Harvey Fierstein on Broadway’s ‘Horrifying’ Shutdown, Writing His Memoir—and ‘Gentleman Callers’
Harvey Fierstein tells Tim Teeman about Broadway’s “horrifying” shutdown, why writing his memoir reminds him of 12-step, how he put Bella Abzug on stage, and embracing casual sex.
The writer and actor Harvey Fierstein said he would ring me, not me him. He doesn’t give his number out, he said. “Everyone dials me every minute. I don’t answer the phone anymore, do you?” he asked, in that distinctive Fierstein brogue—when it’s joking or chatting, it’s like sandpaper you want to hug. In anger, it’s like a buzzsaw that could scythe you at a hundred feet.
His phone system recognizes and announces names, so Fierstein can screen who gets through to him at home in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where he has lived for 35 years. Or as he calls it: a “small fictional town.”
There are never nice surprises by phone these days, Fierstein noted. “It’s all, ‘We have noticed you have done this or that thing,’ or ‘Your credit score has gone down. We can help you with that.’”
Fierstein, 66, is celebrating the completion of one of his lockdown projects, the release of the Audible version of Bella Bella. His 90-minute self-performed monologue about iconic New York politician Bella Abzug was mounted at the end of last year by Manhattan Theatre Club before New York’s theaters went dark because of the pandemic. He reveals to The Daily Beast that he has just begun writing his memoir.
Fierstein’s career spans acting and writing, and a long-standing advocacy for LGBTQ equality. He won two Tony Awards in 1983 for Best Actor and Best Play, for writing and playing Arnold in the original Broadway production of Torch Song Trilogy—which later went on to become a 1988 movie starring Fierstein, Anne Bancroft, and Matthew Broderick.
Fierstein wrote the book for La Cage aux Folles, for which he won another Tony for Best Book of a Musical in 1984. Playing Robin Williams’ gay brother in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)—alongside Scott Capurro as his boyfriend—brought Fierstein mainstream fame.
In 2003, he won Best Actor in a Musical for playing Edna Turnblad in Hairspray, and wrote the books for Newsies (which brought another Tony nomination in 2012) and the Tony-winning Kinky Boots (for which he was Tony-nominated in 2013). He was nominated for the Best Play Tony in 2014 for Casa Valentina.
Lockdown has not changed Fierstein’s living circumstances much. “I am a hermit by nature, so this is my natural habitat. As far as my lifestyle goes, nothing much has changed. Unless I am acting, I write, and you can’t write with people, so you’re usually alone. I’ve got my dogs and my peace and quiet. If you’re going to type for a living, you might as well wake up in a pretty place and type looking out at trees and stuff.”
“It’s just the productions and acting stuff I miss,” Fierstein said. “And emotionally, of course, I am absolutely brokenhearted by what has happened to the theater. I am just so fucking worried about everyone I know. That part’s horrible.”
The Broadway shutdown is “horrifying,” said Fierstein. He is grateful that actor Nick Westrate recently wrote a widely shared article in The Daily Beast about the need for government intervention to help theater and theater workers.
“People hear ‘Broadway’ and think stars, chorus people, maybe stagehands, but never the dry cleaners, or people who provide the booze for the bar, who make the key chains and T-shirts. Just a few days ago, CAA let go of 90 agents and 275 support staff. Three hundred sixty-five people just lost their way to make a living, just on that one day. More money is brought in by Broadway ticket sales than all the sports teams put together, yet we are given no support. How many theater pages do see in your newspaper? Yet you’ve got all these sports pages.
“Even supposedly liberal comedians like Bill Maher don’t want the government to give money to the arts. It’s so small-minded. Even in our own community, people have no idea what the arts do for everything else and how much the arts are part of the community. If you opened New York City tomorrow without theaters and museums, who’s going to come?”
“I just don’t seem to pick men very well, so it’s a lot easier to have casual sex... I have gentleman callers!”
Fierstein grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, bequeathed that voice by biology. He told 48 Hours in 2018: “I have double cords. We all have double cords. You have your real vocal cord, and then you have the false cord over. My false cords are overdeveloped. And so a ‘double voice’ is actually what you hear.”
