For Fierstein, the mother of all roles

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Fourth in a series of occasional articles

SEATTLE - Harvey Fierstein is shaving his eyebrows.

This is a first for him. Oh sure, he's worn lipstick and eyeliner, dresses and falsies, high heels and pantyhose. But before he began playing Edna Turnblad, the frumpy Baltimore housewife in the new Broadway musical, Hairspray, Fierstein had never taken razor in hand and removed all traces of his eyebrows.

"Don't forget the detail of shaving the eyebrows," he says over the buzz of the electric razor - as if it were possible to overlook such a distinctive bit of denuding.

This prompts a question that even most veteran reporters never get a chance to ask: "When did you start shaving your eyebrows?"

"The day before dress rehearsal," the 48-year-old actor answers matter-of-factly. He is seated in front of the illuminated mirror in his dressing room at the 5th Avenue Theatre, where Hairspray played a pre-Broadway run earlier this summer.

On Thursday, the eagerly anticipated musical based on John Waters' 1988 movie opens on Broadway, where it is currently in previews. But it was in this Seattle dressing room that Fierstein honed the look - created by makeup designer Randy Mercer, wig designer Paul Huntley and costume designer William Ivey Long - that New York audiences are now seeing.

At 6:30 p.m., when Harvey Fierstein walks into this little room, he's an imposing, 6-foot-plus man with short, graying, curly hair and a voice that sounds remarkably like his electric razor, only several octaves lower. Shortly after 8 p.m., when he walks on stage, he's Edna Turnblad - a (you should pardon the expression) queen-sized wife and mother with straggly auburn hair and the raspiest voice in the show.

Watching Fierstein apply women's makeup is nothing new. Two decades ago, when Broadway audiences got their first glimpse of him, he was doing just that, on stage in Torch Song Trilogy, the play that won him Tony Awards in 1983 for best actor and best playwright.

In part, Torch Song chronicled a time when Fierstein made a living playing drag queens with names like Virginia Hamm, Kitty Litter and Bertha Venation. But after making the movie of Torch Song in 1988, Fierstein decided he was through with drag.

"I said, I've done that for a large part of my career and I do not need to do that anymore," he explains as he dabs white makeup around his eyes and foundation on his face. "Drag is a mask that you wear when you don't want people to see who you are."

Cross-dressing confidence

But 32 years after he first donned a dress on stage (playing an asthmatic lesbian in Andy Warhol's Pork), Fierstein exudes self-confidence. This is the man whose charge to the 1992 graduating class at Bennington College was: "Accept no one's definition of your life, but define yourself." This is the man who recently published a children's book called The Sissy Duckling, whose title character proclaims at the end: "I am a BIG SISSY and PROUD of it!"

And this is the man who is about to step back into a dress. "This role was too good to turn down," he says of Edna Turnblad, mother of Hairspray's heroine, Tracy, a rotund teen-ager who becomes a star on a 1960s Baltimore TV dance show modeled after The Buddy Deane Show.

Hairspray is the first time Fierstein has acted in a Broadway musical. It's also his return to the Broadway stage after an absence of 15 years, during which he has had supporting roles in dozens of films, ranging from Mrs. Doubtfire to Independence Day.

"His career is a kind of icon," says Jack O'Brien, the musical's director.

Although Edna is assuredly a female character, the role is anything but standard-issue drag, as Fierstein, O'Brien and Waters are quick to point out. Sure the part was created by Waters' late cross-dressing star, Divine. But when drag queens impersonate Divine, they're decked out in the spangly, evening-gowned look from Waters' 1972 cult classic, Pink Flamingos, not in the housecoat and slippers Edna Turnblad wears in the opening scene of Hairspray. (The character does, however, undergo a makeover in the course of the show.)

In traditional drag, O'Brien explains, the performers always comment on the role. "At some point in the evening they go wink, wink, nudge, nudge, 'I'm a guy.' Harvey doesn't do that at all. At the end of the evening you not only think he's Edna, he's Tracy's mother," the director says.

