was a gay play that you could take your mother or grandmother to, which I guess Harvey you actually had that experience?
Fierstein: My mother took my grandmother to the show, but she brought her after act one because she thought maybe she shouldn’t see the backroom scene. At the end of act two, my grandmother turned to my mother and said “Is he a homosexual?” and my mother looked at her and said, “Do I sleep with him?”

These plays do allow people to have access to a world that may seem foreign or terrifying to them. The play does allow people to feel like, “Oh I’ve learned something and it’s OK for me to have this knowledge. It doesn’t make me gay.”
Fierstein: Yes, if it worked that way then obviously every gay person would be heterosexual — because that’s all we ever got to see!

The plays address marriage, adoption and other topics that seemed impossible 40 years ago. Are either of you surprised that we’ve gotten to this point? Next year is going to be the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising and we’re having World Pride in New York City in June. Does it seem like there’s something significant that’s changed in a lot of people’s worldview?
Kaufman: I always thought that Harvey was a visionary, and he kind of saw into the future, and that play prophesied the next 35 years of a movement. In his play, he saw gay marriage. He saw adoption. He even articulated about hate crimes, major points we’re dealing with in the last 30 years of our movement. So what I would say is that there are great artists that can not only visualize the future, but they have the rest of us create it. There’s a way in which you can say we could have gay marriage because we saw that on the stage first. We saw a loving couple that was about to become, for all intents and purposes, married! In the movie, there is a wedding ceremony between Arnold and Alan, so I think Harvey envisioned all of this and I think then by putting it on the stage, he allowed us to see it. That’s one of the things that great theater does for us..

Fierstein: You know, my feelings has always been we are all brought up in the same homes. Some of us have good homes, some of us have bad homes when we’re brought up, but gay or straight children are brought up in the same homes. My brother and I are a year-and-a-half apart; we had the same parents, and I grew up gay and he grew up straight and neither one of us had a problem with it. He grew up wanting to get married and have children, and I guess I did too — and why wouldn’t I? That’s what we were taught as children! That’s what a home meant. I was more shocked when I came out into the world and I found out that these things weren’t possible. Now, did I change my mind? Life changes your mind about what you want, but what I always felt was important — especially being an American — is if one citizen has the right to do it, then all citizens have the right to do it. If you have the right to get married, then I want the right to get married. Doesn’t mean I have to get married. If you have the right to have children, I want the right to have children. We are Americans. Our rights are shared with all of us, and I always think of that as the great American ideal.

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