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The Voice speaks his mind
03/01/2008
By John Nathan
For the American playwright and actor, life has often been a drag — but in a good way

You would think that, having won four Tony Awards, Harvey Fierstein would no longer need a “recognisable edge”. Yet, on stage, he is recognisable not so much for his fleshy face as for his rasping voice.

“I’m in a business where there are 5,000 people going for every role. Any-thing that gives you a recognisable edge is a good thing,” he says about the acting half of his career. “On the phone I’ve been called madam, which really makes me laugh,” he says.

Even so, Fierstein is sick of interviewers focusing on his voice. “Come on, ask me some questions,” he says in the hope of moving the conversation away from that familiarly benign growl and on to La Cage aux Folles, the award-winning musical for which Fierstein wrote the book and which opens at the Menier Chocolate Factory next week. But if a coffee grinder could talk, it would sound like Harvey Fierstein.

It was Torch Song Trilogy, which he both wrote and starred in, that put Fierstein on the map. It won him his first two Tonys in 1982 — one for best actor, the other for best play.

A third came in 1983 for adapting Jean Poiret’s transvestite French farce La Cage, featuring Fierstein’s book and music by the great Jerry “Hello Dolly!” Herman. This is the show that spawned the song I Am What I Am, a hit for Gloria Gaynor and an anthem for gays and lovelorn divas.

The bad news is that the Menier Chocolate Factory’s revival has been hit by illness. Leading cast member Douglas Hodge has been suffering from bronchitis: “I’m just waiting to see that our leading man is all better. Can you imagine? You get a role you’re dying to play, then you get so sick.”

But, all being well, the Menier’s “Christmas show” will finally open next week — a month later than planned — with Hodge and Philip Quast playing gay lovers George and Albin.

Fierstein was asked to write the book for the musical just as Torch Song was making waves off-Broadway. Eventually it would become the first main Broadway hit to focus on gay life.

Then the La Cage commission gave him a chance to write about another aspect of being gay. Was this what drew him to the show?

“It was the money,” he says. “I had gone from extreme poverty where I had to borrow 50 cents from the producer who wanted to do Torch Song to get home to Brooklyn.”

In Torch Song, Fierstein created and played Arnold (played by Antony Sher in London), a Jewish drag queen who craves love, family and acceptance.

And it was another cross-dressing role — the formidable matriarch in the musical Hairspray (currently played by Michael Ball in the West End) which would win Fierstein his fourth Tony. More recently, he played the role he describes as the “King Lear of musical theatre,” Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.

The other day, America’s National Public Radio invited listeners to describe the sound made by the Fierstein vocal chords. “Blowing bubbles in the mud”, said one. “The voice of a middle-aged woman on a roller-coaster giving birth”, offered another. But enough. Now we are talking about his Tevye, the role he took over from Alfred Molina and performed until the show ended its Broadway run in 2006.

It was a performance which Fierstein says was inspired by a relative called Max Cohen. “He was a Holocaust survivor. He and his wife had numbers tattooed on their arms, so as a child I would stare at their tattoos. And that’s how I learned about the Holocaust. She was too frightened to have children. But this was a man who so loved family. And I thought of my father who so loved family, having been brought up in an orphanage.”

Fierstein was born and raised in Brooklyn. His mother, Jacqueline, was a teacher; his father, Irving, worked in a handkerchief factory. “He worked for relatives of [fashion designer] Isaac Mizrahi”, says Fierstein proudly. The family were not religious, but what Fierstein calls “High Holy-Day Jews”.

He adds: “My relationship with my father was wonderful. He was brought up in an orphanage because his mother died in childbirth. And that instilled in him a real need and love for family. He instilled that in my brother and I.”

This was before Stonewall — the New York riots of 1969 that broke out a few days after Fierstein’s 17th birthday, and which led to the gay rights movement for which he would become a formidable campaigner.

At home, however, young Harvey never had to fight for his rights. Unlike many of his contemporaries, there was no tortured “coming out” process:

“It was made very clear to us that whatever goes on inside our house, whatever arguments we might have, was not for the world. To the world, we were a unit which was very nurturing. Those were the rules.

“I tried to change my name as a painting student. I began signing paintings with my middle name [Forbes], and my father said: ‘What the hell is that?’ I said: ‘I may do kinds of things that you wouldn’t want my name on.’ And he said: ‘If you can’t put your name on it, that means you’re ashamed, and if you’re ashamed you shouldn’t be doing it. So either do it full out, in the light of day, with your name on it, or don’t do it.’”

Fierstein is sure that, more than anything, his dad’s speech had a lot to do with his coming out early. “I was sexually active at around 13. My folks knew when I was about 16.”

And from his father’s words, “do it full out… or don’t do it”, it appears that Fierstein also took on a lesson about the commitment and energy he puts into his work.

In March, he returns to Broadway in his latest musical A Catered Affair. Like La Cage, it is an adaptation (of the Bette Davis movie) and, like Torch Song, Fierstein also performs.

Though many reviews have been positive, the Los Angeles Times critic didn’t like it. Fierstein took exception to the review. Particularly the criticism that his character, a bachelor (and gay) uncle in a Bronx family in 1953, is not correctly observed for a pre-Stonewall era.

Fierstein is “mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more”, he says, as if he’s been holding back all this time. “That silly man from LA. Does he think I’m so stupid that I got it wrong? That I wrote without thinking? What an a**hole!” Not that Fierstein generally reads reviews. But this was an out-of-town try-out. “So I was duty-bound to read the f***er.”

Perhaps it was not just the criticism about his character that set Fierstein off on his rant. (He has even written about it in his blog.) There was also the critic’s description of Fierstein’s voice — his “sandpapery delivery of songs, which makes him sound as though he has just gargled with thumbtacks”. That could not have helped.

La Cage aux Folles is previewing at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Southwark Street, London SE1 (Box office: 020 7 907 7060) until January 8. Booking until March 8

Snapshot: Harvey Fierstein

Born: June 6, 1952 in New York

Family: Father, Irving, manufactured handkerchieves. His mother, Jacqueline, was a teacher. One elder brother, Ronald.

Career: Prolific in writing and acting, Tony awards for both in Torch Song Trilogy. Two further Tonys. Starred on Broadway as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and Edna Turnblad in Hairspray. Film credits include film version of Torch Song; Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway; Independence Day. Voiced a character on The Simpsons and was Emmy-nominated for his role in Cheers. There is a plaque honouring him on the Brooklyn Wall of Fame

On Jewish identity: “We are not a religion so much as a race of people. No belief of mine is going to make me not Jewish. Because I do love my family. I love where I come from. I love the traditions of Judaism.”


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