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Relighting Harvey Fierstein's Legendary Torch 40 Years Later

Relighting Harvey Fierstein's Legendary Torch 40 Years Later

Torch Song Trilogy
Micheal Urie at right is the star of the Torch Song Trilogy Broadway revival with costar Mercedes Ruehl and original playwright and actor Harvey Fierstein.

Four decades after the first production of Torch Song Trilogy, the groundbreaking play is back with new urgency.

In February 1978, a groundbreaking play made its off-off Broadway debut. Torch Song Trilogy captured the hearts of audiences in the late-'70s and early-1980s, becoming one of the most compelling and beloved queer plays of its time. Written by and starring gay actor Harvey Fierstein, it follows Arnold Beckoff's journey to find happiness in New York City. All the female impersonator wants is a husband, a child, and a pair of bunny slippers that fit. But a visit from his overbearing mother reminds him that he needs something else too: respect.

The production moved to Broadway in 1982, where it ran for three years before being made into a movie in 1988, starring Fierstein and Matthew Broderick. Now, a 35th anniversary revival has a limited engagement at the Hayes Theater, the same venue that housed the original production. Directed by Moises Kauffman (writer of The Laramie Project) and starring Broadway and TV actor Michael Urie (Ugly Betty, Hamlet) as Arnold, the work is capturing the hearts of a new generation on its own search for respect, against the backdrop of social media trolls and the hate-embracing Trump administration.

"Those are big stilettos to fill," quips Urie, about following in Fierstein's footsteps. Urie was approached on separate occasions by Kauffman and executive producer Richie Jackson about taking on the role. When producers organized a read through for Fierstein to "audition" the actor, the legendary playwright jokingly yelled to Urie, "Oh, you just want to wear a dress!" From that moment on, it was destiny. The new production is a shortened version of the play, and is retitled simply as Torch Song.

"When we read it out loud, it felt like it was written yesterday. I think the really great plays will always feel timeless," Urie explains. "When it was done originally, most people who were seeing the play didn't know anyone like Arnold. I think the reason why the play was able to run for so long is because Arnold was the first out gay person these people had met."

"I have the luxury of not being the first gay person our audiences are meeting," Urie adds. "So I'm given the liberty to lean into anger and I'm allowed to be unlikable at times, and we don't have to worry about alienating the audience. I don't know if it's better or worse, but it's definitely an extra color."

Kauffman agrees, saying of the two-hour-and-forty-minute play (the original was over four hours), "It's a great night out, and it's a play that speaks to our time. In our community, we still have to come out as gay," adding that "there's been a lot of progress, but every time there's progression in our movement, there is a little bit of backlash... I think that with this madman in the presidency it's important to keep as vigilant as ever."

Jackson, who once worked as Fierstein's assistant in 1987 and has since become a staunch activist and producer himself, understands the power for young queer people to see the play. He was only 17 when he saw Torch SongTrilogy for the first time.

"It's really important for young gay people to see characters like Arnold because it's young people who are going to fight to save us," Jackson points out. "This government wants us to be able to be fired because we're gay. There are over 108 anti-LGBT bills in state legislatures. They're going to pick away at [same-sex] marriage. We're being banned from the military again. So we need to show young people who the warriors were who got us where we are. Arnold, in 1979, firmly planted his feet on the ground and he made the world come around to him."

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Torch Song Trilogy was running at the height of the AIDS crisis, an era that took many people away--those who would have "gently guided this younger generation into adulthood," Jackson points out.

For Jackson, the power of art and theater can be a safe haven for young queers. And he doesn't take it lightly. "I think if you feel alone in the community you're in, one of the places to realize you're not alone is art and literature," he says. "Immerse yourself with the gay writers and gay artists, because they will show you you're part of a much wider community than you think."

Get details on Torch Song here.

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