For more than 50 years, Harvey Fierstein has been a keen observer of gay history, he’s made a lot of it.
In the just-published memoir, I Was Better Last Night, the 67-year-old actor-playwright-activist reflects with sass, affection, and introspection on his early days in the downtown NYC theater scene, his rise as actor and playwright in theatre, film and television, and his work during the gay rights movement and the AIDS epidemic.
In Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage Aux Folles, and Kinky Boots, Fierstein broke new ground in high-profile representation of the LGBTQ+ and drag communities.
In his 2014 play, Casa Valentina, he explored gender identity years before binary issues emerged in streaming series. In his solo show in which he also starred Bella Bella he put a spotlight on the legacy on the feminist leader, Bella Abzug.
Even in works by others, his iconic cultural presence is felt. In Martin Sherman’s Gently Down the Stream, he played a gay elder in a romantic relationship with a younger queer man who had a different perspective of life and love. As Edna Turnblad in the musical Hairspray, he stepped into Divine’s heels to celebrate the outsider, the outsized and the outlandish. His latest project this spring recrafting Funny Girl—which made Barbra Streisand a star—for its first Broadway revival.
As he quips in his book: “No bad for a fat, cocksucking drag queen from Bensonhurst.”
“I didn’t want to write a celebrity tell-all,” says Fierstein about his book from his home in Litchfield County. The sui generis, honeyed-gravel voice over the phone is unmistakably his. The outspoken, truth-telling, wise-guy attitude is, too.
“I’m certainly in a position where I know a lot of stuff that other people don’t know. A lot. Someday I may steal some of that, but that’s not what I wanted this book to be. I leaned over backwards to make sure that it was as fair as I could be to everyone I wrote about.”
Still, Fierstein managed to get in just a dash of dish about icons, celebs and divas he’s encountered over the decade, such as the time in the early ‘90s when he pitched a film idea to Madonna to play Warhol superstar Candy Darling.
Fierstein perhaps let his wicked sense of humor go too far after she asked him, “Do you really think I can play a drag queen?”
“Of course, he said. “Everyone’s already seen your pussy. It’s time to show them your dick.”
One can only imagine the stony pause.
“She did not laugh uproariously,” he deadpans.
When I note Madonna is not famous for her generous sense of humor, Fierstein passes on the bait.
“Whatever she has she has. I don’t think not having a sense of humor has held her back. She’s certainly survived where most others didn’t. I was more shocked that she decided not to do [the film]. Listen, she’s a very smart woman, obviously, who has a real idea of what she wanted her career to be at the time. She had a path she wanted to travel, he says, and I guess this was not the right thing for her.”
Another anecdote—a sweet one—was when one of his boyhood crushes—Richard Chamberlain of TV’s Dr. Kildare and later The Thorn Birds fame—came backstage to congratulate him in Torch Song in 1983.
Fierstein confessed his pubescent affection for Chamberlain and asked the handsome, albeit closeted, actor to indulge him in a bit of fantasy fun, asking him to go out and re-enter the dressing room as if returning from a hard day’s work. When Chamberlain returned to a dimly lit room, he found Fierstein laying on the couch feigning sleep. The actor gave him a warm kiss on the cheek, adding, ‘Hi, hon, I’m home.”
“He was such a doll,” says Fierstein. “He still is.”
It was a sweet thing he did, I said, but I told Fierstein I have difficulty coming to terms with closeted stars during the AIDS epidemic who didn’t come out until the crisis had passed, after their careers had long ago peaked, and they were in their 70s or older.
“My attitude is the same, but we can’t really judge someone else’s journey,” says Fierstein. “But I certainly can’t help but feel that we were just left out there to dry. The [excuse] that [closeted actors] used—and is still being used—and this just kills me, is, “I don’t want people to know about my sex life because I want them to be able to fantasize that what they’re seeing on screen is real.’ You know what? Nobody cares that fucking much about you anyway.”
Long lasting La Cage
Fierstein, however, was always fiercely out and proud and became the first openly gay man to acknowledge his partner when he received his Tony Award for La Cage Aux Folles.
