Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Repost: LGBT History Month: Harvey Fierstein*

*originally posted October 29, 2009

Harvey Fierstein is a lot of things; he's been a drag performer, a stage actor, film actor, cartoon character, musical performer, gay rights activist, and playwright. His life is as unconventional as any you might find, as is his success. He's made a career of turning unconventional stories into Broadway sensations. 

In the 1980s, his play Torch Song Trilogy won him two Tony Awards, for Best Actor and for Best Play. In it, Harvey plays a drag queen--a breakthrough piece because it proved that a gay–themed show could turn a profit on Broadway--and in 2002 Harvey Fierstein won another Tony Award for Best Actor, by playing a woman, Edna Turnblad in the musical Hairspray. In between he won a Tony for Best Book of a Musical, for La Cage Aux Folles, giving him the distinction of being only the second person in history to earn four Tony Awards in different categories.

Harvey wanted to be a writer, even way back in high school, and he took every creative writing course he could find. Trouble was, he wasn't so good at it, so he switched to something he knew better: drag. As a 270–pound teenager, Fierstein specialized in impersonations of brassy–voiced Broadway star Ethel Merman, and became a hit in some of New York's lesser–known clubs. he also created his own characters, Virginia Hamm, Kitty Litter, and Bertha Venation, which he took to the clubs. he was doing all this while still in school.

Despite the demands of his busy life, Fierstein gained the attention of Andy Warhol, who cast him in Pork, one of Warhol's few theater productions. The play, in which Harvey played an asthmatic lesbian, had its debut at New York's La Mama Experimental Theater Club in 1971. Soon, Fierstein was writing his own plays, inspired by other La Mama actors who wrote plays for him to perform; Harvey returned the favor by writing his colleagues into his plays, the first of which, International Stud, debuted in 1972. The gay community loved it, but no one, least of all Harvey Fierstein, ever thought his brand of theater would ever make it to Broadway.

A critic dubbed Harvey "the devil come to earth for writing such a horrible thing," and, never one to be stifled by criticism, Harvey continued writing, though, to appease his parents who wished he would earn a steady income, he enrolled at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn to study art education, earning a BFA in 1973. Fierstein taught briefly, but he couldn't stay out of the theater, and continued working on his plays, writing and staring in his one-act productions. Two of those plays, Fugue in a Nursery and Children First, would be combined with International Stud to form Torch Song Trilogy.

The main character in Torch Song Trilogy is Arnold Beckoff, a drag queen who yearns for an ordinary life, who wants nothing more than to settle down, adopt a child, and live happily ever after. Arnold sees no reason his sexual orientation should hinder that goal. Fierstein based the character on his own experiences as a gay man who wanted to marry his lover, who left him for a woman, who watched his friends be gay bashed, who longed to have a child. The play was hit because everyone, gay and straight, could identify with Arnold, who wanted out of life what most people want.

With his newfound success, Fierstein next took on a musical adaptation of La Cage Aux Folles, writing most of the book on the subway, to and from his appearances in Torch Song. La Cage Aux Folles opened at the Palace Theater in August of 1983 and ran for 1,761 performances. Other plays followed, Spookhouse, Forget Him, and Safe Sex; none as successful as his previous works.

Over the next several years, Fierstein appeared in more than 30 films; he even reprised the role of Arnold in the film version "Torch Song Trilogy." He appeared on television in everything from, yes, "Murder She Wrote" to "Cheers," and voiced the character of Homer Simpson's gay secretary in "The Simpsons." In 2002, he was back on Broadway as Edna Turnblad  in Hairspray.

But Harvey isn't all drag queen and playwright. he's also an outspoken advocate for the LGBT community. He purposely only takes roles that he believes will influence people's opinions about gay people:
"There are times when I don't take roles because I don't want to be perceived a certain way. For example, I was offered the role as the monster in Stephen King's It —a clown who ate children. I wouldn't do it. Even though it was a great role, I felt that I didn't want to be perceived in that way because of the horrible lie that gay people want children. I wasn't even going to put that in the back of people's minds."
Over the years, Fierstein has been a vocal gay–rights activist, speaking out for gay people, queer theater, and AIDS causes. He has been a spokesman for the Services Legal Defense Fund, a group that advocates for the rights of gays and lesbians in the military, and he continues to work for marriage equality and LGBT rights.

The march goes on, sometimes in stilettos and spandex.

And while I've admired Harvey the writer, entertainer, actor, singer, and yes, even dancer, this Harvey is the one I admire most.

On This Day In LGBT History
October 29, 1979 – Gay activists hold “mince-in” at Ontario legislature in Toronto to draw attention to inaction on human rights protections for gays and lesbians.

October 29, 1995 – In Iran, a 31 year old man was convicted of “ugly and improper conduct” and sentenced to twenty lashes for cross-dressing.

October 29, 1997 – Representatives from the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Latino/a Lesbian and Gay Organization, and the Gay Lesbian and Straight Educators Network met with House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt to discuss the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and funding for AIDS care and research.

October 29, 1997- US House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt met with several leaders of national gay and lesbian organizations to discuss ways in which the party could assist gay and lesbian candidates through the coming election cycle.

October 29, 1997- Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) introduced a bill calling for the extension of health insurance coverage to the domestic partners of US federal employees through the federal employee health program.

October 29, 1997- Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals unanimously overturned Circuit Court Judge Lawrence H. Rushworth’s decision prohibiting a divorced gay man from seeing his children in the presence of his partner.


Mark in DE said...

The film "Torch Song Trilogy" was life-changing for me. It destroyed myths and affirmed some assumptions I had as a young and naive gay man still in the closet. I admire him greatly for his honesty and humor.

Bob Slatten said...

I know what you mean Mark.

Raybeard said...

Well this post nicely filled in the gaps. Although knowing the name well (who doesn't?) I didn't know much about his less well-known activities. Clearly, a multi-talented and brave individual.

I've always regretted not seeing him in the original stage production of 'Torch' (very long - 3 hours, I think) which he brought to England, when I actually had the chance - though at that time his name hadn't become as established as it soon was to become.
I don't know if the much-shortened version on film caught the essence of his play, but in the former I felt put out in that he always let his mother (Anne Bancroft) have the last word. Even though both sides were very articulate it was she who always got the upper hand which seemed to be to demean and crush him. Whether it also plays like that in the theatre production I don't know.