Fierstein’s Meets with Unexpected Success

Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy, a candid play about gay life, family mores, promiscuity, and commitment in the 1970’s, received unexpected rave reviews and started a new trend in gay theater as well as in theater in general.

Summary of Event

In 1982, after four years of playing in Off- and Off-Off-Broadway houses, Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy stepped onto the Broadway stage amid thunderous applause and with two Tony Awards waiting in the wings. The playwright and lead actor, Harvey Fierstein, seemed to have begun his young life with a list of societal negatives; he was fat, he was Jewish, he was asthmatic, and, finally, he was gay. He had grown up in a lower-middle-class area of Brooklyn, the son of a handkerchief maker. At age thirteen, he told his parents that he was gay, but neither the revelation nor the reaction was particularly traumatic. He was what he was. At the age of sixteen, he started working as a drag queen in various East Village clubs. He had a voice like that of Tallulah Bankhead and wore costumes that rivaled Carmen Miranda’s. After graduating in 1973 from Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, where he studied painting, Fierstein turned to playwriting and acting. Torch Song Trilogy (Fierstein)
Homosexuality;theatrical depictions
[kw]Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy Meets with Unexpected Success (June 10, 1982)
[kw]Torch Song Trilogy Meets with Unexpected Success, Fierstein’s (June 10, 1982)
Torch Song Trilogy (Fierstein)
Homosexuality;theatrical depictions
[g]North America;June 10, 1982: Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy Meets with Unexpected Success[04890]
[g]United States;June 10, 1982: Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy Meets with Unexpected Success[04890]
[c]Theater;June 10, 1982: Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy Meets with Unexpected Success[04890]
Fierstein, Harvey
Glines, John
Getty, Estelle
Miller, Court

Fierstein strove to express himself honestly in the theater, and that included facing his sexuality head-on. Prior to Fierstein’s work, realistic depictions of homosexuality onstage had been relegated to Off-Off-Broadway and drew only small audiences; mainstream portrayals of gays in the theater were typified by the abysmal stereotypes of the 1968 play The Boys in the Band. Gay plays often also seemed to have a soft-porn aspect to them. Fierstein longed to try something different; he wanted to write down his own life experiences, which he believed would strike a universal chord. He wanted to approach homosexuality in the theater in a brand-new way: He wanted to present homosexuals as human beings.

Torch Song Trilogy had its birth in 1978, when Ellen Stewart produced a new play by Fierstein called The International Stud
International Stud, The (Fierstein) at La Mama, her Off-Off-Broadway theater. One year later, she produced his second play, Fugue in a Nursery. Fugue in a Nursery (Fierstein) After Fierstein completed a third play, Widows and Children First!, Widows and Children First! (Fierstein) John Glines, founder of the Glines Theater, which was dedicated to supporting works with homosexual themes, decided to produce the three plays as a trilogy, with a running time of more than four hours. Fierstein would play the lead character, who would grow from a self-centered, promiscuous drag queen into a solid citizen and even an overprotective parent. The play gained momentum and found its way to the Little Theatre on Broadway, where straight as well as gay crowds flocked to see a work with universal themes. Torch Song Trilogy represented values that were no different from those of the heterosexual world; for gays who had been fed a diet of heterosexual movies, plays, and music, it was a particularly healthy instrument of identification.

Torch Song Trilogy unfolds at the beginning of the 1970’s with The International Stud. Arnold Beckoff (Harvey Fierstein) is a drag performer who belts forth raspy renditions of torch songs. He becomes involved with a Brooklyn high school teacher, Ed (Court Miller), whom Arnold later learns is bisexual and who finally announces that he is marrying a woman. In Fugue in a Nursery, Ed’s wife, Laurel (Diane Tarleton), decides it would be very modern of her to have her husband’s male ex-lover visit them at their new home in the country. Arnold arrives with a young model, Alan (Paul Joynt), and the play takes place in a giant surrealist bed in which Arnold, Ed, Laurel, and Arnold’s new lover conduct a cross fire of debates, spats, and sexual intercourse enacted to a fugue.

