It’s a Dickensian Christmas this year for American gays, the best of times and the worst of times. The dread disease AIDS continues to ravage the homosexual community. Yet there is a renewed spirit of gay pride and a heightened public awareness of gay problems, thanks in significant measure to a voluble playwright and actor named Harvey Fierstein.
Even by Broadway standards, the sometimes campy, sometimes deadly serious Fierstein, 29, is a creature of surprises. He wrote and for 20 months starred in Torch Song Trilogy, a 3-hour 40-minute art-imitates-life saga about a drag queen’s rites of passage to domesticity as the parent of an adopted gay teenager (Fierstein himself worked as a drag queen on his 11-year route from Brooklyn to Broadway). Torch Song won Fierstein two Tony awards last spring, one for best actor and the other for best play. It also paved the way for the next Harvey happening, La Cage aux Folles, a tender Jerry Herman musical directed by Arthur Laurents, which just happens to be about the woes of an aging drag queen and his devoted lover on the Côte d’Azur.
Fierstein wrote the book for the splashy show (based on a Paris play and not, he says, on the hit movie of the same name) and gave La Cage its surprisingly sentimental core. “Critics expected freaktime,” says Fierstein. “They wanted to see bitchy drag queens and ugly people they could sit and laugh at and feel superior to. But that’s not the way I see homosexuals.”
His more universal and upbeat view of homosexuality is presented to theater audiences as a two-part lesson. “Torch Song deals with the issue of a man who is fighting his homosexuality,” explains Harvey. “La Cage goes a hell of a lot further. It expresses the attitude that homosexuality is normal.”
Whatever the permutations under discussion, the language is anything but raunchy and is often saccharine enough to bring a few critical slams. “Look, we were writing a 5 million dollar musical,” sputters Fierstein. “We didn’t want it to be offensive. We wanted it to be universal.”
Fierstein, who gets two percent of the gross of La Cage (about $9,000 a week) and seven percent of Torch Song (about $8,000 a week), proved that gay is bankable. “Now that Torch Song is the No. 1 straight play on Broadway and La Cage is the No. 1 musical, I hear daily of gay projects being resurrected,” says Fierstein.
Someday there may even be a gay sitcom on television. NBC was all set to buy Fierstein’s idea for a series about a New York homosexual. But Harvey put off the project for at least a year because of other commitments, including plans to star in the London Torch Song and maybe even the movie. Once the series premieres, Fierstein hopes it will be educational as well as funny. “Many people don’t know what a homosexual is,” says Harvey. “They think he’s a creature who has sex a lot. They don’t even consider that a homosexual has the same sexual problems a heterosexual does—impotence, uptightness, performance anxiety, everything except birth control.”
By widening awareness, Fierstein may also accomplish another of his goals: helping gays to adopt children. “We have love. We have money. If we could adopt kids and give them homes, we could close down every orphanage in America,” he says.
Harvey wouldn’t mind becoming an adoptive papa himself someday, but he has other priorities. He is enjoying the blush of domestic bliss in his new Brooklyn apartment. His lover of a year, an actor-writer from Texas, lives in Queens. “When we walk down the street holding hands, people look at us,” he reports. “Sometimes, I think to myself how much easier it would have been to be straight.”
The thought passes quickly, especially now that Fierstein is being touted as the great gay hope. “I’m no dope. I know the glow doesn’t last,” he says, trying to be philosophical. But isn’t it nice to be the toast of Broadway, even for a moment? “I’m not the toast,” Harvey demurs. “I’m the jam.”