That show, which is perhaps his greatest triumph, was the first time gay characters—not to mention drag characters—were celebrated on the Broadway stage. The show opened at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic and subsequently took the lives of many in that original cast. But the show and its themes of family, acceptance and inclusion continue to live on in productions around the world, including two Tony Award-winning Broadway revivals.
Fierstein says he’s turned down many offers to make La Cage Aux Folles into a film musical. “It’s true you don’t reach the amount of audience as a theater piece that you would as a film, but a bad movie would just be a bad movie. I just assume that some day somebody’s going to call me up and say, ‘I would really like to do La Cage and when they speak to me about it, they will talk about doing La Cage— and that will be exciting.”
As an example of one of the foul pitches, Fierstein says one filmmaker envisioned a scene where one of the drag queens was beaten up in the street. “And then all of the other drag queens sing ‘The Best of Times’ as they march with candles to the hospital. I said, ‘What the hell show are you talking about?’ That’s the thing a lot of people don’t understand about La Cage. The gay people are the normal ones. The heterosexuals are the weird ones.”
Fierstein, who wrote teleplays for NBC Live’s versions of the musicals The Wiz, Hairspray and the yet-to-be-produced Bye Bye Birdie, says he also hopes one day La Cage might be done as one of the network’s live productions.
For now Fierstein’s theatrical focus is on Funny Girl, which had a rocky road to Broadway in 1964. Streisand made the show a sensation, despite what was generally seen as a sketchy script.
“The show, in some ways, did not work, so I came in and restructured it,” says Fierstein of his work on the musical for the London revival in 2015. “The job of rewriting is to fix things and not show your fingerprints too much, to not lose the essence of what made it a hit. It’s what I did with the script of [the Broadway musical] Newsies and the same thing with Funny Girl. I restructured it some, took out a couple of songs, put in a couple, changed a couple of things around. A lot of it just has to do with dialogue. We understand a little bit more about emotional psychology than we used to.”
He says after the London show and tour were a success, the families of the estates trusted him more “so they’ve let me do a little bit more this time. I’m hoping it will be just wonderful, but we’ll see. I love the script I just delivered to the producers.
Knock wood, we did the rights things and Beanie Feldstein is an exciting idea because she’s a comedian and she’s funny and we have a gorgeous guy to play Nick [Ramin Karimloo] and we also have Jane Lynch.”
Gay Generation Gap
Fierstein dedicates his memoir “To the radical fairies who flew before me.”
But does he feel subsequent LGBTQ+ generations know of these previous flights, too?
“Listen, us old folks are always going to feel like the kids don’t know what they’re doing. But it’s just not true. Does our generation remember everything [of what went on before it]? I tell the story when I was writing [the musical] A Catered Affair, one of my producers said, ‘Gay people didn’t live together in the ‘50s. They didn’t live together until Stonewall.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m going to have to call Gertrude Stein up.’ We’re so bad about our history—and especially gay history.
“But this generation probably knows more than our generation did [at that age]. At least there are books and podcasts and documentaries, so if they want to avail themselves of the knowledge, at least it’s there. But in the long run every generation has to decide what its priorities are and what it’s going to do. They have their own path.
“I tell in the book about the first time I saw marriage equality have a large contingency at the gay pride march, and I thought to myself that we have so many other things to fight for,” he says, pointing to gay men and women not being able to give blood, adopt children and serve in the military. “I thought, ‘What the hell are you messing around with marriage for?’ Then I thought to myself, you know what? This is their generation, their fight, and they need to decide for themselves, and my job as an elder statesperson, if that’s what I am, is to support them in their struggle. And guess what? They turned out to be right because straight people understood gay marriage and wanting to be in a relationship, wanting the laws of marriage to be on their side. They may not understand gays in the military or transgender problems but that they understood because it was something close enough to them. And we got not only gay marriage but a whole bunch of other good stuff, too.”
Harvey Fierstein will be talking about his memoir at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford on March 14 at 7 p.m. He will also be “in conversation” with New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast at the Ridgefield Playhouse March 15 at 7:30 p.m. Information: marktwainhouse.org and ridgefieldplayhouse.org.