Tonys: Harvey Fierstein Talks 'Casa Valentina' Transvestites, Drag and the 'Sexually Normal' (Q&A)

Casa Valentina Inset - H 2014
Matthew Murphy; AP Images/Invision

Casa Valentina Inset - H 2014

"If anything, it clouded my judgment," says the four-time Tony winner of pulling from his drag experience when portraying an unfamiliar group in his nominated play.

Harvey Fierstein wrote one of the roles in Casa Valentina for himself. And why wouldn’t he? The play revolves around a group of transvestites in the 1960s, and Fierstein is no stranger to cross-dressing onstage. His first Broadway foray in 1982, Torch Song Trilogy, had him in the parts of playwright and star (in drag no less), and won him Tony Awards for both posts. He also took home the Tony for his portrayal of the voluptuous Edna Turnblad in Hairspray and for best book of a musical with La Cage aux Folles, the 1983 comedy with tunes by Jerry Herman centering on a transvestite, and also penned, with Cyndi Lauper, last year’s drag-tastic best musical winner, Kinky Boots.

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"I thought I knew everything there was to know about transvestites," Fierstein tells The Hollywood Reporter, admitting that he initially brushed off the notion of tackling the topic again when producers Colin Callender, Robert Cole and Frederick Zollo approached him with the idea of writing a play inspired by Casa Susanna, a book of photographs from a real house in the Catskills where men dress as women. But as he explored the subject, he realized that not only did he not know everything, but also he couldn’t take the stage with this group. "I said, 'I can’t do it because if I do it, there will always be the question, 'Is that character supposed to be gay or not?’ Because people know I’m gay, and they identify me as gay,” Fierstein says. “I just didn’t want to sacrifice that part of the play to people’s prejudices of who I am."

The play’s characters, all allegedly straight and some even staunchly anti-homosexual, vacation at the Chevalier d’Eon, the house’s original name, for a retreat, where they are free to indulge in “the girl within.” On the particular weekend when the play is set, the beginning seeds of the Tri-Ess Sorority, a still-existing organization for heterosexual transvestites, create riffs among the group. Fierstein says it was important for the play to find straight actors who were “dying” to do the play, like Reed Birney, who plays the ringleader, Charlotte. “You put a lot of actors in dresses, and there’s a huge impulse to start mincing around, and we learned very quickly that that was not the world,” Birney tells THR, adding he felt light-headed when he first put on a bra and high heels. “Some straight cross-dressers came in and spoke to us, and I asked one, ‘When you dress, do you feel the need to behave in a feminine way?’ He said, ‘No, the wig and the nails and the high heels and the dress do it to me.'"

Fierstein’s Tony nomination for Casa marks his first for best play since Torch Song, and The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Fierstein to talk about his personal relationship with drag and what society still expects from people on the topic.

When did you first hear about this house, the Chevalier d'Eon?

My father was born in the Catskills, so we used to go up in the summer to see my father’s friends. We heard the adults talking as little kids, and so I’d heard about this place where there were men that dressed up, but by the same token, there was a nudist camp right up the road. Little kids are much more interested in the nudist camp than in a place where men wear dresses, so I think I always placed it in the back of my mind as something I knew about but wasn’t all that interested in.

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Where did you start writing the play?

I went to the source of all good things: eBay. I went to Wikipedia. The first thing I found was the two pages of writing in the book were wrong. The book is called Casa Susanna, and as it turned out, the Casa Susanna didn’t exist until the very end of the movement. The place was called the Chevalier d'Eon, and most of the photographs, it turns out, were from the Chevalier d'Eon. And so then I found Transvestia magazine, and I started reading it ... It was a very different view of the world and a very different view of transvestites than I’d ever heard before, and I started thinking, you know, "We have the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender, keep-your-hands-off-me community; we include everybody, but there’s no ‘T’ for Transvestite." I thought, "We’re so inclusive. Why would we have thrown them out?" And then I found these magazines that said, "This is an organization for the sexually normal," which I found totally fascinating. What a fabulous phrase that is, especially since I’ve never met anyone who’s "sexually normal." I thought, “Hmm, that’s a kind of interesting decision you made."