He recalled to The Daily Beast growing up around kids who rarely went into New York, even though it was 15 minutes away on the subway. He notes how rarely New Yorkers go to the Empire State Building. He loves the city, “but like everything else, you get so used to it, you don’t see it anymore. Before the pandemic, going to the city—from here—felt new and exciting every time, just like a school trip.”
So, as he types away, it’s just him and his social media-star dogs, Lola, 12, and Charlie, 14 months (“120 pounds and still growing”), named after characters from Kinky Boots. He doesn’t have a partner. “Some people are just not good at it. I’m just not good at it. I’ve been there, done that, and that’s fine. I’m fine with my friends.”
Does he want another relationship? “You go through periods of your life where you try out different things and see what works for you and what doesn’t. I just don’t seem to pick men very well, so it’s a lot easier to have casual sex and casual relationships—and so I prefer it this way.” He paused, and said brightly, “I have gentleman callers!”
So the hook-ups are plentiful in rural Connecticut? “It’s all happening,” said Fierstein, recalling Andy Cohen praising “glory holes”—used in restrooms and gay saunas for anonymous sex—on a recent episode of Watch What Happens Live, as a safe and effective method of having sex in pandemic era. “I said, ‘OK, that hasn’t hit rural Connecticut yet,’” laughed Fierstein.
Maybe he could introduce them?
“Well, I don’t know. I come from the time of backrooms [the dark rooms of clubs where men had sex with one another]. We were the pre-AIDS generation. It was a little different from this generation. There’s a line in [his trilogy of one-act plays] Safe Sex (1987), when the character is talking about life before AIDS and life during and after AIDS: ‘We were gay, now we’re human.’ Back then, we had a whole secret society, a hidden city within a society that straight people knew nothing about. You know, creeping around, doing our own thing in secret. Now we’re not.”
The first time Fierstein was shocked by this was in Dublin, while touring his one-man show around the world. He asked to go to a gay bar and was told the bar scene was mixed now.
Torch Song Trilogy was radical on both stage and screen in the themes and relationships it portrayed. Fierstein has seen a huge sweep of LGBTQ history, this reporter said.
“I didn’t see it, cookie, I was there,” Fierstein shot back. “It’s truly shocking in some ways. We made progress I never thought we would make, and in other ways we’ve gone nowhere. The great part is you can’t go backwards, no matter what Trump and his idiots say about making America great again. There’s no such thing as ‘again.’ You may not taste all the progress you make, something else may go wrong, but we are always moving forward. It’s fascinating.”
Fierstein “arrived in the gay movement” as a teenager. The first gay couple he knew—from the community theater he attended—had been together for 35 years. He grew up thinking LGBTQ people were in relationships, not going out to bars, cruising. That reminded me of the very funny first sequence of Torch Song Trilogy, as Arnold tries to get into the horny mood of a dimly lit backroom.
“I’m not Arnold, let me make that clear,” said Fierstein. “I wrote all the characters in Torch Song. They all represent parts of me. Don’t ask me questions about Arnold. I didn’t collect rabbits.”
Was Arnold’s mother like his?
Fierstein sighed. “Let me clear this up. For 100 years now, I fought not to write a memoir. I had no interest in doing so, but because of this pandemic—and because I cleared my desk of all the other work that had to get done—my agent talked me into at least trying.” He doesn’t want to tell me anything, he says, because he wants to write it all down for himself.
“This interview is bad timing,” Fierstein said dolefully. “It’s like you and me met on an airplane, fell in love, but our husbands are waiting for us at the airport.” (With lines like that, we can anticipate the memoir with optimism.)
Fierstein defied his own prohibition and continued talking—candidly. He started writing the memoir after finishing a new musical with his writing partners. He has adapted “something else.” He is readying two productions of La Cage aux Folles to open post-pandemic. He wrote two sitcoms. And he recorded Bella Bella. “I finished all my work. I was good boy. I didn’t go for dessert until I had finished my meal. I ate all my vegetables, mommy.” And so now, he feels able to grapple with his memoir.
