- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
Michael Urie never saw himself as an Arnold in Torch Song Trilogy. Harvey Fierstein’s magnum opus about a New York drag performer who yearns for love and belonging requires everything of an actor, and the sheer ebullience needed made Urie question his potential. “I never thought I had the chutzpah,” he admits.
But when director Moises Kaufman and producer Richie Jackson came to him independently and suggested he take a look at the role in a new edited version of the work, dubbed simply Torch Song, Urie was forced to reconsider. “Here I was thinking I’m not right for this part and these other two very clever people said no you are,” he adds.
For Fierstein, it never seemed like quite the right time to bring the work back to Broadway. After all, he had finished the play in 1978, performed it off-Broadway in 1981, and debuted on Broadway the following year, landing him a double Tony Award win for best play and best actor. But after the Broadway premiere, the AIDS epidemic swept the gay community, and suddenly the narrative onstage and in life underwent radical change.
“AIDS is certainly an important subject, but it had nothing to do with Torch Song,” Fierstein says. “I always wanted the characters in Torch Song to be dealing with life, not dealing with life that had a threatening disease on the back burner.”
He also had to find the perfect someone to fill his big shoes. Enter Urie.
Jackson worked as Fierstein’s assistant during the Torch Song Trilogy movie and had never mentioned someone for the role before, so Fierstein took note. “We’d done a couple of readings over the years, but until Michael came along, it didn’t click,” Fierstein explains. “And then he came along, and it clicked.”
The revival premiered off-Broadway at Second Stage last year and is now back on Broadway more than 35 years after its initial bow. Although Fierstein and Urie didn’t know each other before the production, they now trade quips like old friends, and Fierstein seems to have an arsenal of doting nicknames for his star, including Little Mikey and Miss Urie.
The Hollywood Reporter sat down with the writer and actor to discuss how the show has changed, the legacy of the story, and what it means to have so many canonical LGBTQ plays coming back to Broadway this year.
Michael, what was it like reinterpreting this character while the originator and writer was in the room?
MU: When I got to read the whole play for him for my audition, I knew that there was no way I could even try to be Harvey or impersonate him or even emulate him. I knew I had to use myself and find everything about me that was Arnold and build on that. And I knew that in a read-through I was really going to have to strap in and take the ride. Strap in, not strap on!
Even when I was reading it, I wasn’t sure. I mean, I knew I wanted it. I wasn’t a fool. I just wasn’t sure I could get it. It wasn’t until we read the whole thing that I thought, I really think I have this in me and I can find it. I’ve been with the role for over a year now, and I learn so much from him — not just about what it is to be an actor onstage playing a role like this, where you’re onstage the whole time and you go through such a range of emotions. But also as a guy who knows who he is, knows what he wants, and lives in a world where it’s impossible and has to figure out not only how to make it happen, but how to tell people what he wants.
What do you think the play means at this particular moment in history, particularly as it relates to the evolution of LGBTQ rights?
MU: The idea that a gay man would be a husband and father today is commonplace. We see it all the time. It’s legal. There’s lots of gay daddies and gay mommies taking their kids to school and securing children in various ways. And of course marriage is legal for anyone. But we’re still in a society where great groups, great swathes of the country are being told they don’t matter. They’re being told in Georgia they can’t vote. Women are being told that they can’t have control over their bodies. And Muslims are being told they can’t come back into the country. Everybody has that feeling, like Arnold feels at the end of the play, where they’re all alone.
HF: There’s a myth in humanity that we’re seeing the beginnings of the end of it, and that’s of the white male patriarchy. That the norm of everything — be it how they test drugs to who laws are made for to who cars are designed around — has been the white heterosexual male. They are the norm, and all the rest of us — women, gays, any ethnic minority — has to be the other.
We all are different, even the white heterosexual males I know. I would find it very hard to put them all in one box. What every human being has to have though in a society like ours is the opportunity to make their dream come true. It’s the right to pursue happiness; that’s the American Dream. I’m a gay man. I wrote a play called Torch Song. I don’t want to get married. I don’t want to have children. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have the right to.
Michael, you’ve said that audiences sometimes find it shocking that the mother is so cruel to her son in the final part. Do you feel like that’s something that has changed?
MU: I think that she would do it so cruelly and that it’s on a stage is shocking to people. There was this crying boy in the autograph line the other night saying this is just like my life. He couldn’t have been 20. I think it’s still happening. There are still people in apartments and homes having these exact conversations, and I think what’s shocking to people, especially a New York theater-going audience that has gone to see Torch Song, is they haven’t heard it in a long time or they’ve never heard it at all. They’re not used to seeing it played out on the stage like that.
HF: Back in the ’70s when I first wrote it, I was attacked just as much — or maybe even more — by the gay community for writing these plays. Because in the middle of the gay revolution, we were coming out of the closet and were going to be ourselves. It was gung-ho, let’s go to the baths! It’s sexual freedom, and nobody’s going to tell us we need to be in a relationship, and you’re turning us into heterosexuals. That was the fear. And I was attacked greatly for having a character that wanted something else. On the other hand, I was attacked by gay people for having the scene in the backroom. I was telling secrets.
MU: Oh, wow.
HF: Nobody should know about that stuff. And then AIDS came along, and we were no longer invisible. I used to say, “If the first time you sucked a cock, you got a horn in the middle of your forehead, we would have had our freedom a hundred years ago.”
Do you think it’s a coincidence that we have all of these landmark queer history plays — Torch Song, Angels in America, Boys in the Band — on Broadway this year? Or is it motivated by political concerns?
MU: I think it’s both. I think with the business of Broadway, it’s sort of impossible to be strategic because it’s about real estate, it’s about money, and about schedules. But at the same time, there’s an energy in the world that was saying we need these plays again. We need to talk about these plays.
HF: There’s a big thing in it being the right time for us to claim ourselves. We’ve been through these huge struggles. We went through the AIDS crisis where we really proved ourselves as a community … From there the community built and built and built and we went through that. Then we went through the gay marriage thing. Now we’re at this sort of strong place and I think it’s a great place to turn around, look back at the struggle up the mountain and say, “This where we came from.”
You need your history, and I think it was the right time. I couldn’t be happier. In fact, Joe Mantello, who directed The Boys in the Band revival, and I talk a lot, and I gave him a list of plays that I wanted. Let’s do Haunted Host again. Let’s do The Children’s Hour again. Let’s do all these plays that show this incredible human struggle we’ve had and celebrate.
Torch Song is a celebration. By the end of that play, Arnold has earned his place in the world as a fully functioning human being who has made his own spot in the world from which he can love and be loved and live his life. We need to take those kinds of celebrations. We need to know where we came from, and we need to celebrate when we get there.
— Torch Song officially opens Nov. 1 at the Helen Hayes Theater in New York.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day