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Tonys: In the Thick of Awards Season, a Busy Night on the Town With Harvey Fierstein

Once an outcast, Fierstein — who is about to turn 60 and has three shows simultaneously running on Broadway, including best play Tony nominee "Casa Valentina" — has become a leading ambassador of New York theater.

Harvey Fierstein - H 2014
Scott Feinberg
Debra Messing shoots a video of Harvey Fierstein before the Manhattan Theatre Club's annual gala.

NEW YORK – The evening of Monday, May 19, proved to be an unusually hectic one for New York theater legend Harvey Fierstein — a man who is accustomed to having Mondays off — and therefore for me, as well, since I, being a self-professed fan of Fierstein's work, had been invited to hang with him as he jumped from an uptown affair to a downtown affair and back again. How could I pass up a chance like that?

The life of any Tony nominee is busy at this time of year, with the Tonys ceremony rapidly approaching. But for Fierstein, a tireless and irrepressible 59-year-old (he turns 60 on Friday) who has an astounding three shows currently running on Broadway -- 2012 best musical Tony nominee Newsies, 2013 best musical Tony winner Kinky Boots and 2014 best play Tony nominee Casa Valentina -- it can be even busier than for most.

"I try to say yes to everything," he tells me soon after we meet, at 6 p.m., in a makeshift green room within the grand Cipriani restaurant on 42nd Street, where he will later co-host the annual gala of the Manhattan Theatre Club, the organization that is presenting Casa Valentina. He was speaking — in his inimitable scratchy, purring voice — not just about Tony season events, but life in general. "That's my demented philosophy. All day long, people are asking you to do shit, right? And 99 percent of the time, we don't even hear them ask; we just say no automatically. But if you say no, life doesn't change. Life only changes if you say yes."

Saying yes is how Fierstein has wound up having to present three awards at the Obies and co-host the MTC annual gala on the same night.

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Having formulated a game plan for the night with the MTC gala organizers -- including young Marc Bruni, the director of both the Broadway hit Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and the gala itself -- Fierstein, his publicist and I head out into the main event hall, past rows of waiters readying themselves for the hundreds of guests scheduled to arrive shortly for the dinner portion of the gala, and into a waiting SUV, me sandwiched between the two of them in the back seat. As the driver speeds away, headed for downtown, I ask Fierstein if I can turn on my recorder. He says with a smile, "Do what you f---ing want, that's what I say -- make your f---ing self happy!"

Before I can ask Fierstein a question, he has one for me: How did I wind up covering the Tony season? I tell him that I didn't see why I should cover the Oscar and Emmy seasons but not the Tony season; that I wanted a new challenge; and that I was lucky enough to have an editor who afforded me that opportunity. "Well, thank you -- thank the f--- outta you," he says with feeling. "New York theater brings in more money than all of our sports teams put together [$1.27 billion this season] and yet, on the news every night, do they cover theater? In the newspaper every day, they got the theater section?" He continues, "Broadway is like — I mean, Jesus Christ, it's the f---ing heartbeat of this city, and it's so unique, and people come from all over the world to see it — and we have no real appreciation of it. Isn't it amazing?"

As we cruise through midtown, I ask Fierstein, a creature of the theater who has also appeared on a number of TV shows and in a number of films — most memorably Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) and Independence Day (1996) — what appeals to him more about the theater than those other media. "I mean, I love movies and I love television," he replies. "But if I watch Neighbors this week, or I watch it 84 years from now, it's exactly the same. It's a dead thing. It's not that it isn't wonderful. It's not that there weren't talented people who did it. But you can put it off till 84 years from now. You can watch it in the middle of the night, you can watch it in the afternoon, you can stop it and go to the bathroom, you can have dinner, you can cook dinner, you can have a fight, you can get divorced, you can get married, put it back on and it's the same f---ing thing! But theater exists just for that one moment, and so you're trying to capture lightning in a bottle."

To him, the greatest appeal of the other media are the sizes of their audiences. The biggest Broadway venue, the Gershwin Theatre, can seat 1,933 people per performance. The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, where Casa Valentina is playing, seats only 650. But TV shows and films can reach millions. "In the olden days, you could reach more people being on TV once in the lowest-rated TV show than running 10 years in a sold-out theater. Now, reach them to their heart? No. But, if you're going for a message, if you have some sort of a message, then television was the carrier of the message unlike anything else."