“I’ve been sober for 24 years now, and in 12-step programs they have a saying: ‘Look back, but don’t stare,’” Fierstein said.
“I almost died,” he told 48 Hours of his drinking. “That’s how you come out of those periods. You hit bottom. And then you say, ‘OK, my choices led me here. I can no longer be in charge. I’m not good at this.’”
“When you do a 12-step program, you take a self-inventory,” he told The Daily Beast. “You go back through stuff. The idea is you deal with the crap that makes you drink. So, all the excuses are gone, you go through that making amends. Once you go through that, the advice is when you remember the old days, you should look back but don’t stare.”
This was on his mind when we spoke because he was in the second week of writing his memoir. “Everything feels incredibly alive. I keep making notes in the preface. It’s amazing what hurt can still draw blood, but the triumphs and happiness are duller in the memory.”
For him, pain is more memorable than happiness?
“It is. Is that why we don’t put our hand in the fire? Is that built into us, so you don’t hurt yourself—or is it just part of the artist’s personality? I don’t know a single actor who can’t recite you all their bad reviews. But if you ask them about their rave reviews, they can’t tell you any. Is that part of the ego or just part of us as human beings?”
This he supposes he will answer in the process of marshaling his memoir. “I write because I find the human experience so incredibly interesting.”
For example, Fierstein based Casa Valentina—about men who dressed as women in a Catskills resort—on the town where his father grew up and where such a building existed.
“My brother and I would watch men on the lawn in their dresses, and across the street there was a nudist colony.” As an adult, Fierstein researched those men’s lives and read their writing. “Writing Casa Valentina was such a fucking joy just to learn about people I had no idea about. What their thinking was was fascinating to me.”
When it comes to acting, Fierstein loves playing characters that are nothing like him.
“When I was putting Edna together for Hairspray, I used to follow obese women around the mall. I wanted to get how they walked, how they looked at themselves when they passed a mirror. I wanted those details. That’s what makes this artifice of an actor into a reality.”
Fierstein says he is “not one of those driven people.” He writes for a couple of hours a day, not eight. “I don’t know if I have the discipline for it. I make quilts.”
A former art school student, Fierstein says he doesn’t paint anymore. “I was not good enough to be a wonderful artist, and to be a ‘Sunday artist’ you give the painting to friends and they say, ‘Ooohh, thank you,’ and to themselves, ‘What the fuck are we going to do with this? When he comes over for dinner we better hang it.’ I do have artist friends who have given me a piece, and I’ve gone, ‘Oh my God.’ So I don’t do that anymore.”
Fierstein’s father worked as a manager in a handkerchief factory and taught him to sew, and how to use a sewing machine.
Fierstein started making quilts 20 years ago, inspired by the quilting shows on HGTV before it became as dominated by makeover shows as it is now. “I make king-size ones. I usually get one quilt done a year, but in lockdown I’ve actually finished seven quilts. I can sit for a long time and quilt.” It’s “mindless” in that Fierstein’s mind can switch to solving other problems as he stitches, so much so that he can lose himself for six hours.
He gives the quilts away and enjoys coming up with colors, patterns, and fabrics. A favorite is one he just completed in black, white, and lavender. “I’m calling it, ‘I’m sure we can refinish those floors, honey.’ It reminds me of an old house’s parquet floors with mismatched tiles.”
He loves how versatile quilts can be. “When you give someone a quilt and they love it it’s wonderful. But if they hate it, the dog can sleep on it,” said Fierstein. “If you need to transport a dining table, you can wrap a quilt around it. You can cuddle up on the couch wrapped in a quilt. You can drop food on them.”
“There was this communal, ceremonial feeling of bringing Bella back. It was as if I was writing Hamilton and had Hamilton in the room.”
Bella Bella is set in 1976, on the eve of Abzug’s bid to become New York state’s first female senator. Fierstein said he was fortunate to have performed the play before the pandemic. Other offers would have meant the play being in rehearsal or opening when the pandemic had begun.
“I don’t read reviews,” he said. “If it’s a great review, it’s on the front of the theater. If it’s a bad review, all your friends call and tell you: ‘Honey, what they said about you is so mean.’”
