The star of Hairspray dishes with TheaterMania's Jim Caruso.
Casting Harvey Fierstein in a big, splashy Broadway musical like Hairspray is a bit like putting a hat on a hat: This walking extravaganza is a flashy event unto himself. Outside the theater, his appearance causes some minor hysteria: Sneaking up behind a ticket buyer who looks like Abe Vigoda, he gives an impromptu neck massage. The fellow thinks it's a loving gesture from his wife until he hears the familiar Fierstein rattle ("I love you!") in his ear. The poor man will never be the same.
Dozens of box cameras flash while Harvey poses and camps with a busload of thrilled high school kids, and then he does some chumming with the local ticket scalper: "Four hundred bucks to see me in a dress? Can you fuckin' believe it?!" He's as obscene and adorable and loving as you hope he'll be -- and then some. Our mutual friend, the comedian Pudgy, once said that Harvey is "a party waiting to happen." Truer words have never been spoken. Over grilled cheese sandwiches at the local greasy spoon, our party begins...
HARVEY FIERSTEIN: So, guess who was in the audience a few weeks ago? Barbara Walters! We were all so excited, we waited backstage for her to come back to say hello. She didn't come...she didn't come...then we heard that she had lost an earring in the house and the entire place was on their hands and knees searching. I mean everyone -- ushers, audience members. Twenty minutes, this went on. They finally found it in her limo.
JIM CARUSO: Were you out there helping on your hands and knees?
HARVEY: Yeah, right. Me and Liza. I don't get on my knees for just anyone, you know...
JC: Would you ever do a reality show like the one that Liza and David were supposed to do?
HARVEY: No. Please! I watched Anna Nicole. That's just terribly sad to me.
JC: If there were cameras in your house, what would we learn about you?
HARVEY: You'd learn that I don't get out of bed if I don't need to. The dogs have to walk themselves. It ain't pretty.
JC: I've been to your house. It's very sleek and sophisticated. I think that might surprise people.
HARVEY: It ain't so sleek anymore. You haven't been there since eBay happened to me. That crap piles up!
JC: What's up with all the photos on your dressing room walls?
HARVEY: I took them myself. Entertainment Weekly gave me a camera to shoot pictures backstage and I just started putting them up on the wall. I take 'em of the cast, friends, celebs who come to the show. Somebody wants to do a book of my photos now! I wanna call it "A View From the Pink Room." All the proceeds will either go to The Actors' Fund or the Theatre Wing.
JC: Okay, let's get down to business. You're in the biggest hit on Broadway. Torch Song Trilogy was a hit, so you've certainly been through something like this before...
HARVEY: Yeah, but musicals are different. Back in the day, Ellen Stewart at La MaMa used to yell at me: "Harvey, your plays got too many words, too much conversing. You gotta have music, baby, because I can't take your plays to Egypt! I take one of these wordy plays to Egypt and the people would just stare and say 'What the fuck are they talking about?'" It's true. You can reach so many more people with a musical than with a straight play. Obviously, more people saw La Cage aux Folles than saw Torch Song. When the audience leaves Hairspray, it's like they just got a shot of happy gas; when they left Torch Song, they had to lie down for a week.
JC: What don't we know about the experience of being in a gigantic Broadway hit?
HARVEY: The work is the work, whether you're in a flop or a hit. But, like your mother always said, "It's just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor man."
JC: Trust me, my mother never said that to me.
HARVEY: Well, she shoulda! There's the work itself, but the possible exhaustion and burnout comes from everything else surrounding the work. The amount of requests is astounding. Everyone wants something, which I understand, but I know how to take care of myself. When Torch Song hit, Chita Rivera sat me down and said, "Honey, in West Side Story, there were two groups of people: those who screamed 'I am now the star of the world! Look at me!' and those who said, 'The show is a combination of all of us. Let's not lose our heads. We are working actors.' That's the group who's still around." At the end of the day, you still have to own yourself. In our show, I watch Marissa [Jaret Winokur] going through all this for the first time and I tell her the same thing. I say, "You don't have to be in every photograph. You don't need to appear at every event. You are allowed to say no." There is such a thing as overexposure, but that's the hardest thing to explain to someone. She's handling it pretty well, thanks to me! I still see confusion, though.
JC: You do eight shows a week. Don't get mad, but what does it sound like when you get hoarse?
