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Harvey Fierstein as Bella Abzug on Audible Is as Prescient as Ever

Harvey Fierstein's one-man show about one of the most influential women in politics, Bella Abzug, has found a new home on Audible.
Bruce Gilkas/Bettman Getty Images

Fierstein pays homage to one of the most influential women in politics in Bella Bella.

There's a line in Harvey Fierstein's Bella Bella, about the firebrand politician and feminist Bella Abzug, that is completely of-the-moment, although referencing a U.S. president from 45 years ago.

"Gerald Ford, who has forevermore proven that no matter what you do, you can get away with it as long as you have powerful friends," Abzug says in the play. She could just as well be referring to Donald Trump and his cronies.

And that's the way Fierstein, who eventually stepped in to play the role, intended it. Bella Bella ties America's past to its present, especially in terms of the treatment of women who enter the boys' club of national politics. The 2016 presidential election and the sexist treatment of Hillary Clinton, akin to how Abzug was treated, was the impetus for the show.

"What is the word they use for women who don't shut up, who actually open their mouth?" Fierstein, who is equal measures artist and activist, asks rhetorically. "Women who actually speak? Hillary was accused of it all the time, and so was Bella. Anyway, now we're watching this Cheeto king [Donald Trump] of ours, pardoning his friends and nobody's screaming about it. Could you imagine if Obama did anything like this?"

Bella Bella premiered at New York City Center in October of 2019. The one-person show was made to be performed in front of a live audience. But, with theaters shuttered for the foreseeable future, the play has found a second life where it can reach even more people. Laced with searing humor that's part Fierstein, part Abzug, and anecdotes from Abzug's life as a civil rights attorney, a crusader for women's rights, and a ceiling-cracking politician, Bella Bella translates seamlessly to its new iteration as an Audible Original under the direction of Kimberly Senior.

Bella Bella

The piece is set in 1976 in the bathroom of a New York City midtown hotel room on the night Abzug awaited the results of a five-way race she'd entered to become "the first-ever female senatorial candidate from the great state of New York," as the character says. To that point, Abzug had never run for anything that she hadn't won..."eventually," Fierstein says in the opening minutes of the play.

Abzug has had a renaissance year with Margo Martindale portraying her in the Cate Blanchett led Mrs. America on Hulu, which follows the trajectory of the Equal Rights Amendment and the rise of right-wing women led by Phyllis Schlafly. In the Julie Taymor film The Glorias, based on Gloria Steinem's memoir, Bette Midler plays Abzug. In those pieces, she's an ancillary character. Fierstein places her center stage (indeed the only one on the stage), illuminating her enormous contributions to politics and as a civil rights attorney who took on the Jim Crow South and Joe McCarthy, and who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

The playwright of pivotal queer works including Torch Song Trilogy and On Tidy Endings, Fierstein is perhaps best known lately for picking up an iron and stepping into a muumuu as Edna Turnblad in the Broadway smash Hairspray. Heavy hitters like Patti LuPone and Kathy Bates had been in consideration for the role in Bella Bella. But it was decided that Fierstein, who moved in Abzug's circles, would take it on.

"I knew her more in the late '70s," Fierstein says of his fellow New Yorker. The two met through human rights work (Abzug was an early advocate of LGBTQ+ rights) and through "one of her dearest friends, Shirley MacLaine," he says.

"From afar, I knew her, growing up -- obviously Jewish -- in Brooklyn, with a mother who wore a hat because Bella wore a hat," he adds. "When I was a teen, I knew things [about her], like, her first day in Congress they told her to take off her hat. That was a big area of discussion," he says. "I grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, so 'discussion' meant people sitting on the front stoop, during the High Holy Days, gossiping and listening to the adults talk. 'Can you believe she didn't take off the hat?' 'She took off the hat.' 'She took off the hat, but they had to yell at her.' 'Well, why should she have to take off her hat?'"

Acutely aware of his position as the male playwright of a show about a famous woman, Fierstein was careful in his portrayal of her and opted to steer clear of drag (and the hats). He even invited some of Abzug's famous friends to watch him craft the play in hopes that they would call him out when necessary.

"I didn't ever want to impersonate her," he says. And so, icons like Marlo Thomas, Lily Tomlin, and Gloria Steinem weighed in.

"I wanted this to be as honest as it could possibly be. So I would stand there as a male writer and performer, not in women's clothing, in men's clothing, as stripped down as I possibly could, and give you my view of what Bella was and who she was and what she wanted to say."

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