"I contend that there are certain factions of our audiences who totally believe that he is Edna and I don't think that some of the older audiences stop to wonder whether he is in drag or not; they completely accept him for what he is, and more importantly, they accept that relationship of being mother-daughter."

Waters, who might be expected to be the toughest critic of all, heartily concurs. "It's sweet. Harvey could easily be an East Baltimore mom; he just in real life might be the dad," says the filmmaker, who is serving as a consultant on the musical.

Edna Turnblad's world

For his part, Fierstein, who knew Divine when they were both doing drag ("we were two queens getting together - it's like two old Jewish women"), adamantly insists he is not playing Divine; he's playing Edna.

And just how would he describe Edna?

"Edna's scared of the world. She's a happy woman in her way, but her world is indoors. She has her work and she has her wonderful husband, who she just gets such a kick out of. And she has her daughter ... and she doesn't have her place in the world anymore, wherever that is. She's fat, she's ugly, in her mind, and she wants to stay hidden in the house where it's much more comfortable. I know a lot of people like that. She's inside her comfort zone," says Fierstein, as he fastidiously underlines his lower lids with eyeliner.

Playing an agoraphobic housewife - who takes in laundry, no less - is admittedly a bit of a stretch for extroverted Fierstein. Even Edna's girth is a good deal more ample than that of the actor, who dons a fat suit that weighs 30 pounds - and gives the impression of far more - for the role. "There's almost nothing like me in Edna, and that's what's so much fun," he says.

O'Brien agrees. "He's very different from Edna. He's an extremely intelligent, very bright, very creative, a very responsible man, who has taken his licks and has his scars, but he is very comfortable in his skin and enormously grounded in that respect, and one is always deeply attracted to that."

At the same time, the director admits, "I was sort of intimidated by him in concept because he's a kind of monster, and I mean that affectionately."

But Fierstein has proved to be "a true collaborator," O'Brien says of the versatile star, who won his third Tony Award for writing the libretto for the musical La Cage aux Folles. "He's quick to make really wonderful, valuable suggestions, and we're quick to take them."

Consider, for instance, a line Fierstein came up with for a scene in which Tracy begins getting phone calls from fans of the TV dance show. Answering one of these calls, Fierstein's gravelly-voiced Edna growls into the phone, "No, this isn't her father."

Mothering the cast

There is one respect in which O'Brien believes Fierstein is similar to Edna. "There is in Harvey an overwhelmingly maternal power that transcends gender and even attitude," he says. This has manifested itself most obviously in Fierstein's on- and off-stage relationship with his co-star, Marissa Jaret Winokur, who plays Edna's daughter, Tracy. It's a relationship O'Brien compares to "a mother lioness protecting her young."

And it has carried over to Fierstein's relationship to the other actors as well. "He's very generous as a performer and a member of the cast. He's consistently concerned with the welfare of the cast," says Margo Lion, the musical's Baltimore-born producer.

Judging from the cast members who drop by Fierstein's dressing room, those feelings are reciprocated. On this particular evening, Dick Latessa, who plays Edna's spouse, Wilbur, is the first to stop by. "Hello, my husband," Fierstein gushes.

Mary Bond Davis, who plays a Baltimore deejay named Motormouth Maybelle, also makes an appearance, bearing a gift - a little red and green polka-dotted stand shaped like a nose and mouth to hold Fierstein's eyeglasses (he wears contact lenses in the show). "Ahh!" Fierstein exclaims. "How cute is that!"

Before Bond arrived, Fierstein was covering his chest with pancake makeup to hide an unfortunate outbreak of bumps. "These little ugly things that I'm covering here are thanks to an experiment of waxing instead of shaving," he explains.

Calling attention to his chest brings up an aspect of Fierstein's anatomical transformation that doesn't seem to be explained by either makeup or padding. On stage, he appears to have cleavage.

"You know we don't share everything," the actor says before shooing a reporter out of the dressing room to complete his metamorphosis in private. "That's a little bit of theatrical magic that drag queens have done for generations."

To read previous installments in the series about Hairspray, go online to www.baltimoresun.com/hairspray.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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