Fierstein Shoots From the Hip and Hits

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What a difference a hundred years makes.

Wednesday night, while the Mark Taper Forum introduced critics to “Gross Indecency,” about the vilification that Oscar Wilde faced in 1895 for loving another man, Harvey Fierstein was across town at the House of Blues singing the gay anthem from “La Cage aux Folles,” the musical he co-wrote with Jerry Herman about drag-show entrepreneurs who are a long-married gay couple. “I am what I am,” he declared, swept along in a rolling tide of emotion, “and what I am needs no excuses.”

It is just this sort of firm, straightforward statement that has made Fierstein, 43, a leader in the effort to put gay lives onstage and on screen. His hugely popular “Torch Song Trilogy,” as well as “La Cage,” helped fling open the closet door for the current surge of plays and musicals involving gay and lesbian characters, and his portrayals in the “Torch Song” film, “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Independence Day” have helped make gay people visible in mainstream movies.

In a 90-minute show timed to the coming re-release of his live CD “This Is Not Going to Be Pretty,” Fierstein seemed to channel the spirits of Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Nina Simone and Lenny Bruce. He sang torch songs in that deep, raspy voice of his--the one that sounds as if he’s caught three colds, one on top of another--and he provided running commentary (laced with naughty words and wicked double-entendres) on such topics as Hollywood casting, arts censorship and America’s sexual phobias. (Turning the tables, he raised an eyebrow at the strange mating habits of heterosexuals by reading a newspaper account of a man who wounded his unmentionables while showing his girlfriend his gun.)


The turnout was small, but it loved Fierstein’s response to those who are so outraged by the content of today’s songs: a reprise of one of yesterday’s most beloved tunes, “Frankie and Johnny,” with what he swore were original (but usually omitted) lyrics. None are reprintable here, but let’s just say that sex, drugs and violence are not exactly new to music.

From his 1987 play “Safe Sex” (one of the earliest to mention AIDS), Fierstein performed a monologue about the syndrome’s impact--both negative and positive--on the gay community. Then he quietly began “The Last Song,” his voice catching on the lyric: “I wonder what I’ll do / When the nightmare’s finally over / When tomorrow holds no fear / When the war is won, the plague is done / The cure at last is here.”

Yes, times have changed. Wilde got a prison sentence; Fierstein got a standing ovation.