In the final part of the trilogy, Widows and Children First!, Arnold must fuse all the conflicts of the past five years into the present: Alan has been beaten to death by gay bashers; Arnold himself is in the process of adopting David (Fisher Stevens); Ed has left Laurel and is staying with Arnold; and, to top all this off, Arnold’s mother, Mrs. Beckoff (Estelle Getty), enters the fold. Arnold is forced to balance the joys of rearing his adopted teenage boy against the torment of recycling the past with his mother, who cannot seem to accept the notion that her son’s feelings for men could ever be likened to the love she had for her deceased husband. Yet, even as they quarrel, Fierstein’s message is bursting forth loud and clear. While the two characters are polar opposites (mother/son, man/woman, straight/gay), they both want the same things out of life: a monogamous marriage, children, a good job, a life without prejudice, and, most of all, respect.

Harvey Fierstein has been one of the most successful of the avowed homosexual American playwrights. He has been the recipient of both Ford and Rockefeller playwriting grants. He has also won a Theater World Award and two Tony Awards, Tony Awards one for writing the year’s best play, Torch Song Trilogy, and the other honoring him as best actor for his starring role in the play.

Fierstein’s honesty and directness made Torch Song Trilogy a commercial success. He strove to take the pornography and the stereotypes out of the theatrical depiction of gay life. He wrote a play in which the gay hero does not commit suicide or turn away from what he comes to believe is an evil lifestyle. The basic themes are self-respect and the stunning realization that homosexuals can have the same moral fiber as heterosexuals.

When Fierstein eventually left the role of Arnold Beckoff on Broadway to finish work on his 1983 musical version of La Cage aux Folles, the role was taken over by David Garrison. Producers in more than half a dozen countries sought to purchase the film rights for Torch Song Trilogy; Howard Gottfried of Hollywood won the bidding, and the film was released by New Line Cinema in 1988. The influence that Fierstein has had on homosexuality in the theater stemmed from the overwhelming success of the 1982 Broadway production of Torch Song Trilogy.


When Torch Song Trilogy catapulted to success on Broadway, a new trend began in gay theater and in theater in general. Producers initially had told Harvey Fierstein that audiences would never sit for more than four hours to watch the play, which they said was too homosexual. Nevertheless, Fierstein sought to prove a point: that gay writers could write from their own life experiences and still touch on universal truths. Never before had an out-of-the-closet play done so well with straight audiences.

Professional theater had always included many gay artists, but it would have been professional suicide for most to admit to their sexual preferences on the mainstream stage. In the evolving social climate of the 1970’s and 1980’s, however, Fierstein believed that there was no longer a need to hide sexual orientation or to find oblique ways of communicating such personal experiences in plays or films. Torch Song Trilogy served as a quantum leap, from the stereotyped gays in The Boys in the Band who strutted behind closed doors to the very outward and honest Arnold Beckoff. It ratified a new self-assertiveness of homosexuals in American pop culture.

Torch Song Trilogy was one of the first plays to present the homosexual lifestyle as nonrepugnant. Values were no different in Arnold’s world than they were in the heterosexual world; they simply happen to have been shared by lovers of the same sex. Oddly enough, there was initially a backlash from some homosexuals who were opposed to Arnold Beckoff’s middle-class values, such as monogamy and fidelity. With the onslaught of the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic, however, dramatic attention was being drawn to the sexual relations among gays, and members of the homosexual community were no longer sneering at monogamy and fidelity. Harvey Fierstein had a message not only for straights but for gays as well.