Even though the reach of television has markedly decreased in the age of cable and hundreds of channels, which also have to compete with the Internet, Fierstein says he's been thinking a lot about TV lately. As it turns out, he'd like to develop Casa Valentina — the story, inspired by real people and events, of a group of transvestites who gather regularly at a Catskills resort in 1962 — into a series or miniseries, citing Orange Is the New Black as an interesting model. (Laverne Cox, a transgender woman who stars on that show, is on the cover of this week's Time magazine.) "I love Casa Valentina's characters so much that I had a hard time turning it into a two-hour play," he confesses. "The first draft of it was three and a half hours. There's so much stuff that I couldn't even show you, and that's with only nine people. I want to show you them at work. I want to show you them at home. I want you to see the guy going into Macy's and trying on a dress."

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Gender and sexuality have long fascinated Fierstein, a loud and proud member of the gay community who began performing as a drag queen in Manhattan clubs at the age of 15. Among his productions that have prominently featured men in drag: his writing and acting career breakthrough, Torch Song Trilogy, which debuted off-Broadway in 1982 and ran on Broadway from 1983 to 1985, bringing him his first Tony nom — and a win — in the best play Tony category 31 years ago; two of the most successful musicals that he wrote, La Cage aux Folles (on Broadway from 1983 to 1987 and twice since), for which he won the best book of a musical Tony, and Kinky Boots; and now Casa Valentina.

Almost as much as drag, Fierstein is associated with musicals -- La Cage and Kinky Boots, plus, of course, Hairspray, in which he starred on Broadway from 2002 to 2004 and then again from 2008 to 2009, and for which he won the best actor in a musical Tony. Consequently, I can't help but wonder aloud: Did he ever think of doing Casa Valentina as a musical? "Yeah, but I thought of timing again," he says with a sigh, "because music adds time on, so I'd have to have even less story than I have now, and I'm already dying that I'm cutting it down. I actually had thought of sending it to [Stephen] Sondheim. Every few years I send him something, just so that he can say, 'No, Harvey, no.' "

The SUV pulls up in front of Webster Hall, a nightclub and concert venue on 11th Street, between Third and Fourth avenues, that is a popular site for raves, but, on this night, is playing host to the Obies, the annual awards ceremony that celebrates the year's best theatrical work done off-Broadway -- OB for short, hence "Obies." We hop out and make our way past a barricaded group of photographers and into a check-in area, where Fierstein greets several waiting photographers, some by name and with cheek kisses, and runs into Reed Birney, the one male member of the Casa Valentina ensemble who received a Tony nom for his performance as a woman. Then, Fierstein is handed an honorarium for showing up and cracks, "Now I can afford condoms!"

A young Obies volunteer tasked with serving as Fierstein's handler for the duration of his visit gives him a script of what he will have to say from the podium when the show gets underway at 8 p.m. Fierstein is to present the first three awards of the night, so he is anxious to familiarize himself with the script, and we all head over to a nearby cordoned-off area — which normally serves as a bar — so that he can do so in relative quiet. He raises his eyebrows at some of the clunkier dialogue — for example, "See how well this dysfunctional family functions …" — but is willing to roll with it. "I've made a career of making a fool of myself," he chuckles.

I ask Fierstein why he agreed to present at the Obies on the same night that he had the responsibility of hosting the MTC gala across town -- particularly in light of the fact that there isn't much overlap between Obies attendees and Tonys voters, who inherently focus on different sorts of New York theater. "[The Obies people] have asked me so many years in a row, and I've always had an excuse, but I literally wasn't doing anything today," he says. "I said yes, and then the MTC called like a week later and said, 'You have to help us out!' I said, 'Well, I've already said yes to the Obies!' " Eventually, they realized that, with a bit of coordination, he could make both work.

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More importantly, he emphasizes, he wants to be here. "This is my family. This is my youth. You know, I was 10 years off-off-Broadway. I did like 60 plays in those first eight years." He continues, "I would be doing four shows at the same time. I'd do the eight o'clock show at La MaMa, the ten o'clock show at WPA, the midnight show at Theatre Genesis and rehearse two other shows during the day, you know? I worked every company there was. Then Torch Song happened and I was gone. But I've rehearsed each one of my plays at La MaMa."

