Karine Jean-Pierre
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Harvey Fierstein Worked With Andy Warhol Before Making Broadway History

harvey fierstein

Long before becoming one of the most revered and decorated artists in theater history — writing or starring in shows like Hairspray, La Cage aux Folles, and Torch Song Trilogy Harvey Fierstein was simply a student at New York’s Pratt Institute, one who had no intention of pursuing a life onstage. “I didn’t want to be an actor. I didn’t want to be a writer. That was not in my vocabulary. Not in my wants at all.”

Fierstein had acted in small parts in community theater and school productions, but what he wanted was to become a visual artist like Andy Warhol. Having discovered and fallen in love with Warhol’s drawings of shoes in ads for Bloomingdale’s, Fierstein quickly became a devotee, so when he saw that there was an open call for a new play, Pork, written by none other than Warhol himself, Fierstein went to the audition. “Not to get a role in the show but to meet him, and of course, who’s there? Not Andy Warhol," he recounts on this week's LGBTQ&A podcast. (Click here to listen.)

Armed with Juliet’s monologue from her famous balcony scene with Romeo (“Thou know’st the mask of night is on my face, else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek...”), Fierstein went through with the audition, wowed those in attendance, and was cast in the role of a young female maid. This allowed him to meet his idol and many others “in this movement called off-off-Broadway, this experimental theater movement.” Fierstein says, “During the day I’m being lectured about, ‘And then there’s this artist named Ray Johnson who is creating this movement called mail art.’ Well, I’m hanging out with Ray Johnson at night. So they’re telling me about this art movement during the day — I’m living it at night.”

Pork wasn’t the first time Fierstein played a woman onstage. He’d first gotten into drag at the age of 7, and he has continued, famously, to play women, most recently starring off-Broadway as the famed American feminist and former Congresswoman Bella Abzug and, before that, his Tony Award-winning turn as Edna Turnblad in the musical Hairspray.

Getting to play Edna for years was a profound experience, one that allowed Fierstein to fall in love with all parts of himself, including his gender. In his new memoir, I Was Better Last Night (out now), he writes, “I came to feel most at home when I was her. Maybe it was the role, maybe it was the costumes, maybe it was the enormous rubber tits. Maybe it was all just a joke played on me, but I believed in Edna.”

Fierstein’s had a lifetime of what he refers to as “gender issues” and had started asking himself if he was a girl as far back as 5 years old. “It was not in our vocabulary then,” he says. “It was so far out of our vocabulary. And, I mean, and who the hell do you talk to about something like that when you’re 5 or 6?” He does not want to transition; he’s clear on that. “The answer’s no...in the acting, I get to do that. Playing women’s roles has allowed me to do that and has allowed me to express my female self.”

To Fierstein, the joy of being an artist is the great privilege it is to be able to ask life's most challenging questions. “If you don’t ask questions, then what the fuck are you doing?... That’s the adventure. The adventure is getting the answer. Or going towards an answer."

Harvey Fierstein and Marsha P. Johnson

Harvey Fierstein at a Pride march with his friends, Jon Jon and Marsha P. Johnson

That’s one of the through lines of his remarkable career: He has always run headfirst into the most exciting adventure in front of him. After appearing in Pork at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club off-off-Broadway, he continued to make theatre that showcased the queer experience, a rarity for the 1970s. One of his early pieces, The International Stud, was inspired by the Greenwich Village gay bar of the same name, famous for having a backroom where men could engage in anonymous sex. The International Stud became the first act of Torch Song Trilogy, which opened on Broadway in 1982, making Fierstein the first and, at the time, only out gay leading man on Broadway. He made further history, winning the Tony Award for Best Play and Best Actor in a Play for Torch Song Trilogy (one year later he would win a third Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical for La Cage aux Folles). The only other person to have won a Tony Award for both writing and acting is Tracy Letts, the playwright of August: Osage County who won a Tony for the 2012 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

While his onstage achievements are bold and memorable, Fierstein’s work behind the scenes has proven equally meaningful. La Cage aux Folles won Best Musical at the 1984 Tony Awards for its original production and then won for Best Revival in 2005 and 2010; the only other show with this record is The King and I. Fierstein wrote the book for Kinky Boots, A Catered Affair, Newsies, the upcoming revival of Funny Girl starring Beanie Feldstein, and is working on seven other projects, based on his most recent count.

At 69, Fierstein isn’t slowing down, and lucky for us. Now, with the publication of I Was Better Last Night, fans can see how Fierstein became one of the most consequential theater artists of our time.

You can listen to the full interview with Fierstein on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

I Was Better Last Night is available now. 

I Was Better Last Night A MEMOIR By Harvey Fierstein

This is the third episode in LGBTQ&A's new LGBTQ+ Elders Project. You can listen to the first episode with 87-year-old Barbara Satin here

New episodes come out every Tuesday.

LGBTQ&A is The Advocate's weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Pete Buttigieg, Laverne Cox, Brandi Carlile, Billie Jean King, and Roxane Gay.

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