Fierstein’s success made it easier for other gay plays and films to find backers. Torch Song Trilogy clearly taught that there was an audience for gay works that can cross sexual orientation barriers. When Fierstein had worked as a drag queen in his teens, he had been mocked, mugged, and arrested. He had watched his sequined peers overdose or commit suicide. The image of the drag queen was about to change, however. While Torch Song Trilogy was still enjoying Broadway success, Fierstein bought the rights to the French play La Cage aux Folles and, after giving it a more human side, produced his second Broadway triumph: a $5 million musical glorifying the drag queen. He had reworked the original French play to teach a Fierstein lesson. His George (Gene Barry) and Albin (George Hearn) were a happy, monogamous gay couple, while George’s straight son, Jean-Michele (John Wiener), who sought to deny his father’s lifestyle, and Jean-Michele’s conspicuously moral prospective father-in-law were the villains. Fierstein’s morality had the artistic elite in his corner. His musical gay extravaganza featured music by Jerry Herman, composer of Hello, Dolly! (1964), and was directed by Arthur Laurents, librettist of West Side Story (1957). Although Fierstein was never bitter in his plays, he was finally getting his sweet revenge.

Even though Torch Song Trilogy had enjoyed rave Broadway reviews, Fierstein had to persevere another six years before he was able to adapt the play to the screen. It had been optioned in a number of foreign countries before Hollywood’s New Line Cinema took on the project and granted Fierstein creative control. Fierstein then wrangled with a series of directors before settling on Paul Bogart. The final result from Bogart, who was best known for directing the television series All in the Family, was a blend of autobiography, situation comedy, and cabaret act. Ironically, in only ten years, the story had evolved into a period piece because of the absence of any mention of the AIDS epidemic. Soon, on the heels of Torch Song Trilogy came another gay film, Longtime Companion (1990), which was imbued with the suffering, grief, and loss of loved ones caused by the epidemic.

It was this noticeable absence of the AIDS issue, however, that was another way in which Fierstein was able to blur the lines between gay and straight. Fierstein had stated that he sought to present a picture in which homosexuals could see themselves as human beings and not as victims of a disease. By ignoring that dreaded cloud of the 1980’s, he had been able to shed light on other issues rather than simply on the effect of a plague that had ravaged one of the United States’ minority communities.

Even with the release of the film, Fierstein never backed away from the reality of gay life in the 1970’s, but he did infuse the controversy with humor. A backroom bar scene in which Arnold is sodomized following his breakup with Ed is portrayed with a comic sensibility; in the scene, Arnold’s only concern seems to be where to place his drink. The treatment is very much at odds with that of the English film Prick Up Your Ears (1987), which exposed the gritty sordidness of homosexual life in the 1950’s. The contrast between the two productions reflects how much more tolerant society has become since the 1950’s.

In the years following the success of Torch Song Trilogy on Broadway, many things changed in the gay community in the United States. Harvey Fierstein, with his honesty and his humor, shared his personal lifestyle with mainstream America. AIDS also sharpened the focus on the gay community as a whole. In large cities where gay pride eventually became accepted, Torch Song Trilogy came to be seen in many ways as a nostalgic period piece, something like a gay equivalent of the 1973 film American Graffiti. Much of the honesty with which film and theatrical presentations came to treat homosexuality can be traced to the writings of Harvey Fierstein. Torch Song Trilogy (Fierstein)
Homosexuality;theatrical depictions

Further Reading

  • Clarke, Gerald. “Straight Talk.” Time, February 22, 1982, 70. Positive review of Torch Song Trilogy as it hit Broadway.
  • Gussow, Mel. “Fierstein’s ’Torch Song.’” New York Theatre Critics’ Reviews 44 (1983): 242. An early positive review of Torch Song Trilogy. Compilation of New York theater critics’ reviews of the play, originally published in January, 1981, in The New York Times. Includes a review by Edwin Wilson.
  • Kroll, Jack. “His Heart Is Young and Gay.” Newsweek, June 20, 1983, 71. Gives some background on Harvey Fierstein as a child and discusses some of his views on morality up to the time of the release of La Cage aux Folles.
  • Wetzsteon, Ross. “La Cage aux Folles Comes to Broadway.” New York 16 (August 22, 1983): 30-37. An article that traces Fierstein’s life, from the early days of his career as a New York drag queen and an actor working with Andy Warhol up to the time of the release of his Broadway musical La Cage aux Folles.

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