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Regional Reviews: Seattle

First Garbo Talks, Now Fierstein Sings!
An Interview with Harvey Fierstein

Harvey Fierstein, the Tony award-winning gay playwright (and star) of the smash hit play and film Torch Song Trilogy, and librettist of the Jerry Herman stage musical La Cage Aux Folles, is about to open a new window himself, namely making his musical stage debut. And it's not just any role, but one made famous by the legendary underground film favorite Divine in the musical version of John Water's beloved film comedy Hairspray. The Broadway bound company and artistic team of this highly anticipated musical adaptation is rehearsing at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre where the show will have its only pre-Broadway run prior to facing New York crowds and critics. I caught up with Harvey at his hotel, just moments before a rehearsal was to begin, and got him to share some dish with Talkin' Broadway.

David-Edward Hughes: I am so excited that we are going to see you star in a Broadway musical, Harvey!

Harvey Fierstein: Not only you, darling, ME TOO! I can't wait to see how it works out.

D-E:  This is you first Broadway musical role?

H:   That I'm aware of. I've only written them before.

D-E:  How did it come about?

H:   I got the regular call, that they were doing a Broadway musical of Hairspray, and would I come and audition. I was familiar with the movie, because at the time it came out my lover wrote for Premiere magazine, and we had to see everything.

D-E:  John Waters, I understand, will be here to see the show.

H:   (with a mock sigh) OH YEAH. Johnny is coming. He'll be in town for the Seattle Film Festival, where they are having a tribute to him. I love John, he is just a dear, dear man.

D-E:  What kind of songs will you be singing in the role of Edna Turnblad in Hairspray?

H:   Sixties.

D-E:  Are they patter songs?

H:   No, no, they're making me sing! I've been studying with a woman named Joan Lader. Sometimes the lesson before me is Madonna, sometimes the lesson after me is Priscilla Lopez, or Patti Lupone. I haven't gotten in there lately - she'll yell at me. But actually just yesterday we raised the key of one of my songs two steps up, so my voice is obviously responding. It's a muscle, and the more you use it, the more you use it right, the more you should get out of it. So yes, I sing.

D-E:  Do you have a ballad?

H:   No, this is NOT a ballad show. (He warbles) "Did he need a stronger hand, did he need a lighter touch?" We don't go there. I'd have to call Jerry Herman for that. It's just not that kind of a show. My husband (Dick Latessa) and I do have a sort of Steve & Eydie number.

D-E:  Are you two having fun?

H:   We are, we ABSOLUTELY are. We're the old married couple in the show. We're the ONLY married couple in the show. Unlike the movie, Amber only has a mother in the show, and Penny only has a mother in the show. Penny had a father in the movie, it was Sonny Bono.

D-E:  The creators must have figured it's hard to top Sonny Bono.

H:   I've heard a few women say that ... not many.

D-E:   The actress who plays your daughter, Marissa Janet Winokur, looks a lot like Ricki Lake from the film. Is she made up to look that way, or is there an actual resemblance?

H:   A bit I think. She's very good. You remember the scene in American Beauty where Kevin Spacey was working at the fast food place, and there was this girl with him? That was her.

D-E:  And what is her voice like? Is she a belter?

H:   Yes, but we're not doing that Broadway sound. It's the sixties sound. Very "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows." It's a different use of the voice, but my, yes, she is a belter.

(Harvey signs for a package, flirting outrageously with the courier)

H:   This is a script for a movie I'm finishing. Why do they keep sending me whole scripts? Every time I turn around.

D-E:  Is this a cable movie?

H:   No it's a movie movie. Let me see what I do wrong now. Oh shit! I have another whole scene. I have the tiniest role, but they keep adding more. I've been working on it four months. It's called The Duplex, Danny De Vito is directing, and it's with Ben Stiller.

D-E:   Which reminds me, I loved your role as the gangster in DeVito's Death to Smoochy, by the way. Was that a good experience?

H:   It's a lot of fun to play someone you don't normally think of yourself as. And Danny and I go way back to like 1972 together.

D-E:  Do you find now that you're cast for your ability to play a role, as opposed to being cast as the gay character?

H:   You know, I always got offered other stuff. Not the romantic leads, obviously. But very often it's a role that's underwritten, where the character has no personality at all. And they need a character actor who can fill it in. Like my role in Independence Day; he was the straightest of straight guys working in an office. They said "Bring in Harvey and see what he can do with it." And in Smoochy the character mumbled so much. I think I drove the sound guys crazy trying to pick up on what I was saying, but that was the role. In this Duplex picture it's a role where it looks like I have nothing to do with the plot, and then there's a twist, so it's fun.

D-E:  Jumping back to Hairspray real quick before you have to dash to rehearsal, this is really taking a show out of town before Broadway isn't it? I mean Seattle isn't one of the usual pre-Broadway stops for a show.

H:   It's true. They said the wanted to take it far away from New York. How much further could they get? I'm surprised we're not playing Hawaii!

D-E:  Do you foresee the show evolving a lot while it's here?

H:   Who knows? What looks absolutely fabulous in rehearsal can fall flat in front of an audience. The audience dictates what you do or don't change. But Seattle audiences have been good to me, so I hope for the best.

D-E:  Did La Cage change much out of town?

H:   Not at all. We cut like fifteen minutes, but just to tighten it. Jerry Herman had a friend who had a house with a pool, and he and I and the director, Arthur Laurents, sat and in an hour or so we made all the cuts. But audiences ate it up pretty much right off the bat. We're planning, hoping to do it again, and I would like to make some changes. Make it a little more dangerous. We don't have to be as scared as we were back then. But with this show, who knows? In rehearsal the thing can fly like an angel. It's like trying it out in a laboratory and then taking it out for a field test.

D-E:  And might you ever think of musicalizing Torch Song Trilogy?

H:   I don't know. It's never come up because its such a hard story to tell. There's so much to it, and it was hard enough condensing it to two hours for the movie, which we were contractually bound to do. The version I liked was twenty to forty minutes longer than what New Line wanted. They got a two hour cut. Exactly two hours, and then they had to make it like four seconds longer to get their name on it. But I'm not adverse to the idea of Torch Song as a musical. It would just be different. Because the play will always be there exactly as it was, and in a musical you could tell a lot of the story through songs.

D-E:  Well speaking of songs, I know you have to get to rehearsal to work on yours.

H:   Yes, I do. But thank you, David. And give my regards to Talkin' Broadway!

Hairspray is directed by The Full Monty's Tony nominated director and choreographer, Jack O'Brien and Jerry Mitchell. It features a book by Thomas (The Producers) Meehan And Mark O' Donnell, music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman (South Park, The Movie) and Scott Wittman.

For complete information on the Seattle world premiere engagement of Hairspray, the musical, visit, and for more information on the Broadway run go to

- David-Edward Hughes

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