Fierstein said he had seen this reporter’s review, in which I wrote that his performance was “excellent,” “intelligent,” and “restrained”—and that the play would have been benefited by being performed by a woman.
“Let me explain why it was never my intention to play the role,” said Fierstein, echoing my cavil with his play. He approached a group of actresses to play the role who all had their reasons not to do it, he said. “Bette Midler told me she was playing Bella in a movie Julie Taymor was making (The Glorias, about Gloria Steinem). Margo Martindale was about to play Bella in Mrs. America. Patti LuPone would have done the play, but Company came along.”
Fierstein said he had “no theater, no producer, and no actor.” His agent suggested they do two readings of the 90-minute monologue at CAA’s offices in the Chrysler Building, invite some movers and shakers, and see if any ideas emerged from that.
“We got an offer for Broadway if we could get a star, and eight or nine offers from festivals,” said Fierstein, for whom time was of the essence. He wanted to create a “concert version” of the play that could be performed by anyone as fundraisers for women running for office. He was thinking of performers like Shirley MacLaine, Marlo Thomas, Gloria Steinem, and Lily Tomlin, who were also friends of Abzug’s.
At the readings, people suggested to Fierstein he should do it himself. Initially he recoiled at the idea of putting on a dress and wig for it. He was already self-conscious “as a male writer shoving words into a woman’s mouth. I’m still doing exactly what Bella was fighting against—artifice. It didn’t feel right. Here’s a feminist woman who was going through my filter as a male writer. It was the most un-feminist thing I could do.”
Once Fierstein made the decision to perform the piece, it felt right not to do it in drag, especially as “how anti-feminist it is anyway to suggest a woman must wear a dress and lipstick to be a person.”
Instead, he wore all black and wanted an all-female team—including director Kimberly Senior—“who could tell me when I was going wrong. I tried to lose my testosterone at the door. Even if I hadn’t, it got roughed out of me.”
At one “incredible” open rehearsal, Lily Tomlin, Jane Wagner, Gloria Steinem, Harold Holzer, Abzug’s former press secretary, and Abzug’s daughters, Eve and Liz, watched the play and told Fierstein what rang true and what did not.
“There was this communal, ceremonial feeling of bringing Bella back,” said Fierstein. “It was as if I was writing Hamilton and had Hamilton in the room. I was talking about Gloria Steinem, and she was sitting in front of me, saying, ‘That’s true, that’s not true,’ like at the end of the play when Bella is talking about the way women vote the way their husbands vote, and Gloria stood up and said, ‘No, white women vote that way in representing their interests. Black women voted for Bella.”
Fierstein said male critics “couldn’t get beyond the fact I wasn’t wearing a dress and heels.” This isn’t true, I tell him. This reviewer just thought it would be great to see a woman perform it.
“If a woman was doing it, it would be just another performance by a woman. Margo Martindale got an Emmy nomination for her performance as Bella in Mrs. America. Honesty was what I was going for. Women had no problem picking up on that.”
Fierstein’s earlier point about bad reviews is proven. He has ignored the positive aspects of my review and focused on its one querying—far from condemning—point.
Fierstein knew Abzug as a politician and congresswoman, “and leader of women’s rights,” not friend. There is a photograph of him with Abzug, alongside Jesse Jackson and Patti LaBelle.
“She was wrong about a lot of stuff, but show me someone who isn’t?” said Fierstein. “The funny thing when you’re playing a person and you’re the only person in the room is you can’t have a lot of other opinions. If you’re writing two characters, someone can disagree with you. It’s very hard to disagree with yourself. But I did my best with things like ‘This friend said.’
“Shirley MacLaine said if Bella hadn’t run for Congress she could have been the first woman president. I said that to Harold, and he just laughed and said ‘Absolutely not. She was just too fucking radical, and she knew she was too radical for mainstream politics. She was not a woman who went along with anything.’ Harold said she really was a Pollyanna who believed the sun would come out tomorrow and that life would be good. Nothing really got her down. Stuff made her angry, or take action, but she never lost hope.”
