Entertainment & Arts

Harvey Fierstein takes another Turnblad turn

Harvey Fierstein is getting impatient. He’d like the interview to go faster. Skip the compliments. Don’t waste precious time laughing at his outrageous remarks. He’s got stacks of writing to finish, songs to rehearse, and in a few days he leaves for Los Angeles.

He hasn’t been to Los Angeles for 10 years, says the Tony-winning actor and playwright, and he’s never been to the Hollywood Bowl, where he stars in the musical “Hairspray” for three nights starting Friday.

“Hairspray,” however, is very, very familiar. About 1,000 times now, Fierstein, 57, has wedged himself into the full-figured fat suit that turns him into Baltimore hausfrau Edna Turnblad, the oversized, reclusive laundress played by cult actor Divine in the 1988 John Waters film and, later, John Travolta in the 2007 film musical.

Inhabiting Edna brought Fierstein his fourth Tony Award in 2003. His onstage daughter Marissa Jaret Winokur — who will be joining him at the Bowl — also received a Tony, and “Hairspray” won six more, including best musical.


Gravelly voiced, uninhibited Fierstein has come a long way since his first professional acting job at 16, when he played “an asthmatic lesbian maid” in Andy Warhol’s only play, “Pork.” He won 1983 Tony Awards as both playwright and actor for his first major play, “Torch Song Trilogy,” and in 1984 he received another Tony for the libretto of the musical “La Cage aux Folles.” While “Hairspray” was his first Broadway musical performance, Fierstein has since played Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof” twice — on Broadway and on tour — and this year concluded several weeks performing in “La Cage.”

Coming up are librettos for two new musicals: “Newsies,” based on the 1992 Disney film, opens in September at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J., and a musical version of the film “Kinky Boots” is in development with music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper.

Barbara Isenberg spoke with him by phone from his home in what he describes as “a small fictional town in Connecticut.”

What can you tell us about this new production of “Hairspray”?


It’s being directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, so I would guarantee an all-star, energy-exploding, knock-your-socks-off concert version. Jerry has a lot of energy. And they’ve put together what looks like a really fun cast.

Do you know Drew Carey, who will be playing your husband onstage?

I’ve never met him, but I hear he’s a good kisser. You can forgive a lot when a man’s a good kisser.

You have fared very well over the years playing men playing drag performers. What is it like to take the stage as a woman?

When I was a kid, we had every cast album there was, and I lip-synced to a lot of stuff. I loved Ethel Merman. Then, 30 or 40 years later, you’re standing onstage in a red wig and singing — you’re Ethel Merman.

Is it difficult for you to perform as a woman, much less belt out rock ‘n’ roll?

No. It’s just a different part of my voice that I haven’t used in many years. It’s a character voice. You know, we actors are athletes. You have to be sure you do your warm-ups, and I have two aps on my phone for that. I do 30 or 35 minutes of warm-up every day.

And the dancing?


The first time we did “La Cage,” George Hearn walked into the room and said, “I don’t dance.” So when I went into “Hairspray,” I was going to jump up and say, “I don’t dance.” If George Hearn could do it, I could do it. But then I thought to myself, “If you don’t dance now, nobody will ever again ask you to dance.” So I shut my mouth and thought if I dance badly, they won’t have me dance. Nobody complained about my dancing.

Besides all the singing and dancing at the Bowl, I hear we should expect to see some of the William Ivey Long-designed costumes that took you from laundress to bombshell.

It takes a team to put together Edna’s wigs and costumes, and there are plans afoot that I am not yet privy to. But that’s part of the excitement.

The not knowing?

Yes. Jumping in feet first and saying “I’m game, let’s see where we come out.” It takes a little more bravery than I’m comfortable with, but I always enjoy it when I take that leap into the air.

John Waters says the fact that you are a playwright helps on the timing, especially the comic timing. Which do you find more rewarding, writing or acting?

I got a lovely check today from being a writer that I earned by sitting at home. That’s rewarding. I have to work really hard, eight shows a week, to get a nice check as an actor. But when I write a play, and it’s a — knock wood — hit, the checks come in for many years.

Speaking of successes, what led to your finally taking on a role in your own musical, “La Cage aux Folles”?


I wrote “La Cage” when I was 28, much too young for it, and I wrote it from the point of view of Georges, the husband. Obviously I had feelings for the drag role of Albin. But I don’t have that kind of voice and never considered it. So when they came to me and asked me to do it, it was one of those challenges where you either do it or you spend the rest of your life saying “they offered it to me, but I didn’t do it.” So I said yes, and it was an unbelievable experience. But I obviously didn’t have to do the work that I did playing Edna.

That brings us back to “Hairspray,” which ran more than six years on Broadway. What do you think is the secret of “Hairspray’s” popularity?

“Hairspray” is an ebullient show. The happiness of it is just infectious. In its genesis from John Waters’ mind, it has that bad boy, I’m misbehaving, I’m talking about things I shouldn’t be talking about and I’m a rebel kind of bad boy vibe, like a kid fooling around. There’s a happy, sort of silly story, though it obviously has serious connotations: A fat girl becomes a huge TV star in a tiny pond and changes the world.

It’s also a very funny script, and the music is so much fun. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman tapped into a fun period of music that has a buoyancy all its own, then they hyped it up, taking the level of joy even higher.

Is there anything you’re worried about in terms of this new round of “Hairspray” performances? You’ll have a new onstage husband, after all.

Well, it’s a shotgun wedding. I’m just hoping he likes me.

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