That unmistakable voice of glass and gravel rumbles across the posh lobby of the InterContinental Hotel, somewhere between a greeting and a growl.
Goodie-bag swinging, Harvey Fierstein has emerged from a restricted celebration in the bowels of the hotel exclusively for Tony nominees. He collects his reporter-in-waiting in the lobby and continues on to the hotel’s swank first-floor restaurant. “What name?” the hostess asks routinely. “Mary,” blats Mr. Fierstein. While she consults her roster, he blithely beelines to an empty booth.
Kinky Boots, the show he and his new Broadway recruit, Cyndi Lauper, wrote about sexing up the shoe business, earned more nominations (13) than any other show this season—one more than its main rival, the prestigious English import Matilda.
“I sat next to Nick Scandalios of the Nederlanders, Tom Hanks, Lauren Ward, Stark Sands and a Frenchman I didn’t know—very adorable, handsome man,” he relayed. “The party’s supposed to be just the nominees in all the categories. There’s no press around. It’s kinda low-key, but it keeps growing and getting more inflated.”
This is not his first time at the Tony rodeo, y’know. He is a five-year veteran of this particular luncheon and has six nominations to show for it. He won two Tonys his first time at bat—Best Play and Best Actor—for Torch Song Trilogy. That’s 30 years ago this week–and it was on his very last day as a 30-year-old.
“There were two years where I went to these luncheons and did the speech on how to give a speech. They don’t do that anymore. The producer just gets up and says, ‘Talk fast and don’t fuck up.’ Right in the middle of his speech, Cyndi stands up and says, ‘Excuse me, excuse me, how long do we have for our acceptance speech?’ Everyone starts laughing, and she goes, ‘I mean, in case I want to practice at home.’”
The mayor didn’t stay long. “He only said hello to two people,” Mr. Fierstein said. “Cyndi and Tom Hanks. The rest of us . . .”
After three decades in the theatre, Mr. Fierstein is slightly surprised he’s still riding the dark horse in the Tony race. This was true from the very beginning when Torch Song Trilogy went up against Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother, which had a Pulitzer Prize and all manner of New York Times support—and it was true the following year when his La Cage aux Folles did battle with another Pulitzer Prize piece, Sunday in the Park with George. Now, Kinky Boots is butting heads with Matilda, the critics’ current darling, with more Olivier Awards than any other show in British theater history.
Only now, 30 years after the fact, does Mr. Fierstein realize he wasn’t ready for a Tony, let alone two. He came from La MaMa, on the Lower East Side. “Broadway was only this world I watched from afar. We were definitely outsiders, still playing The Little Theater–they hadn’t changed the name to the Helen Hayes yet–and I spent so much time working. That was a long play, so I didn’t have a lot of time off. Whatever time I had off was spent stupidly.”
Torch Song Trilogy was three plays in one—International Stud, Fugue in a Nursery and Widows and Children First. “The first one, which I did at La Mama, was a big hit. We went to Off-Broadway. It bombed. I went home. I wrote the second one. We did that one at La MaMa. We moved Off-Broadway. It bombed. I went home. I wrote the third one. It got bought for Broadway. It never got on. Then, I said, ‘Can I now put the three of them together as they were always meant to be?’”
It took several years for Mr. Fierstein to find a producer. When he did, it was done at a theater with a five-floor walk-up and an elevator-for–two. “We did it on a very low budget and changed the sets ourselves, but we just couldn’t find an audience. The producer came to me and said, ‘We’re very proud to put it on, but we have to close.’ Then, Rex Reed at the Daily News and Mel Gussow at The Times published raves on the same day and, suddenly, we sold out and had to move to The Actors Playhouse. From there, we went to Broadway. I figured I’d at least get a Broadway credit out of it and could leave the show since it’d never run on Broadway. Five years later . . .”
In receiving the Best Play Tony for Torch Song Trilogy, lead producer John Glines made social history with his acceptance speech by being the first person ever to acknowledge his same-sex lover on a major awards show. Mr. Fierstein can be seen in the background mouthing the words “Isn’t that nice?” Much of conservative America’s lips locked in shock. “The next night,” recalled Mr. Fierstein, “Johnny Carson thanked his lover, Doc Severinsen.”
Carol Channing had cued producers Barry Brown and Fritz Holt to catch Torch Song Trilogy, and they passed the word along to Jerry Herman, who called Mr. Fierstein and proposed that they work together. In time, he was summoned to the apartment of producer Allan Carr.
“It was a glassed-in greenhouse atop the St. Moritz Hotel,” he recalled, “and it was winter because I wore a coat that was held together with gaffers tape because I had no money. They met me at the door. Fritz was holding two dozen long-stemmed roses, Barry was holding the door, and Allan Carr was holding a check for $10,000. I’d never seen $10,000 in my life. They said, ‘Will you write La Cage aux Folles?’”
He said yes, wrote the show in six months and was back in the Tony race. “I surely wasn’t expecting to win because I’d won two the year before, but Alex Cohen, in his remarks to the audience before we went on TV, said, ‘Please, no one repeat the embarrassment of last year’s Best Play speech.’ In other words, ‘Nobody come up and thank their boyfriend.’ And I turned to my boyfriend and said, ‘I didn’t care about winning this before. Now, I do. Now, I just wish I could win this so I could go up there and thank you.’ And, when I did win that Tony, I did thank him.
Mr. Fierstein’s sixth Tony was for portraying an actual woman—Edna Turnblad, frumpy house frau-turned-rabid activist, in Hairspray. “It’s a totally different personality than doing a drag queen,” he insisted. “You’re not making believe you’re somebody else. You are somebody else. I liked disappearing into that character. I loved being seen as this 500-pound woman. She went from being this scared little mouse to this monster. It was a lot of fun. There were a lot of young people in the cast, and I love being around young people.
The drag diva-turned-shoe designer played by Billy Porter in Kinky Boots presented a new challenge. “I’d never written that sort of transvestite before,” he said. “This is somebody not comfortable with himself. Albin was very comfortable in La Cage. She sang ‘I Am What I Am.’ Arnold in Torch Song was learning to be comfortable. He’s closer to Billy’s character. But he’s gay, and I don’t see Billy’s character as gay. I see Billy’s character as straight. He could end up a transvestite or a transsexual. I think he’s somebody just learning about himself–somebody who’s on a journey.”
Kinky Boots was one of three plates Mr. Fierstein was spinning. The other two were Newsies, which just celebrated a year at the Nederlander, and an untitled new play—his first since Safe Sex in 1987—to be produced on Broadway in the spring by Fred Zollo, Colin Callender and Bob Cole. Will he be in it?
“I wrote the role for myself,” he said,“but it’s an ensemble piece, a cast of nine. I would like to play it, but I think I hurt A Catered Affair by being in it. I think I threw the balance off because I was the playwright—and I actually wrote that role for Joel Grey, too. It’s an ensemble so the focus should not be on my character.”
Spoken like a company man.