The intimate nature of the theater meant Fierstein could see every audience member’s face, which made it more powerful to perform. “I wanted the audience to know, ‘There is nothing artificial here. This is a man wearing men’s clothes saying real words about a real person. You and me, we, are really sharing this moment together.’ The moment Bella lost the election was devastating to play, and to see the looks on people’s faces I could see it devastated them. Truly, it was one of the most remarkable theatrical experiences of my life.”
“I think Bella lived her life her way,” said Fierstein. “She had a fabulous husband, Martin, who kept her going. I don’t think she was happy when she lost Martin,” who died of a heart attack in 1986. “When you have one of those marriages where the two of you are so interconnected, it’s hard for other one to go on—but she had daughters who were successful, and I think she had a full and wonderful life.
“Look at the mourners she left behind like Barbra Streisand and Renée Taylor. She fought McCarthy. She sold her house to Betty Shabazz, after Malcolm X [Shabazz’s husband] was assassinated, and she needed a safe place to go. My admiration for her is great.”
Fierstein hopes female performers take on Bella Bella. He is not averse to men performing it, but not in drag. “I think it could be a good show—as a solo show it is a little safer to put on—when theaters come back to life.”
Fierstein may perform it again himself. “When you do something for a second time after taking some time away, it’s always good. There’s less pressure. You’re not looking for the reviews. It’s not a career move. You’re doing it just for the joy of performing.”
So Fierstein isn’t precious about people performing work he has written and performed himself?
He laughed. “You’re taking to a playwright who always likes to see someone else do the hard work. People ask if it was hard to see Michael [Urie] play that role,” as Arnold in the Torch Song Trilogy revival of 2017 (off-Broadway) and 2018 (Broadway).
“It was an absolute fucking joy to be able to sit down through the whole thing,” Fierstein exclaimed. “To watch somebody else get tortured and cry and be alone and fucked up the ass. It was a joy to sit and watch him do it.”
He has cried with joy watching “wonderful performances” of his characters. “But there were a couple of performances by people playing Edna in Hairspray, without naming names, that were terrible, and it broke my heart to see how bad they were. It was like, ‘Oh my God, they missed that moment,’ or ‘They didn’t know what they were doing there,’ or ‘Oh, this isn’t Edna.’
“It’s one of those things. How many actors does it take to play Hamlet? Eight. One to do it, and seven who could have done it better.”
“During all of this, art is going on. Everyone is writing. Everybody is doing. Art doesn’t stop.”
Fierstein is disgusted with Trump and the Trump administration, and its lacking response to the pandemic.
“For the last five months we have not had a government or president. We couldn’t have avoided all of what COVID has brought, but it didn’t have to be so big. We used to be the leaders of the world. From Day 1, Trump cared about one thing and one thing only—getting elected again. He cared about nothing else. Every move he’s ever made, every bill he’s ever passed, every presidential order, every pardon, has only been about himself. Nothing else.”
The Republicans who have supported him have gotten “little pieces of cheese he throws them, but he cares about nothing but himself. America is dying, but still people are willing to vote for him again—that’s the shocking part. What should the government do? First, get the fuck out of the way and let somebody who knows what they’re doing take over. That’s why November is beyond important to me, because America will not survive another Trump term.”
Other countries used to look up to America, said Fierstein. Now they either see America as “a laughingstock” or are happy they don’t have to play “little sister” to this country anymore. “Everybody is jockeying for position—mostly Putin. He’s thrilled. We need a new government to come in, and let’s bring sanity back.”
Fierstein doesn’t think Broadway will return to life easily.
“I think it’s going to be very hard. My prediction is it begins with cabaret off off-Broadway in smaller venues. We will have to do theater for New Yorkers because the tourists aren’t here. I think we will see a lot more plays. It’s going to be hard for the big musicals because there are no tourists.”
Fierstein paused, and that sandpaper voice went from reflective to rousing. “But don’t kid yourself. During all of this, art is going on. Everyone is writing. Everybody is doing. Art doesn’t stop. Artists create constantly. And with that I am leaving you! Goodbye!”