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Harvey Fierstein: ‘I saw a way to make Kinky Boots sing to everyone watching’

Harvey Fierstein. Photo: Bruce Glikas Harvey Fierstein. Photo: Bruce Glikas

There’s no one quite like Harvey Fierstein on (or off) the Broadway stage. From fringe figure in the Off-Broadway scene of the early 1980s to mainstream, bona fide Broadway star, his own journey has been a microcosm of the assimilation of gay life into popular culture over the past 35 years or so. Yet few have earned his fame or status. Now in his 60s, Fierstein is both an elder statesman of the Broadway stage and a living institution, a status officially confirmed when he was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame at Broadway’s Gershwin Theatre a few years ago.

CV Harvey FiersteinFierstein is also a four-times Tony winner – twice for writing and twice as performer. There was one of each for his contributions to Torch Song Trilogy, the autobiographically inspired triptych of plays with which he made his Broadway debut in 1982, after originally developing them as three separate plays Off-Broadway. It won both the 1983 Tony for best play, while Fierstein himself won best actor. A year later, he would also win a Tony for providing the book for La Cage Aux Folles. Each of those shows would run for three and four years respectively (and both would be revived at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory this century, with La Cage subsequently transferring to the West End and then Broadway to win a new slew of Tonys, including best musical revival in 2010).

But the original arrival of both Torch Song Trilogy and La Cage Aux Folles – both powerfully unapologetic portraits of gay men and the families they build – was also a period that coincided with the decimation of the gay community through HIV and Aids. Fierstein was on the frontline there, too, confronting it head on with one of the earliest Broadway plays about the crisis, Safe Sex, that opened (and promptly closed) on Broadway in 1987.

If Fierstein seemed absent from Broadway in the 1990s, he returned in a remarkable blaze of glory in 2002 as the Tony-winning star of Hairspray. He subsequently took over as Tevye in a revival of Fiddler on the Roof and also starred in a short-lived new musical, A Catered Affair, for which he wrote the book.

The last three years have been even busier: in 2012, his hit adaptation of Disney’s cult film Newsies opened on Broadway; in 2013, this was followed by his adaptation of the film Kinky Boots – with a score by Cyndi Lauper – that won the Tony for best musical. In 2014, his original play Casa Valentina premiered on Broadway.

Fierstein, centre, with Kinky Boots director Jerry Mitchell and lyricist Cyndi Lauper. Photo: Gavin Bond
Fierstein, centre, with Kinky Boots director Jerry Mitchell and lyricist Cyndi Lauper. Photo: Gavin Bond

He was Tony-nominated himself for each of the last three. While Newsies is yet to arrive in the West End, the other two are now opening, a night apart, in London, at the Adelphi Theatre and Southwark Playhouse respectively, on September 15 and 16.

“It’s always exciting to get your work done,” he says on the phone from his Connecticut home. And it’s exciting for him to see it come to London – not least because he’s not directly involved with Casa Valentina, whereas the West End edition of Kinky Boots is a recreation of the Broadway show.

“I’ve not seen this production of Casa Valentina so I’m very curious,” he goes on. “I always thought that English actors would really get right down into it – they would be a little less scared of it. We’re a bit more scared of gender identity in the US, so I’m really look forward to that. But knowing that it is happening but not being there means it is rather like a mystery box. I don’t know these actors or the director, so I have to make that wonderful act of faith when you step off the cliff. But one of the wonderful parts of theatre is that it is alive and is what it is now, and someone 20 years from now will do it again, and it will be something else again. But your children grow up, and go out into the world. You have to let them go.”

Certain themes, such as gender identity and shows featuring men in drag, recur in and populate many of his shows. He’s currently working on a new musical based on the film Mrs Doubtfire, in which the late Robin Williams famously donned a dress onscreen, and in which Fierstein himself had a cameo role.

Cast of Kinky Boots, which opens at London’s Adelphi Theatre on September 15. Top: actor Matt Henry, who takes the title role of Lola, in rehearsal. Photo: Johan Persson
Cast of Kinky Boots, which opens at London’s Adelphi Theatre on September 15. Top: actor Matt Henry, who takes the title role of Lola, in rehearsal. Photo: Johan Persson

But he gets extremely defensive when I try to point it out. “It’s like asking David Mamet, if you were interviewing him, ‘You had some heterosexuals in your last play, is there a reason you have heterosexuals in this play?’. To me, that’s absolutely ridiculous. Mrs Doubtfire is about a man dressing as a woman so that he can see his children. It has nothing in common with La Cage, Torch Song or Casa Valentina at all.”

Fierstein Q&ANo – but other themes do echo around his work, such as the relationship of people to their parents. It defines both Torch Song Trilogy and Kinky Boots. When he was first approached to write the book for Kinky Boots by its director Jerry Mitchell, Fierstein initially turned it down: “I’d seen the movie and loved it, but I don’t see any reason to take everything you love and stick songs in it. When something is right the way it is, you should leave it alone. But when I watched it again, I saw an inkling of something to make it sing and mean something to everyone watching: it was the story of growing up and feeling that you’ve disappointed your parents, that you didn’t do what they wanted from you. These people couldn’t be more opposite from each other, and yet they had the same problem – and it was their problem, not the parents’ problem. We let that paralyse us sometimes. No one really grows out of wanting their parents’ approval; we turn very old still wanting it. Mostly, though, we have their approval. It’s our own approval we don’t have.”

Comparing it to Torch Song Trilogy, however, Fierstein says: “That turns out a little different – my character there doesn’t have his mother’s approval. She never approves of Arnold. It’s not what I was going for in Kinky Boots – its a very different parental relationship and has a very different outcome. This is about the paralysing power we put on our parents and give to them, and the disapproval we give ourselves, which is not the same kind of thing at all.”

He adds: “Usually my characters have very high self-esteem, but [in Kinky Boots] they’re very wounded individuals. It’s about two men who couldn’t be more different, but have the same problem – they feel as if they’re failures to their fathers.”

Fierstein has made a considerable success, by contrast, of the theatre. He gets defensive, again, when I point out a theme in his work: “I love that you are trying to tie my work together. You know what, I would say that being human is a big part of my work. It’s fine for you to see it that way, but it’s not the way I look at my work, the way I think about my work or the way I approach my work. That’s nothing I care to talk about – it’s just not in my vocabulary. Being human is in my vocabulary.”

So, nowadays, are musicals – both as writer and performer, which is where the big money on Broadway is. But not always: “I’ve been run over by a bus or two in my time,” he says, referring to the fates of Legs Diamond and more recently A Catered Affair, though he says of the latter: “I very much want to see an English production – I really believe that, were it done again there, it could be rediscovered. John [Bucchino’s] score is really beautiful. I think the message of the show – of living your whole life not realising you had everything you wanted right in your hands and not seeing it – is a beautiful one.”

He has woken up to a realisation that ties in with it: “The one thing I keep figuring out the longer I’m alive – and right now I think I’m in my third or fourth century, I’m very old – is that there are no right answers. I keep asking the big juicy questions about what it is to be alive, and what it is to be happy and satisfied.”

Would he call himself happy now? “I am insanely lucky. I’m wildly happy in many things in my life. I’m a total failure at some things, but I do other things rather well, and I have sort of come to terms with that. But I’ve done so much on my own terms and created this world of my own, I would be a fool and ungrateful to be unhappy with my life.”

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