As an actor and playwright, Harvey Fierstein has pushed the bounds of American theater with unconventional stories and characters.
Recognized for his many award-winning shows and roles – including the portrayal of a drag queen — Fierstein brought identities on the fringe of society to center stage. Over the course of his nearly 40-year career, Fierstein has continuously done the unthinkable, such as receiving four Tony Awards in four categories, including best actor in a musical for playing a woman in “Hairspray.”
“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,” Fierstein said in a 2011 interview with The Times. “But when I write a play, and it’s a — knock wood — hit, the checks come in for many years.”
In his teens, he began performing in drag in New York’s lesser-known clubs. Fierstein later received his first break in 1971 when he played an asthmatic lesbian in “Pork,” an Andy Warhol theater production.
At the request of his parents, Fierstein got a fine arts degree in 1973 at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He appeared in more than 60 off-off-Broadway productions before trying his hand at playwriting. In 1978, he refined two one-act plays, “Widows and Children First!” and “Fugue in a Nursery,” which later were combined with “International Stud” to form “Torch Song Trilogy.”
In the early 1980s, Fierstein brought the play to Broadway and rose to acclaim. Critics were both impressed with the main character, a Jewish drag queen, and how the show continuously sold out when general American audiences had an aversion to the gay community.
After pursuing other projects, including “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Independence Day” and “Duplex,” Fierstein returned to Broadway in 2002 to play Edna Turnblad in the musical adaptation of John Waters’ film “Hairspray.” More recently, the prolific Fierstein wrote the book for the 2012 musical “Kinky Boots,” about a partnership between the reluctant heir to a struggling shoe factory and a drag-queen cabaret performer. The play nabbed 13 Tony nominations, winning six awards, including best musical.
“A lot of gay men walk in thinking they’re going to see a big ol’ gay show,” Fierstein said 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.”
— Steven Zeitchik, June 12, 2013; Barbara Isenberg, July 31, 2011; John M. Wilson, July 17, 1988 in the Los Angeles Times and Jerome Campbell for the Los Angeles Times