Was it a personal story for you at all?

No, it’s a personal story in that it’s about trying to live your authentic life in the most extreme way. These guys lived in a time when men were men and women were women. There were very strict lines. These are straight, married men, and they’re only comfortable in the clothing of the opposite sex. That’s a lot to bear. I’ve done drag all my life, but I’ve done it in a safe space, I’ve done it in a theater community, I’ve done it in the art community. I mean, I started with Andy Warhol -- nobody would make faces at me, I’m with Andy Warhol! I mean, these were guys who were the chief of police in a small town. If anyone found out, their lives would be over. It was a real personal act of revolution.

In the play, you state that their main goal is to "pass" as women.

Well, their goal was -- now this is the purest form, and I also found out no two people had the same goal -- the organization’s purpose was to develop their femme-personating abilities and to nurture what they called, “the girl within.” So their goal was not to live as women, but to live their lives as men and also have a part of their lives lived as women where they would develop this personality and this other part of life, believing that it’s only if you live your male and your female life are you a whole person, but not to incorporate the two. There’s sexuality and then there’s gender. The two have nothing to do with each other.

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And on the surface, this play seems to be about gender.

Well it’s about gender, but I try to touch a little on the sexuality. Listen, I’d have to write a 30-act play if I was going to really deal with everything that needs to be dealt with because as I said, there were no two people who dressed for the same reason and no two people who expressed their sexuality in the same way. There’s every sort of iteration that you can imagine. If somebody says, “I hate homosexuals,” you just know they have a problem with themselves. If you’re going to put out a statement “for the sexually normal,” you ain’t telling the truth about something, honey.

Well that’s a major plot point in the play, especially with Charlotte’s character being staunchly anti-gay. Do you think it’s a misconception that still exists today that all transvestites are homosexual?

Abso-freaking-lutely! I’ve had people -- and I’m not talking about idiots -- who saw the show and then said to me, “So they’re all really gay, right?” I’ve had people really say that to me. Did you not think that most men in dresses are gay?

I had heard that there’s a difference between transvestite and drag queens, and correct me if I’m using the wrong terms here …

Listen, the terms are constantly shifting. You almost can’t be politically correct anymore with these terms. It’s like this whole war not to use the word "tranny."

Did your own experience performing in drag give you any particular insight into this world?

It didn’t. If anything, it clouded my judgment. I had to go back and rethink everything I thought I knew. The only thing I can bring to it from having done drag for 45 years is I knew was how it felt to be in drag. I knew about the feeling that you’re empowered. You’re in a uniform, you’re in a cover-up, you’re in a masquerade. So I knew that, but very little else. Everything else, all my other beliefs had to be thrown out the window.

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Did the actors ask you questions about being in drag?

They did, but we also brought in transvestites as opposed to getting an answer from me because, more or less, I’m just a drag queen. I’m an actor who does drag. I’m not a drag queen who goes out in the street in drag or goes lip-syncing in clubs or anything. I’m an actor who has done a lot of drag roles, so I wouldn’t have the answers they necessarily needed. I had the answers for the characters because I wrote the characters, but if they wanted to know about something deeper, we had transvestites they could speak to. I didn’t want to write an easy play. This isn’t an easy question, these aren’t simple lives, and I thought the least I could do is make sure I give it the dignity of saying these are not easy questions.

What do you hope audiences take away from Casa Valentina?

There is no normal. If you think you’re heterosexual and that makes you normal, you’re kidding yourself. There’s a sliding scale to everyone. If you don’t ever ask the questions, you’re not living your authentic life.

Patrick Page, who plays Valentina, has that great line: "I just want to be normal."

We all want to fit in, and the price for that sometimes is really dear.

Twitter: @suzyeevans