Harvey Fierstein is marathon man of awards season
An entertainment kingpin named Harvey with a voracious appetite for awards campaigning? And an involvement in multiple hit productions?
Hollywood veterans would immediately think of Harvey Weinstein. But the description fits another Harvey: Fierstein, the equally outsized showbiz character who over a long career has proved himself to be a marathon man of awards season with a Midas touch at the big show that ends it.
Fierstein, 61, demonstrated his chops again on Sunday with his latest effort, “Kinky Boots.” The hyphenate wrote the book for the shoe-themed extravaganza, which won six Tony Awards including best musical. Cyndi Lauper, whom he famously persuaded to collaborate with him while she was washing dishes, took home the prize for score.
It was the sixth Tony nomination for Fierstein. And though it didn’t turn into his fifth win, the show once more thrust the writer-performer — gravelly of voice, outrageous of aside — to the fore. After a 13-year hiatus from the stage that ended in 2002, Fierstein is now firmly back. He now has earned nominations two years in a row (after “Newsies,” also for book, in 2012) and has achieved the Broadway holy grail: two hits playing simultaneously.
“A lot of gay men walk in thinking they’re going to see a big ol’ gay show,"he said Tuesday when asked about the appeal of “Kinky Boots.” “But if [cross-dressing main character] Lola was gay, she’d be [having sex]. Men sit there and they get it — heterosexual men dragged there by their wives. It’s about two people who didn’t feel they measured up to their fathers. Which is why everyone can relate to it.”
Fierstein had spent the day after the Tonys running around Manhattan, accepting, with a large group, an award for New York entertainment personalities at the mayoral residence Gracie Mansion and giving a gay-rights speech at Cooper Union, a place where, he noted self-deprecatingly — possibly — Abraham Lincoln gave a landmark anti-slavery speech. Lincoln, he added, did not have any association with a show like “Kinky Boots.” (“But the man’s hats were strange enough, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a thing for shoes.”)
On Tuesday, Fierstein decided not to attend a performance of “Kinky Boots” to see how the audience received the show after its big win. (In the past he has found it “like watching someone have an orgasm. They’re singing along like it’s ‘Mamma Mia.’ And these aren’t exactly songs that have been with us our whole lives.”) Instead, he chilled out at his Connecticut home with the cats and dogs he’s rescued (Elvis and Lola, to name two. Yes, the last is named for one of the “Kinky Boots” characters.)
Fierstein established himself as Broadway royalty early in his career, becoming the only person to garner Tonys for writing and acting in the same show (his semi-autobiographical “Torch Song Trilogy” in 1983). He also came out as gay in his 20s, at a time when few celebrities did; in a now-famous interview with Barbara Walters on ABC, he gamely parried her questions while she pushed him on whether homosexuality was a disease, or the result of a domineering mother.
But after the failure of his Depression-era musical “Legs Diamond” in 1989, Fierstein took a long break, returning a little more than a decade ago as an actor in iconic works such as “Hairspray,” also going against type as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.” A few years ago he put acting aside to concentrate on writing, which he said has been a welcome switch.
“I don’t know how people do one thing. I would die. I would just die.” He then added that, in no particular order, he also thought of himself as a “quilter, someone who likes to cook, and paint and garden. But I garden less than I used to.”
Fierstein is aware of his reputation, tweaked sometimes in the New York media, as a tireless Tonys campaigner.
“I know it’s the no-one-campaigns-like-Harvey. But that’s not why I do it. I’ve been writing. I’m locked in the … dark. It’s a very insular experience. And then the show opens and I get to see Judith Light, or Audra McDonald,” he said. “OK, let somebody say, ‘There’s Harvey showing up at a Tony nominee lunch.’ Yeah, there’s Harvey showing up — because Tom Hanks is on one side and [‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ director] Pam MacKinnon is on the other.”
Plus, he said, he thought it was necessary. “We’re in a business. We have tickets to sell to a public in a business where advertising doesn’t matter like it used to.”
After several years in the musical trenches, Fierstein has been writing a new play, a nine-character ensemble that’s his first non-musical in nearly 30 years. It will open next March on Broadway, he said. He wouldn’t reveal details but acknowledged that he debated starring in it before realizing it wasn’t a good fit. (“I read for it. After 15 minutes I fired myself.”)
He said that even his song-and-dance writing is animated by a certain high-mindedness; his motivation for creating “Newsies,” about a real-life 1899 newsboy strike, was that “I saw the Arab Spring and was shocked. Young people were taking over the world. It took me back to my childhood in the ‘60s and how revolution comes from the young. I wanted people to walk out of the theater feeling that.”
Then he added drolly, “I’m glad they can’t see into my mind when they see the show.”
Fierstein has gone to some lengths to balance the serious with the silly. Tony viewers last year may recall his appearance on the show wearing a tube around his waist, dressed in beach wear and holding a tropical cocktail to introduce a cruise-ship performance of “Hairspray.” (He said he did it that way because there were objections in the room over a non-union production being featured at the Tonys and this was his way of lightening the mood.)
This year, he topped himself by allowing a deli to name a hot dog after him — an event he then proceeded to celebrate by having hundreds of “Kinky Boots” audience members follow him through Times Square to the restaurant. “It was stupid. So … stupid. Really. So … stupid. Which is why it was magical.”
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