How Many ‘Gay Plays’ Can Broadway Sustain? Michael Urie On ‘Torch Song’ Closing and Coming Out in Hollywood
In a candid interview, ‘Ugly Betty’ star Michael Urie talks about why ‘Torch Song’ failed to find a big enough Broadway audience, taking it on tour, and playing gay in primetime.
The reviews have been positive. It’s beautifully written, and performed. And so it’s not surprising that Michael Urie, who plays Arnold, the lead character in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song on Broadway, is “baffled” as to why the show is closing on Jan. 6, even if he is also excited to take the show on a national tour later in 2019.
The show, a compressed version of Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, written in the late 1970s and early 1980s, is about a zinger-dispensing gay drag queen finding love, or at least that which is “enough,” while facing challenges on many fronts—not least, raising a bolshy teenager (David, Jack DiFalco), and having the flakiest lover of all time, Ed (Ward Horton) and, most electrifyingly, a mother (Mercedes Ruehl) who combines a warmth for her son with an ugly, bitter animosity. The full-hearted engine of the play combines laughter and tears.
“We got good reviews, and it didn't turn into ticket sales,” Urie said one recent afternoon at his publicist’s Midtown office. “I don't really know honestly why we’re closing,” he said mournfully as he dug into a pre-performance meal of Poke and salad.
Not that Urie, 38, has read the reviews of the show. “I don't read reviews, but if I sat down and read them it wouldn’t help. I find that if it’s good I’ll think it’s not good enough, and if it’s bad then I don't think they're true, which means the good ones aren’t true.”
As he ate, Urie tried to make sense of Torch Song’s closure. “One of the big things, is that we are competing against Network, To Kill a Mockingbird, American Son, The Ferryman, The Waverly Gallery, and The Lifespan of a Fact. I remember not long ago The Humans was the only play on Broadway. And now there are many and each has a movie star. And some of those are new, and some have more than one movie star.”
As for why Torch Song’s Broadway life is coming to an end, Urie thought aloud, “We are an extremely well-liked, well-reviewed American classic. But I hear from people, ‘Oh I saw that in the 1980s.’ If you’re deciding between something you saw in a totally different iteration 30 years ago and something you have never seen, you will likely choose the new and different. That's one thing, for sure. I don't know if we ran out of audience off-Broadway. But it’s sad to me we can’t run a great American play on Broadway. In Mercedes we have a movie star but she’s not a movie star this year. Now, The Ferryman is doing well without a movie star, but it wouldn’t hurt if I was a movie star!
“I’m sad and disappointed. I didn’t want this to end. The play grew so much off-Broadway. I thought we had a lot more growth. We have done so much. I’m so proud of the work we’ve done. We had so much more work to do, so many more layers to find. I‘m sad we are closing early and it’s not going to make it to a year. I would liked to have made our money back.”
“Right now I feel like, ‘Sorry guys.’ I feel like I’ve let them down of course. They’re amazing, the producers. They know it’s a Broadway show and that it’s hard to make your money back. They’ve been extremely gracious about it.”
Urie said he didn’t know if the play should have stayed off-Broadway, or begun life on Broadway. He wonders if all three gay-themed revivals of recent times—The Boys In The Band, Angels in America, and Torch Song—should have played alongside one another.
“I don’t know if they would have canceled each other or helped each other. “The characters are all from different eras, different tones, different men. It would have been really interesting for us to have all been running at the same time. But then people may have thought, ‘We’ve spent all our money, we saw the gay play.’”
The audience is very affected by Arnold’s dramas, particularly his confrontations with his mother. Urie has heard from gay children who have come out to their mothers after seeing the play, or a grandparent. “Of all the people who come to the show and share it with us here, how many more can’t come to New York City? So we have to go to them. That's why I first pitched the idea of the tour.”
What did Urie feel about the future of the LGBT-themed play on and off Broadway? “I’m excited to see what happens in LGBTQ theater, I think there are lots of stories for the new generation. I’ve read some very exciting new plays. I’m very proud that Normal Heart, Angels, Boys and Torch have all been revisited on Broadway, and hope the next gay play on the Great White Way is a new one. Off-Broadway continues to be an exciting place for new work. I don’t see that slowing.”
It takes 45 minutes for Urie to put his make-up on to become Arnold. “If you look close up it doesn’t look right. This was drag when Harvey was doing drag. Not RuPaul’s Drag Race [which Urie loves and has appeared as a judge on]. There’s no lip-syncing. It was more performance art.” The show is emotional to perform: Ma rips into Arnold horribly, condemning him, his sexuality and blaming it for family tragedy. He also gets messed around by Ed.
“It’s hard to get rejected that much by lovers and mothers. To be Arnold is so empowering and gratifying. He says things you want to say, like when Ma says, ‘This is the end of the conversation’ to end one of our fights, and I say no. You hear the audience go, ‘Yes.’”
Urie grew up in Texas. His father worked in the oil business and his mother worked in insurance, but was a stay-at-home mom for much of his childhood. His sister was 7 years older than him and “very involved in sports, so I got dragged to a lot of volleyball and basketball games.”
He didn’t face any kind of parental rejection when he came out. “They were cool. I’m sure they had personal reservations, but there was no fear of rejection. They never treated me differently. My sister is gay, and because she was 7 years older probably went through more than me.” (Urie's parents came to the opening night of Torch Song “and loved it. I think it was hard for them to watch another mother eviscerate me like that.”)
His sister didn’t wear dresses, he said; she stood out as different. At his high school, Urie wasn’t out and wasn’t a target of bullies. He was one of the talented theater kids.
“I was not a great student, except in my many drama classes, once I discovered them in high school,” Urie wrote in a later email. “I was a shy kid in grade school, played alone with action figures a lot. But in middle school I made some great friends who I would force to make movies and put on shows in my back yard. My parents were kind enough to let me drop out of t-ball and soccer and Boy Scouts when they weren't a fit.”
Urie’s sister had a rougher experience. She had a pink triangle on her car, and it got keyed. Her male telemarketing boss asked her out. She declined, and said she didn’t date men, and was sacked.
Being gay “didn't really start to dawn” on Urie “in a major way until high school and wasn't ever something that got me down. My older sister was gay and fantastic and I had started to meet gay people in theater who were great. I was lucky.”
“I was never called a name until I had a little dog in Manhattan, when I was called ‘faggot’ on the street,” Urie said. “I got occasional hate mail when I was on Ugly Betty, but I never felt in any danger. I would have come out sooner if my sister hadn’t already. I remember she had a tumultuous relationship with her girlfriend. They rowed a lot. I used to row with my best friend Stuart.” He laughed. “Years later I told her that me and Stuart were like her and Lesley. But we were just friends. She said she thought Stuart and I were like her and Lesley. But there was nothing like that between us.”
His sister went on to be a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley and now has a wife and children; they are seeing him in Torch Song over Christmas.
When he was young, Urie thought he would be a high-school drama teacher, “and still think I'd like that, mostly because my drama teachers were so cool and I thought that was the only way I could be in theater professionally.”
After attending Juilliard, Urie entered the theater world, and his breakout role came playing Marc, Wilhelmina’s (Vanessa Williams) assistant in Ugly Betty, which premiered in 2006. He wasn’t out at that time.
“When Ugly Betty started I was a totally unknown actor. There was the sense from people advising and representing me that if the show didn’t take off then it would be back to the drawing board, and I wouldn’t want to pigeonholed as one type of gay person.”
Urie went on to prove this prophecy wrong, and show its implicit homophobia by playing a multiplicity of gay roles—proving, shock horror, that there is more than one kind of gay person.
While he was in Ugly Betty, Urie recalled the many moving letters he got, like the one from the young man whose mother told him it would be OK if he was gay while watching the show, or the one from someone whose father had kicked a gay child out of the house. “We thought making him watch Ugly Betty would help, and it didn’t.”
“I have never said no to a role because it was a gay role,” Urie said. “It was such a silly idea. But it was a very real idea from very important people, that I could get typecast as gay. I remember thinking, ‘I know from the theater that there’s a way to keep playing gay parts and not do the same thing over and over again.’ I also knew a very clever casting director who once told me, ‘You can’t get cast until you get typecast.’”