Fierstein surveys the scene. "I haven't been here in so fucking long," he says of the gathering, noting that the last time he was at the Obies they were held at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, and that when he won an Obie in 1982, for Torch Song, they were held at the Village Gate Theatre in Greenwich Village, which is now a CVS pharmacy. "Nina Simone was playing there that night," he recalls. "She be dead." (Simone died in 2003.)

After a few minutes, we head to the press room, following the handler up a long, dark staircase and past a sex-cage-like structure that immediately catches Fierstein's attention. ("Are you telling me we're not shooting pictures in here?!") When we arrive at our destination, Fierstein heads over to a step-and-repeat, where he greets and banters with another set of photographers. One compliments his bright pink tie. He replies, "I get all my ties at Fat and F---ed." Then two of Broadway's biggest stars, Rocky's Andy Karl and The Bridges of Madison County's Kelli O'Hara — fellow 2014 Tony nominees who will also be presenting Obies — arrive in the room, come over to say hello to Fierstein and, at the behest of the photographers, flank him for some photos. One photographer remarks, "This is like the theater's prom picture!" Fierstein shoots right back, "I'm the chaperone!"

We then make our way through the wings of the theater toward the stage. At the edge of the curtained-off area, a staff person taps Fierstein on the shoulder and tells him that her mother loves his work. While she continues talking, he turns his head away from her and toward me to shoot me a look of disbelief, not unlike Kevin Spacey in House of Cards. Then, his smirk turns to a smile as the young actress Lena Hall, an alum of Kinky Boots who is a Tony nominee this year for playing a transsexual character in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, runs toward him and plants a kiss right on his lips, leaving bright red lipstick on them.

After Hall walks away, Fierstein begins to reflect on his many adventures of the last few years. "The last five years, I was writing the three shows [Newsies, Kinky Boots and Casa Valentina] at the same time, and I was on the road for a year with Fiddler [on the Roof], and I went back into La Cage and closed La Cage [from 2010 to 2011] and I went back into Hairspray to close Hairspray [from 2008 to 2009]," he recounts with a bit of disbelief. "So for the last five years I acted in three major roles and wrote three Broadway shows." He quickly adds, "I'll never do that again. I wasn't planning to do that in the first place. It was silly. It just happened."

He explains, "I was looking for somebody to write Kinky Boots with, and I went over to Alan Menken's house, and while I was there I had the idea to do Newsies -- I saw the poster on the wall. I used to use that movie to babysit my nephews. My nephews loved that movie. So, while I was still looking for somebody to write Kinky Boots with, I started writing Newsies, and then Cyndi [Lauper] came along. [The two ended up collaborating on Kinky Boots.] And then the guys [producers Bob Balaban, Bob Cole, Fred Zollo and Colin Callender] sent me the photographs of Casa Susanna [the inspiration for Casa Valentina] in that same period, and I turned them down for two years [before saying yes]."

It's now showtime at the Obies, and Fierstein takes his seat in the front row, soon to be introduced by hammy hosts Tamara Tunie and Hamish Linklater, to a huge ovation. "Hiya, kids!" he greets the crowd, whom he disarms by mentioning that he sat in their seats at the Obies for years and years, always losing. "They finally gave me a pity f--- and gave me one when Torch Song moved to Broadway," he says, adding after a pause, "I love the Obies!"

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Fierstein's first presentation, to the young playwright Will Eno, who recently graduated to Broadway with The Realistic Joneses, goes smoothly enough. The second, a special Obie recognizing the career achievement of veteran actress Marylouise Burke, hits a bump when Burke pulls out a speech and begins rambling on for the better part of 10 minutes, oblivious to the audience's growing laughter. After she finally gets tapped on the shoulder and vacates the stage, Fierstein steps back up to the mic and cracks, "I've had runs shorter than that!" The third presentation was uneventful, and Fierstein, his publicist and I sneak out a side door and hop back into the SUV. As we do, Fierstein is still laughing, almost admiringly, about Burke: "She was gonna do her entire career, from 1973 on down! She was not giving up for nothin'!"

I ask Fierstein, who is himself the antonym of a shrinking violet, if he has always been that way. He surprises me with his answer: No, he insists, he was a "very shy, quiet kid," at least until he arrived in high school at the younger-than-usual age of 13, and came out of the closet. "I'd skipped a bunch of years — because I'm so smart," he says with his best poker face, "so when I got to high school, everybody else was, like, 16, and I was only 13, so I had to blossom. I think I overcompensated."

