Coming Up Harvey

“Queen needs makeup!” Harvey Fierstein said.

It was late afternoon on Monday, August 5, and Mr. Fierstein, primed to return to Broadway in heels upon a hot pink, giddy steamroller-the musical version of John Waters’ Hairspray- sat before a mirror in a windowless white studio in the West Village, his face under construction for yet another magazine photo shoot. Dressed in a flowered orange smock and sandals, his skin rosy and deprived of eyebrows, chest hair, armpit hair and leg hair, he resembled a pretty pot roast.

Hairspray ‘s makeup artist, Justen Brosnan, rolled his eyes and slathered some foundation on Mr. Fierstein’s forehead.

“He’s from Australia, ” Mr. Fierstein said of Mr. Brosnan, whose arms were covered in a rock-star flurry of tattoos. “He grew up with wallabies ! How frightening could I be?”

“You have no idea ,” Mr. Brosnan said.

“You’ve grown up with all those croc hunters !” Mr. Fierstein said.

“Croc hunters?” Mr. Brosnan said. He glanced down at Mr. Fierstein’s crotch. “I’m scared of what lives down there .”

Mr. Fierstein smirked and graveled out a riposte: “How scary could my marsh possibly be?”

Everyone broke up. At 48 years of age, Harvey Fierstein is back home. He may claim it’s not a comeback-“This year I published a children’s book [ The Sissy Duckling ], I did four episodes of [the PBS series] In the Life , I wrote a movie for Showtime and a proposal on a TV show, and this. Where was I?”-but of course it’s a comeback. Nearly two decades ago, a precocious Mr. Fierstein won a pair of Tony awards-Best Play and Best Actor-for his breakthrough Torch Song Trilogy . He revolutionized gay life on Broadway, and then he came back the next year and won a third Tony for writing the book for La Cage aux Folles . Back then, Mr. Fierstein-and not that other garrulous heavy with the movie shop-was the Big Harvey in town.

And then …. A 1987 follow-up to Torch Song , called Safe Sex, opened and quickly folded. Mr. Fierstein hardly disappeared for the next decade and a half-there was the movie version of Torch Song , supporting roles in Mrs. Doubtfire, Bullets Over Broadway , Death To Smoochy and Independence Day (and, um, Kull the Conqueror ), a Jon Lovitz spoof of him on Saturday Night Live, talk-show appearances and his endless advocacy for gay people. But he didn’t seem so rebellious anymore; somewhere along the way, people got used to a croaky, cartoonish version of Harvey Fierstein. (One of his better momentsÊin the late 80’s, in fact, came as a guest voice on The Simpsons .)

But now The Croak was back and bold in 3-D, at the center of what appears to be a can’t-miss show, the first post- Producers super-musical, a whirling media dervish even before its Aug. 15 opening. Mr. Fierstein plays the agoraphobic matriarch Edna Turnblad, and even for a John Waters–inspired show, the turn feels post-postmodern: an ex-drag queen playing a real woman in a Broadway musical based on a film where the character was played by a drag queen, the great Divine. For the role, Mr. Fierstein dons multiple dresses, wigs, a silicone bust and a 20-pound fat suit that makes him sweat like a truck driver on a Georgia interstate. Glorious.

“I grew up worshipping Ethel Merman,” Mr. Fierstein said. “I am Ethel Merman. I’m in Ethel Merman’s dressing room, in a big red wig, singing and dancing on a Broadway stage. I mean, Jesus Christ-I am living the fantasy !”

“I have never seen anybody perspire as much,” said Mr. Brosnan, dabbing at Mr. Fierstein’s chin.

The photo shoot on this day was for Entertainment Weekly . Mr. Fierstein’s makeup and costuming takes longer than any other member of the cast. Getting him ready was as elaborate as steering a tanker through the Panama Canal. He had people waiting. Marissa Jaret Winokur, who plays Tracy Turnblad, Mr. Fierstein’s big-boned daughter in the show, wandered by and mumbled something about letting the “drag queen get ready.”

“I am not a drag queen!” Mr. Fierstein bellowed. “I am your mother! Bitch !” He turned to a reporter: “Don’t have children. I beg you. Because they turn out like that .”

He was kidding, sort of. Mr. Fierstein gives Hairspray a two-fer: a diva and a den mother. Each night his dressing room is packed with members of Hairspray’s ensemble, many of them fresh, eager faces from forgettable Broadway Pop Rocks like Footloose and Saturday Night Fever . What kind of stuff did the kids ask him?

“How to swallow without choking,” Mr. Fierstein said, briefly flummoxed. “We’re people; we talk about anything.”

Ms. Winokur, in particular, had found herself a comfortable place under Mr. Fierstein’s wing. A 29-year-old upstart who is related to-get this-both S.J. Perelman and Nathanael West, she’s poised to be the show’s breakout star. She and Mr. Fierstein had spoken nearly every week for two years while Hairspray was under development. “He really forgets that he’s not my mother,” Ms. Winokur said. She said he’d helped her out “in every way, from making sure I’m eating correctly to fighting battles for me that I’m not even worried about.”

Of course, Hairspray -which takes place in 1962 Baltimore and concerns Tracey’s efforts to secure, in no particular order, racial equality, fair treatment of overweight people, a slot on a televised dance show and the heart of a boy named Link-is a comedy about fighting battles. As a film, it was John Waters’ most accessible work, but it is quietly subversive, with its lessons about integration and tolerance crushed like little aspirins inside dollops of song and dance. In the musical, that symbolism is whipped into an even creamier froth. “What we said from the beginning was that we didn’t want Mississippi Burning ,” said Mark O’Donnell, who co-wrote the book to Hairspray with Thomas Meehan.

What Hairspray’s producers did want was Mr. Fierstein, though he was unsure. “I wavered a lot,” he said, as Mr. Brosnan continued to swipe at his face. “I thought the whole idea was a fun idea. I didn’t particularly want to do drag again. It’s so much easier to walk in, put a little liner around your eyes like the guys do, and walk onstage. I mean, how nice!”

He finally agreed to do the show. “It’s part of my life philosophy: If you don’t say yes, nothing changes,” he said. Plus, he knew himself. “If anybody else got to take this ride instead of me, I would have been so fucking jealous.”

Saying yes turned out to be the easy part. Hairspray has Mr. Fierstein, who quit smoking six years ago, singing and dancing his Brooklyn behind off. For the singing, he took voice lessons with famed instructor Joan Lader-“The lesson very often was Madonna before me and Patti LuPone after me,” he said-and, for a time, even mulling surgery. “I had nodes on my vocal chords,” he said. “They could operate, but nobody knows what it would do. Would I sound like Harvey Fierstein? So we made the decision that we would rather deal with my limitations.”

As for the dancing ….

“You know, I remember when we did La Cage aux Folles , George Hearn went to the choreographer and went, ‘I don’t dance. That’s it.’ And I thought, ‘Do I want to do that? Do I want to say, “No, I don’t dance?”‘ No. I wanted to stretch. What’s the point of doing this? I said, ‘I’ll do whatever the hell you want me to do.'”

Mr. Fierstein’s castmates were impressed. “He’s a big old kosher ham like me,” said Jackie Hoffman, the veteran comic actress who plays the protective mother, Prudy Pingleton, and two other parts in the show. “I knew he could pull it off.”

“He moves very well,” said Mary Bond Davis, who plays Motormouth Maybelle, a character who hosts the once-a-month “Negro Day” on Hairspray ‘s segregated dance show. Dick Latessa, who plays Mr. Fierstein’s husband, Wilbur Turnblad, called Mr. Fierstein “fabulous” and added, “I treat him like he likes to be treated-like he said, like a woman.”

Then there was the issue of Edna’s costuming and girth.

“The first body they made looked like Ms. Spacely, you know?” Mr. Fierstein said. “Shelf-tits, and then straight down. And I said, ‘ No, no, no . This is earth mother.’ I wanted to make sure you were constantly confronted with the feminine side, the femininity of her. So that’s when I decided to hike it up and expose it in every dress, so that no matter what I’m wearing-whether I am really frumpy or very done up-you are always looking at breasts .”

Mr. Fierstein figured that during the show’s finale, when he makes an entrance in a dazzling ruby-red gown with a train, he’s carrying some 35 extra pounds on his frame. “If I strapped 35 pounds on you and told you to start tap-dancing, how thrilled would you be?” he asked.

Ms. Hoffman walked in behind Mr. Fierstein’s chair.

“Harvey,” she said, “you have got to be photographed for Modern Maturity !”

“Is that the one you want to be in, honey?” Mr. Fierstein said.

Looking Ms. Hoffman up and down, he said: “I’ve already done Jew Monthly for her. We did this Jewish thing-because this one wants the publicity, right?-and so we said, ‘O.K., we’ll do it.’ We all get stuck with this reporter; the woman comes in and she says, ‘So what is Jewish about Hairspray ? Marissa, how do you work Judaism into your role?’ And she wasn’t even Jewish! She was half-Jewish, raised by a lesbian nun or something.”

There was a heave of laughter. It was Harvey this and Harvey that, Harvey center of attention, and it felt right. And though Mr. Fierstein claims that he doesn’t care what people say about him-“Somebody said to me years ago, ‘What people think of you is none of your fucking business,’ and it’s true, it’s none of my fucking business”-that famous don’t-give-a-shit bravado evaporates briefly when he concedes that yes, he feels a tingle each night when he appears onstage at the Neil Simon Theatre on West 52nd, dressed in a smock and wrestling an iron board, and the joint erupts for a prodigal son.

“It’s wonderful,” Mr. Fierstein said. “It’s wonderful to feel like somebody actually gives a flying fuck that you weren’t there.”

Mr. Fierstein appreciated it, but he didn’t want to try and explain the audience’s reaction. “Honey, I’m just standing there ,” he said.

But Hairspray producer Margo Lion considered the ovation a tribute. ” Torch Song really did change people’s perceptions, and I think this is a salute to that,” she said. “It’s just, ‘You did something remarkable for us and we like having you back.'”

At first, the applause for Mr. Fierstein’s entrance-he got it in Seattle, too, where Hairspray worked out its kinks-was so feverish that Ms. Hoffman, who shares the scene, plopped herself down and playfully looked at her watch. Now the cast banks on it. “I am so thankful for the applause, because I get to drink water and eat Altoids!” said Ms. Winokur.

Someone was passing around a copy of Time magazine with a photo of the Hairspray cast dressed in what’s supposed to be period clothing. “To me, it looks all 80’s,” Mr. Fierstein said. He whispered: “Shoshanna. Jerry’s girl.” The Hairspray collection is designed in part by Shoshanna Lonstein, ex–teenage muse of Jerry Seinfeld. “God bless her. May she be happy. She lost the millions, let her make them for herself!”

The hype figures to continue, as does Hairspray’s word-of-mouth. The pre-premiere attention to the show made Mr. Fierstein a little wary-“I do worry a little bit that the critics might get a hard-on, because the critics like to be the first to say what they think of a show, before the audience,” he said-but the future looked good. Maybe not Mel Brooks good just yet, but good .

“All of my friends and fans who wanted me to come back before now-and I kept putting it off and putting it off, saying, ‘I’ll know when the time is right, and the right project’-I think all of them understand I was right to wait for the right thing,” Mr. Fierstein said. “I might have been able to do it earlier, but I don’t think I would have been able to appreciate it as much. I really appreciate this trip I’m on now.”

“What I love about this show is that it’s not like, ‘Hey, you know who’s in this? The Sex and the City chick and the guy from 21 Jump Street !'” said Ms. Hoffman. “It’s quiet but brilliant talent. There is nobody huge. Harvey was huge in a theater way, in an artist way, in a gay-community way, so it’s great seeing him get that reception, because he’s not The Guy From That TV Show.”

Mr. Fierstein rumbled by in his fat suit and heels and interrupted. “If you want a story,” he said, “come and watch me try to pee in this thing.”