Broadway legend talks Kinky Boots, his ‘legendary disaster’ and how drag influenced the gay movement
By: Chris Azzopardi/Special to TRT—
“I’m sorry,” Harvey Fierstein growls in his unmistakable Brooklyn gravel, “I gotta go on with my life.” And so, after our insightful 40-minute chat peppered with Fierstein’s true-to-form frankness, he does.
But for Fierstein, a revered Broadway legend known for an iconic writing répertoire that includes Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage aux Folles and, more recently, Kinky Boots, this isn’t just the Tony Award winner’s blunt way of concluding our extensive conversation. It’s a way of life.
On the heels of a national Kinky Boots tour, Fierstein reflects on the past – sticking up for the “sissies,” what he calls his “legendary disaster,” and how his own “12 steps of happiness” inspired his latest Broadway smash – but, still, the 62-year-old’s very much living in the present, and for the future.
Q. Hello, Harvey; this is Chris Azzopardi.
A. Chris Azzopardi?! You could add an “h” at the beginning and make (your name) Chris Hazz-a-pardi!
Q. You think you’re the first one to say that, Harvey, don’t you?
A. (Laughs) I don’t think so. It’s like the first time I did a show with The Muppets. I said to one of The Muppets, “I’d like to see you do that to me without someone’s hand up your …” And he said, “You think you’re the first person to say that?!”
Q. Well, I’m certainly not the first person to tell you that Kinky Boots is a massive hit. When you first began writing the musical, did you imagine it would become as successful as it’s been?
A. You know, you don’t. I’m really old. I’ve been around a really long time, and I’ve had – knock wood – an unbelievable run of hits, and I’ve had some horrible misses and a couple of in-betweens, but you go into all of them with the same heart.
I’ve done a couple for the wrong reasons. I did one to try and make money, which is really a very bad reason, and you make no money doing it that way. I’ve learned that lesson, and I would never do that again. But you basically go in for the right reason because you’re gonna spend years of your life involved with these characters, with these collaborators. And it’s not something you take on lightly if you’ve ever done it because, well, Kinky Boots took almost five years to write.
Q. It’s clearly been a labor of love for you.
A. They have to be. That’s exactly why they have to be a labor of love, because from sitting down and starting work, which was a year or more before I even called Cyndi (Lauper, who wrote the music and lyrics), to the opening in Korea (in December 2014), we’re now up to seven or eight years. It’s part of your life for the rest of your life.
(Composer and lyricist) Jerry Herman and I wrote La Cage 30-something years ago and we are still the parents of that show. We still have to talk about it all the time. So, to say, “Did you know it was gonna be a big hit?” No, you don’t know. You go in with the best hopes and the best intentions of doing something that will entertain, which is our number one job.
Q. What’s a project you did for the wrong reasons?
A. Legs Diamond. I had a friend who was directing it (in 1988). Peter Allen had AIDS and his best friend who was writing it for him, who was not a writer but a clothing designer, had AIDS dementia. My friend Robert (Allan Ackerman) called me up and said, “Look, will you come in on this? I know it’s a terrible idea – Peter Allen as Legs Diamond – but all we have to do is get Peter out there, let him shake his ass, sing a couple of numbers, and we can just cash the checks.” And I drank the Kool-Aid.
Q. Did you feel obligated?
A. I did because Peter wanted this so badly. I knew he was in the early stages (of AIDS), and in those days the early stages didn’t last that long. I believed he had a couple of years, and I wanted to give him his dream even though I thought it was a terrible dream.
Q. Any regrets?
A. No, I don’t regret doing it because, well, first of all the score of that show became the basis of The Boy from Oz. Also, my friend Robert and some of the actors and I had a very good time laughing at the whole thing. I mean, I got lots of theater stories out of it because it was such a disaster. It’s one of those Broadway legend disasters. You have to have one of those! Let’s put it this way – it’s much better to have a legendary disaster than to go quietly into the night and flop.
Q. When it came to Kinky Boots, why was it important for you to take that on, to write that piece?
It wasn’t. (Laughs) Truthfully, I was performing in my (2007) show A Catered Affair at the time and (Kinky Boots choreographer) Jerry Mitchell called me and said he wanted me to write it. I had already turned Jerry down for another show, and I said to myself, “You can’t turn him down on this one because he’s not gonna ask again.”
I’d known the movie; I had watched the movie and I loved the movie. But loving a movie is exactly the wrong reason to wanna do it, because if the movie is great, what the fuck are you gonna do? I get calls all the time from people who have money, you know, and they love movies, so they think, “Oh, this could be a Broadway show ’cause I loved this movie.”