Was it always his goal to have a life in the theater? "No," he exclaims. "I was an art student. I have a degree in painting and I have a degree in art education. I never wanted to be an actor and I certainly didn't know I was gonna be a writer." At the age of 20, if you can believe it, Fierstein almost became an elementary school teacher. He was working as a substitute teacher at his own former high school when a teacher there, with whom he had once taken a class, suffered a heart attack. Fierstein was asked by the superintendent to replace him. "Two of my other teachers came in -- they were waiting outside, and they came in -- and they said, 'We always knew you would be the one to make it,' and all that. And I stood there and I said to myself, 'If I take this job, that's it. I will be doing this the rest of my life. I will be retiring someday as a New York City schoolteacher.' I had to say no."

Before long, he began acting in off-off-Broadway and regional productions, before long appearing in productions that he had written himself, and slowly building a following that became cult-like after Torch Song.

I ask him if he remembers the first time he was recognized by a stranger and knew he was famous, and he flashes a mischievous smile. "I was doing Robert Patrick's Haunted Host at the Charles Playhouse in Boston," he says, referring to a 1975 production, "and two blocks from the Charles Playhouse was the Greyhound bus station, and around the corner from the Greyhound bus station was a bar. It was a regular gay bar downstairs, and then there was a long flight of stairs with a landing, and at that landing was a men's room, and then you went up even further, to the third floor, and that's where the leather bar was. The men's room on that landing was a backroom men's room where people went and had sex. So I went to the backroom, and I was on my knees, 'working,' and the guy tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'By the way, you were great tonight!'" After his publicist and I finally stop laughing, I ask, 'And how did you respond?' He says through a gurgle, "'Thank you!'"

Nearly 40 years later, Fierstein still has colorful fans — just a lot more of them. "My fan base is mostly women of a certain age," he says. "Like that girl said, 'My mother is a big fan!'" Chuckling, he continues, "My fan base really is New York women — you know, women over 30, 30 to 100 — that love the theater. They know me, and they treat me as if they've known me their whole lives, and they call me 'Harvey,' and they grab me, and they talk to me as if I've just had a conversation with them the day before. It's a lovely thing." Outside of the Broadway bubble, his level of fame fluctuates. As he puts it, "It sort of depends on what I look like, and it sort of depends on whether my two big movies are in rotation. You know, if Doubtfire is on, then I can't go anywhere. If Independence Day is on, then I can't go anywhere."

As we pass the intersection of Second Avenue and 12th Street, Fierstein motions toward an NYU building which, he points out, stands on the site of the former Eden Theatre, where Grease was originally performed off-Broadway in 1972. "My lover [at the time] Charlie and his roommate, Sam, lived right over it," he recalls. "They were deaf, so it didn't matter that it was playing rock 'n' roll — it wouldn't bother them at all — but I couldn't sleep at night because it was so f---ing loud, and they just thought that was the funniest thing!" He notes that Charlie is referenced in Torch Song -- in a great monologue, by the main character, Arnold Beckoff, whom Fierstein played himself.

Just minutes later, but a universe away from the struggles and rewards of the off-Broadway life that Fierstein once knew, the SUV glides back in front of Cipriani, with time to spare before he is due on stage. He decides to pop back into the green room, where he warmly greets his co-host for the evening, the actress Debra Messing — who starred this year in an MTC production, Outside Mullingar, that is nominated for the best play Tony opposite Casa Valentina — and her boyfriend, Nashville star Will Chase. Fierstein tells Messing that she looks beautiful, but laments that Chase is so pretty that he is making them all look bad. Messing chuckles and agrees, and then whips out her smartphone to ask Fierstein to tape a quick video "for my 10-year-old, who loves you!" He agrees and chirps into the camera, "Hi, Roman! It's Aunt Harvey. How you be? I be good. I be going now!"

At 9:30 p.m., it's finally showtime. A massive room full of Broadway types, who paid between $1,500 and $5,000 a head for the evening's dinner and entertainment, are ready to be entertained. Performers from all of the hottest Tony-nominated musicals — including Karl and O'Hara, who have also made their way uptown — are ready to sing, if not for their suppers, then perhaps for a few Tony votes. But first, a voice of God introduces the emcees, who will introduce the performers. Fierstein and Messing take the stage to loud applause. And Fierstein, whose mere presence seems to loosen the collars of the uptight crowd, speaks first.

"Hiya, kids!"

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg