Andrew Levitt (AKA Nina West) Talks Hairspray, Harvey Fierstein, and Drag Queen Story Hour
Levitt is starring in the national tour of Hairspray, which has stops scheduled through 2023.
Andrew Levitt has spent most of 2022 on a cross-country tour of the Tony-winning musical Hairspray, in which he is starring as Edna, the mother of Baltimore dance sensation Tracy Turnblad. The role was famously played in the 1988 film by John Waters muse Divine, and then on Broadway by Harvey Fierstein.
"I was terrified about Harvey," Levitt confessed in a recent interview with TheaterMania. He knew that he would be compared to all the actors who had taken the role previously: Divine, John Travolta…but Harvey Fierstein (and his trademark voice) was the one that loomed large in the imaginations of musical theater fans. "I've been lucky enough to befriend Harvey," he said, "and the thing that he told me was that I had to play the truth. How was she real to me? That calmed me down a lot."
No stranger to earnest expressions of motherly love, Levitt is best known by television audiences as Nina West from season 11 of RuPaul's Drag Race, where he won the title of "Miss Congeniality" for the season. We spoke to him at the end of a six-week break in the tour, just ahead of Hairspray's relaunch in Paducah, Kentucky, which is tonight!
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You've been on the road quite a bit as Nina West, but have you ever done anything like this?
Andrew Levitt: I've toured around the world and seen a lot of venues and bars and trucks and buses. This is a whole new beast. Nina is my own creation, right? So I know her own boundaries and I know where I can take that character. When I feel myself bombing as Nina, I know how to pull the audience back in. This, I've had to remind myself, is a different skill. I'm also not trying to make Edna a caricature. I want her to be a real mother that you can connect to.
Is this a role that you ever thought you would be playing?
Never in a million years. I've done drag for 22 years, but I had all these questions: Was I old enough? Was I too old? Would people take me seriously enough as an actor?
What made you get over those doubts?
When Jerry Mitchell [the choreographer] called me and said, "We want you for Edna Turnblad."
An actual paycheck always helps. As you mentioned, Edna is a mother who is reluctant for her daughter to be on television because she thinks she's going to be ridiculed. Did you have someone like that in your life when it comes to your drag career?
My mom. Not necessarily as it related to my drag career, but as it related to my queer identity. I really remember those conversations I had with her as a teenager very clearly. I think my mom was afraid that the world was going to kick me and abuse me and leave me to be collected with the trash. And she didn't want that for me. I really identify with Tracy in that regard. But Edna takes the biggest journey in that regard, and I think a lot of moms will relate to that.
Do you actually get to see any of the cities you're visiting, or do you remain cloistered for Covid reasons?
When we started the tour in November 2021, I was very much a nun. As a performer, Covid can really knock you (and the production) down. But I discovered as the tour progressed that I really like going to local bookstores. The people who work in local bookstores tend to want to share and provide knowledge about local attractions you might not otherwise know about. And so I always find that to be a really great touchstone in a new city.
Was there a particularly excellent one you visited this past year?
There's a comic book store in Grand Rapids called Vault of Midnight. I think there's a location in Detroit too. I'm not a massive comic book reader, but they had an incredible selection. They had a wonderful queer section, and everyone there had suggestions about what I should see and where I should eat in Grand Rapids. It was a nice surprise.
You are now a children's book author with The You Kind of Kind, and I understand you have done a drag queen story hour or two in your time. Are you surprised that this activity (drag queens reading stories to children in libraries) has become such a source of rage on the right?
No, because I think that they're using it as a distraction tactic. Why wouldn't they target people who are giant markers of queerness? The conservative right will grab onto anything they can to distract from what they're actually doing, which is pulling apart our democracy and our country. While you have anti-trans bills and laws restricting a woman's right to choose going through legislatures, they're saying, Look…that freak in a wig is the problem. Queens all across the country and local communities have been doing these storytimes in libraries, which are about the free exchange of knowledge; and now we have people trying to shut down free speech and banning books. So I'm not surprised.
You were recently rehearsing in New York. What was the best show you saw while you were here?
Oh my God. I am obsessed with Titanique. OBSESSED. I saw it twice in a week. Marla Mindelle has done an incredible character study and she is just a remarkable actress and singer.
When are we going to see you on Drag Race All Stars?
Drag Race changed everything. I can't imagine my life being this fabulous if it weren't for RuPaul. All Stars is this big mammoth that I haven't been able to wrap my head around, only because I'm still benefiting the opportunities that have come to me following season 11. So I would love to do All Stars, but I'm booked up with Hairspray through summer 2023.