The example I like to use – because I don’t think it’ll ever happen, but maybe it will – is The Devil Wears Prada. So, I get a call: “Would you write the musical of The Devil Wears Prada? and I say, “OK. What is it you loved about Devil? “Oh my god – Meryl Streep is just so-o-o…” “Well, you’re not gonna have Meryl Streep. You don’t get Meryl Streep. And no, you can’t have Anne Hathaway either.” The real story is all in close-ups and in tiny relationships. What are you singing about?! So, now that I’ve given you Harvey’s lecture of Why Not To Do A Movie…
So, I watched Kinky Boots again, which I lo-o-oved, and it hit me that there’s this wonderful message about accepting yourself and all that crap, which is the easy message; it’s the message that people think they see when they see Kinky Boots. That’s only the beginning of the real message of Kinky Boots. What I saw in that show were two boys wounded by and immobilized by their parents’ ideas of who they should be. I grew up in a household where my father and my mother used to call my brother “the doctor” and me “the lawyer” and it was because I would argue everything.
Q. So, early on, and like a lot of parents do, they had already placed expectations on you.
A. As an adult, I look back at it as a family joke, but in a funny way, I did grow up with that expectation. It’s amazing how those little nicknames really affected the rest of our lives. Now imagine that those nicknames aren’t really a joke and they’re something more real. So Charlie (in Kinky Boots) grew up in a home where the family business was Price & Son, and – guess what? – he was the next generation’s son, so the moment he was born he’s supposed to go into that factory.
Lola’s father, who was a professional fighter, takes a look at his kid and says, “Oh my god. Not only is he black, which is hard enough in this world, but he’s a faggot.” He teaches him to box, not that he ever expects him to be a fighter, but at least he can take care of himself. It’s a beautiful gesture on the father’s side, but it’s a gesture that ends up paralyzing Lola, and these two boys meet each other in this paralyzed state where Lola is a drag performer but a drag performer with anger.
I really believe that Lola is heterosexual – a heterosexual transvestite; he’s actually sexless. I don’t give him any partner in the show because he’s so paralyzed and angry, and he doesn’t like the essence of who he is. He understands what makes him happy, but he’s not there yet. There’s a moment in Act 1 where Charlie asks Lola to be the designer of these shoes and Lola says, “A designer?! Me, a designer?! Gimme feathers, glitter and a hot glue gun and I can make the world a pretty place… but a designer?!”
Q. From what I’ve seen in interviews, you and Cyndi have a very natural rapport. Has collaborating with her on Kinky Boots changed your relationship?
A. We’ve spent years together, so obviously it’s not the same as a celebrity relationship where you say “hi” to each other at benefits. That’s one kind of relationship, or one that passes for a “relationship” in certain parts of the world. (Laughs)
Five years is a long period of time, and I know everything going on in her life and she knows everything going on in mine. And it wasn’t just the two of us. It was Jerry also. Jerry Mitchell was very much a part of making sure the show stayed on track. Cyndi describes it as – she was Dorothy, and Jerry and (orchestrator) Stephen Oremus and I were the Tin Man, the Lion and the Scarecrow. And it is! You’re on a journey together, so you do become part of each other’s lives just in the writing of the show.
During the writing of the show, both Jerry and I lost our mothers, so talk about a show that’s gonna give you some place to mourn. Kinky Boots is one of the most joyous things that you’ll ever sit through – it just makes you so fucking happy – but there’s this undercurrent of real pain. These people are real, and they’re really hurting and that’s what makes it so human. You know, you can do funny and you can do fun, and the audience can walk out with a smile on its face and say, “Where are we going to dinner?” I do that all the time. That’s not how our audience walks out. I don’t read reviews, but I’ve seen enough people saying, “It has such a simple message,” and I laugh and say, “If it has such a simple message, why is it changing people’s hearts so completely?”
Q. Perhaps the effect of Kinky Boots is subconsciously transformative.
A. Exactly. I gave the commencement speech years ago at Bennington College, and then Cyndi and I were talking about the finale of the show. I didn’t really wanna (end it like the movie); it’s redundant onstage. It’s just unnecessary. I decided we would end it the way we wanted to end it, but we needed to give it that sort of “we’re all in this together” thing, so I gave Cyndi this speech that I gave at Bennington, which had my 12 steps of happiness, and Cyndi said, “We ain’t got no time for 12 damn steps! We’ll cut it down to six.” Most people have heard of a 12-step program, but what they can do in 12, we can do in six; the six lead characters sing the six steps to happiness. It really is about that inner healing.
Q. So much of your professional career has thrived on drag. How do you think the act of drag has evolved since the ’70s, when you first started doing it yourself? Does it still hold the same distinction?
A. No – but drag’s been part of every culture. Drag is part of every culture that we know of. Whether it’s Native American cultures or East Indian cultures or American, European, Old World, New World, there’s a fascination with sexuality and there’s a fascination we have of the opposite sex. A girl puts on a man’s suit and feels a certain way. There’s a certain empowerment that she’s assigned subconsciously. Same thing with male to female. There’s a certain power behind hiding who you are.