He was asked by a journalist at one of his first red carpet appearances, “Are you out?” Not, as Urie, recalled, “Are you gay?” Urie said he didn’t talk about his personal life, which left the journalist to conclude, Urie deduced, that Urie was gay and not talking about it.
This was a time, Urie said, when Ellen DeGeneres had come out, but there was “a long gap” between that and other celebrities following her lead.
“At that time I wasn’t famous enough to be outed, but I was being asked the question.” During a hiatus from Ugly Betty, Urie performed in Jon Marans’ brilliant play The Temperamentals, about the activists of the pre-Stonewall Mattachine Society. “I knew people were going to keep asking. I thought, ‘I can’t keep pretending.’ It didn’t make waves. No one really cared.” He laughed about his decision, and all those advisers recommending the opposite. “I have a long history of not doing what my agents wanted.”
The financial freedom performing in primetime television (first in Ugly Betty, then in the ill-fated Partners) meant Urie has been able to do theater as and when he is able, including 600 performances of Buyer and Cellar, about one man’s obsession with Barbra Streisand, which premiered in 2013.
Buyer and Cellar made its money back in nine weeks, Urie said. “Yes, I’m a star,” he recalled, with a light laugh, thinking about those ticket sales. “Producers look at me doing that and think, ‘We can count on him.’ I’m a hoofer. I’ll be there every night.” Buyer and Cellar was originally written for Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who was unavailable for it and gave his blessing for Urie to perform it.
“I figured the worst thing that could happen—shut down by Barbra and people wouldn’t get it. Ryan [Spahn, his partner of 10 years] read the first half-page of the script, and said, ‘You should do it.’ It was chock-full of jokes. It should have gone on for 80 minutes, but the more funny stuff I found it went to 100 minutes. Just the first line (which ponders the lyrics of “The Way We Were”): '"Memories light the corners of my mind." Of course, the brain is basically round, so it has no corners.’ It’s joke after joke.”
As for Streisand, “She never got in touch. She didn’t send flowers. She heard about it. She knew about it. I’m told she watched it.”
It was fun to do, said Urie, and he would do it again, although he was “fried” after an eight-show week. “Some nights I was thrilled to be there, and spread joy to a group of people, but I had no idea how I got there.”
He also played Hamlet earlier this year, and said he “would like to revisit 'Denmark' for sure. I want to direct more on camera and do more Shakespeare. I'd also like to do more musicals, I have a few in mind.”
Before taking Torch Song on the road, Urie will record the audiobook of Steven Rowley’s The Editor, about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ professional publishing life. He will also be making episodes of The Good Fight, reprising his Good Wife character Stephen Dinovera, and continuing to appear in Younger as agent and “snarky asshole” Redmond.
He and Spahn are both actors, and so experience all the swings and roundabouts of the profession together.
Urie had known Torch Song was closing for some time; the producers had been open with him. But the announcement of its closure came the day before the announcement of the closure of Spahn’s present play, Daniel’s Husband. There are other days when one or both gets a screen role.
Urie laughed. “Some days both jobs end. Some days you get two jobs. Everything good that happens to him happens to me too, and everything bad that happens to him happens to me too. Being an actor is hard, complicated, up and down and when there’s two of you that's doubled.”
Urie and Spahn—who are both 38, with Spahn two months Urie's senior—have not married. “It was never a dream for us, never important to us, and I think that’s why it hasn’t become a reality. We are part of a generation for whom it wasn’t a possibility. So, it’s most likely that one day you’ll read that we just went off and did it and that will be that.”
Like Arnold in the play, “who starts the play thinking he knows everything, only to realize he knows nothing,” Urie said he has learned to accept what he does not know, and be able to admit it. The prospect of 40 doesn’t alarm him: he still feels healthy—“the knees can still do pratfalls”—and he is looking forward to taking Torch Song into the heart of America. As we said farewell, Urie said he was about to meet regional American theater producers and owners to schmooze them.
On Broadway or in the Heartland, Urie is devoted to playing Arnold. When I asked him if he had any dream roles he'd like to perform, Urie replied that it was “hard to think in terms of dream roles after Arnold... He was the dream role I never knew I had.”
Torch Song is at the Hayes Theater, NYC, until Jan 6.