HARVEY: A-A-A-A-H!!! [He laughs, making a loud, scary sound that stops all of the waitresses in their tracks] I learned to sing the score with a great voice teacher named Joan Lader. We actually had to raise a few keys -- can you believe it? The voice is like any muscle: When you don't sing, you can't sing. I'm singing a show eight times a week, so I'm in pretty good shape. I've only had two sore throats since we started. One was a disgusting thing we called "The Seattle Crud" that the whole cast had while we were doing the show there; everyone in the company was constantly hocking up shit. I learned how to sing around it. Then I had a regular sore throat here in New York. There were a couple of notes that were not as pretty as they should be, but most people expect me to sound rotten anyway, so who knew? They're more shocked when I hit the note good!
JC: You seem to be in such a contented place in your life.
HARVEY: I've been around long enough to have real gratitude. I've had hits and flops, too. When we were in previews for La Cage and the audiences were going nuts, Jerry [Herman] and Arthur [Laurents] would grab me and say, "Enjoy this; it doesn't happen every day." But hey, I was there in Legs Diamond, when Peter Allen made his entrance laying down on a 10-foot high electric "Legs Diamond" sign and couldn't even get entrance applause. That's why, now, I grab the kids in the show right on stage every night and say, "Listen to that audience! Remember this!" And this cast is adorable. It's a coupla old farts who've been around the block, and then you have all the kids. Plus, you've got black and white kids who bring totally different life experiences to the show. It's been very enriching.
JC: Do you think Hairspray will be an iconic show?
HARVEY: John Waters said it best. He said what makes him so happy is that in years to come, when high schools do the show, the fat girl and the fag will finally have the leads. It's gonna be around a long, long time.
JC: Do you think your character, Edna, should always be played by a man?
HARVEY: That's so funny; we were just talking about that today. No, I don't think Edna has to be played by a man. It's just more fun. I'd personally love to see Lainie Kazan do the role -- and then I'd stick Ken Page in as Motormouth so there's still someone in drag. I don't think the tours will be like that, though. They want to keep it like it is.
JC: When did your voice become so...distinctive?
JC: At that age, could you possibly imagine that, one day, you'd be starring in a musical on Broadway?
HARVEY: Everyone has childhood fantasies. Lots of little gay boys lip-synch to their parents' show tune records in the mirror.
JC: Who were you lip-synching to?
HARVEY: Every cast recording of the shows we saw; I got to see Gypsy, Carnival, Oliver!. All of that is an impossible fantasy that most kids let go of and move on. You think, "Okay, I'll never play Nancy in Oliver." But I didn't have to let go. I know you'll laugh, but my ultimate fantasy was to walk in the front door of a dark theater when nobody else was around, go down the aisle, sit down in the house, and stare dramatically at the empty stage.
JC: Barbra Streisand in the opening scene of Funny Girl.
HARVEY: [high-fiveing me] You got it, baby! And I did it. I sat there and thought, "Fuck, I've done it! I'm Ethel Merman! I'm Barbra Streisand! I'm a leading lady in a fucking huge Broadway show with a 22-million-dollar fucking advance!" It's all so goofy that my dream came true. You know that my dressing room was Ethel Merman's, don't you? She had it three times. Henry Fonda had it once, too. That's why I'm trying very hard to keep what I'm doing pure. I want to keep my vision of who Edna is and who I am, and the difference between the two. I don't walk around the streets in drag; I never have.
JC: You've told the story before, but how did you come to be cast in the show?
HARVEY: This all started because my agent, Richie Jackson, called me and said, "Harvey, Hollywood is never really gonna get you and you're so comfortable on stage. You've gotta write a new play to star in." But I just didn't wanna write another play. I had been trying to get the Hartford Stage to do Harvey. I wanna do that play the way it was written. I always thought that when Jimmy Stewart played that role in the movie, he ruined it forever. He made it about a guy who was just a little offbeat. But read the script: It's about a drunk, gay man! They keep saying he's "pixilated." What the hell do you think "pixilated" means, honey? Frank Faye played the role originally, and he did it right. The character keeps going into bars and taking home strange men. Hello?! And then there's Harvey, a six-foot rabbit who sleeps with the guy. This guy's a drunk fag! The family of Mary Chase, the author, is very protective of the script. But they need to read it.
JC: So, how did Hairspray come out of that conversation with your agent?
HARVEY: Ten days later, Richie was on the phone with Marc Shaiman, who was talking about Hairspray auditions. Richie said, "What about Harvey Fierstein?" They were sort of interested, but they wanted to see every drag queen in the country. Also, John Waters wanted Anthony Hopkins as Edna. That woulda been a lot of laughs!
JC: With your success in this show, something tells me you'll have your pick of projects from now on.