Q. Is the act of drag still as powerful as it was when you were doing it?
A. Sure it is. Obviously, thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race and other things, it’s reached every corner of the population. I remember back in the ’70s when David Bowie was doing drag and people were saying it wasn’t drag. Well, what do you call it when a boy does his hair up and wears lipstick?! I don’t know what you call it, Mary, but I call that drag! (Laughs) So yeah, it can come out of the closet more. It can be used to express this or that. Drag can be used sexually, politically; it can be used to challenge. And it can be used to hide behind.
As far as my work goes, I find it incredibly insulting when somebody says, “Why do you use drag so much?” I say, “Why does (playwright) David Mamet write about heterosexuals all the time? And why does nobody ever ask David Mamet, ‘Is this another heterosexual show? Wasn’t your last play about heterosexuals?’” Or Aaron Sorkin – “Well, Aaron, you know, you had heterosexuals in your last piece; do we have to see another heterosexual piece from you?” Nobody says that crap.
Q. Why do you think that’s the case?
A. Because we hate ourselves, that’s why. Because we look for ways to put ourselves down, and we don’t like ourselves very much because we’re trained not to. If you look at the stylebook of any major media outlet – read an article in The New York Times – it’s written as if the person reading it is a heterosexual white male. They just assume that everyone in the world is reading it through those prejudiced eyes, and you can’t change that unless you change that.
Q. How do you think drag has been instrumental in moving the gay rights movement along?
A. Because it’s undeniable. It’s in your face. The Stonewall riots would not have happened without drag queens. I was around in those days. I was a little kid just trying to learn about the world, and I’d go to those meetings at the GAA (Gay Activists Alliance) and there were still people from the Mattachine Society, which had been around since the ’50s. Basically, their opinion was, let’s wear the white shirts and the black skinny ties that the Madison Avenue guys wear and let them see that there’s nothing to be afraid of. That was a really big thing in the early gay movement – they were scared of us; let them see there’s nothing to be scared of. I was always of the opinion that they just need to see us everywhere; they need to see us in white shirts and skinny ties, and they need to see us in white gowns with black shawls. They need to see us everywhere, every way – and every image of us, negative or positive, is one more time they can no longer even think that we don’t exist.
You know, there’s a moment in Vito Russo’s movie The Celluloid Closet where they edited it with Arthur Laurents saying, “I hate sissies,” and it cuts to me quickly and I say, “I love sissies!” and I basically make that point – visibility at any price. I mean, sometimes I get really pissed off. Last year I was called out for being so angry at that stupid ass-wipe figure skater…
Q. Johnny Weir?
Yeah, that a$$hole. Because on the 10th anniversary of gay marriage becoming legal (in Massachusetts) he was putting out press releases saying that he has a new marriage contract— a prenup saying you can’t touch another person’s [email protected], you can’t put it in your mouth, you can’t put it in your a$$. And I’m doing radio interviews, and instead of talking about the power of gay marriage and how all these states have gay marriage and the world hasn’t fallen in and all that, I’m being asked instead about that ass-wipe’s prenup!
Q. That sounds frustrating.
A. It’s horribly frustrating, and I have to sort of remind myself that there’s someone out there – I don’t know who the fuck it is—that saw in his horrible behavior and his self-loathing something that will help them in their lives. I have to trust that as many people went running back in the closet seeing him show up in a Russian uniform with glitter and encrusted costume jewelry that there’s also somebody who saw that and said, “Oh, I’m not alone.”
Q. If you don’t mind, I’d like to take a moment to remember Robin Williams, who you were close friends and colleagues with. You co-starred with Robin on Mrs. Doubtfire, and he was such an ally; what do you think Robin’s legacy will be to the gay community?
A. You know, ahh. I really… I have a very hard time – all of us, any of his friends – talking about Robin. In fact, I went to San Francisco to do the press for Kinky Boots, and when I was there I sat down and had lunch with Armistead Maupin because I said, “I have to mourn this and I don’t know how.” We were sort of able to talk, and you try to reach out that way and … I don’t know. You’re asking a question I don’t know. It’s way too early to think about anything like that. I can barely say his name without crying.
Q. Understandably so. What piece of work do you most want to be remembered for?
A. I’m a big believer in that phrase, “Look back but don’t stare.” If you came to my house, you’d see my theater posters and movie posters hanging on a wall, but they decorate a wall of a store room. My awards are pretty much put away. I don’t live with, or I try not to live with, that past. People in my business become Miss Havisham very easily, living surrounded by the bones of our victims. (Laughs)
So thinking about what I want to be remembered for – whenever that kind of thought even hits me, I try to dismiss it. I don’t believe in life after death, so whoever’s gonna remember me is none of my business, certainly. I ain’t gonna know about it. I would like to think I changed lives – I mean, I get lots of emails saying, “Seeing Torch Song changed my life, seeing this changed my life,” and that’s wonderful. But I don’t need to worry about if I’m gonna be remembered. I ain’t gonna be here to know if I’m being remembered or forgotten!
*Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com.