Who is Harvey Fierstein?
Harvey Fierstein is an openly gay American playwright and actor famous for his unorthodox and outlandish performances that not only entertain people, but also drive home an important point—that gays and lesbians are inherent components of the contemporary society. The product of a normal middle-class upbringing, he rose to fame with his collection of plays, ‘Torch Song Trilogy’ which he wrote and starred in. The plays which won him two prestigious Tony Awards dealt with the life and loves of a gay drag queen in the early 1980’s. Homosexuality was still considered a taboo topic during those times but Fierstein had the courage and creativity to successfully address this issue in his plays. He was one of the first celebrities to come out of the closet. He was a daredevil who had no qualms about playing a lesbian cleaning woman in his theatrical debut, Andy Warhol’s ‘Pork’ in 1971. A versatile actor, he played Edna Turnblad, the lead character’s mother, in the musical ‘Hairspray’ for which he won numerous accolades. In addition to theatre, he has also acted in a number of films like ‘Garbo Talks’, ‘Duplex’, ‘Mrs.Doubtfire’, etc. Famous for his gravelly accent, he has lent his voice to various characters on shows like ‘The Simpsons’, ‘Mulan’ and ‘Family Guy’.
Childhood & Early Life
Harvey Fierstein was born as the younger of two sons of Jacqueline Harriet, a librarian, and Irving Fierstein, a handkerchief manufacturer.
He took creative writing classes in high school and performed in drag. He also performed in drag at various small clubs as characters named ‘Virginia’, ‘Kitty’ and ‘Bertha’.
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He got his first breakthrough when he was offered the role of an asthmatic lesbian in one of Andy Warhol’s few theatrical productions, ‘Pork’, in 1971. The play made its debut at New York’s La Mama Experimental Theater Club.
He soon began to write his own plays and his first production, ‘International Stud’ was performed at La Mama in 1972. The play told the story of a drag queen and was well liked by the gay community.
He decided to continue his education and enrolled at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn from where he earned his bachelor of fine arts in 1973. He taught for a brief period before returning to writing and acting.
Throughout the 1970s, he wrote, reworked and improvised his plays and performed in many of them. He wrote two plays, ‘Fugue in a Nursery’ and ‘Widows and Children First!’ which he would later combine to form a collection of plays.
In 1982, he combined three of his plays, ‘International Stud’, ‘Fugue in a Nursery’ and ‘Widows and Children First!’ to form the ‘Torch Song Trilogy’, which focused on a torch song singing drag queen, Arnold Beckoff. The play became immensely popular.
He wrote the book for the musical play ‘‘La Cage aux Folles’ in 1983. The book musical was based on a 1973 French play of the same name by Jean Poiret.
Along with theater, he was also active in films during the 1980’s playing small roles in ‘Garbo Talks’ (1984), ‘Miami Vice’ (1986), and ‘Tidy Endings’ (1988).
During the 1990s, he was more active in movies than in theater and his movies for the decade include: ‘The Harvest’ (1992), ‘Mrs.Doubtfire’ (1993), ‘Elmo Saves Christmas’ (1996), and ‘White Lies’ (1997).
He starred as Edna Turnblad in the 2002 musical ‘Hairspray’ which was based on a 1988 film of the same name by John Waters.
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He played the role of Tevye in the fourth Broadway revival of the musical ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ which opened in 2004.
He appeared in movies such as ‘Common Ground’ (2000), ‘Death to Smoochy’ (2002), ‘Duplex’ (2003), and ‘The Year without a Santa Claus’ (2006).
In 2007, he wrote the book for the musical ‘A Catered Affair’ which was based on a 1956 film by the same name, and on a 1955 teleplay.
He wrote the book for the musical ‘Newsies’ by Disney Theatrical Productions, which made its Broadway debut in 2012.
His best known work is the play ‘Torch Song Trilogy’ (1982) which he wrote and starred in. It revolved around the story of Arnold, a gay drag queen and his quest for love and family. The play is semi-autobiographical in nature as it reflected the dreams and struggles of Fierstein himself.
He wrote the award winning book for the musical ‘La Cage aux Folles’ which was originally produced by the Broadway in 1983 and revived in 2004 and 2010. The play focused on a gay couple and the funny incidents that follow when they receive conservative guests.
He acted as an over-weight woman in the 2002 musical ‘Hairspray’, immediately becoming popular with the audience. The play was basically a commentary on the social injustices prevalent in America during the 1960’s.
Awards & Achievements
He won the prestigious Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre twice in 1983, one for Best Play and one for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play for ‘Torch Song Trilogy’.
In 2003, he won the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical for his portrayal of Edna Turnbald in ‘Hairspray’.
His book for ‘La Cage aux Folles’ won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical twice in 2005 and 2010.
Personal Life & Legacy
He is homosexual and had relationships with Bruce Bibby and Joe Grabarz.
He is an outspoken gay rights activist who also writes about gay issues.
He has also lent his voice to a few videogames.
He is good friends with actor and director Danny DeVito.
His brother Ronald K. Fierstein is a film producer.