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I Was Better Last Night
by Harvey Fierstein
Book Review by Wendy Caster
Yes, this is a "warts and all" book. It's also funny, touching, informative, fascinating, and important. Fierstein writes with great honesty and insight about theatre and also about being gay, AIDS, politics, and getting and staying sober. I Was Better Last Night is a must-read for everyone interested in theatre but also for everyone interested in history, gay rights, sobriety, and learning self-acceptance. It is a rich book.
Few people will be surprised to learn that Fierstein was an imaginative, flamboyant little boy. In second grade, stuck with the role of king when he dearly wanted to play the witch, he thought to himself, "Give me lipstick or show me the exit." Come Halloween, he made himself up, nascent drag queen style. Before he went to meet friends, however, he smudged the makeup, turning himself from a beauty into a monster. But he kept his lips ruby red. He writes, "This seven-year-old gender warrior had taken the hill and planted a flag."
Fierstein first studied to be a graphic artist. His segue into theatre happened bit by bit, starting when he volunteered at the then-brand-new Gallery Players in Brooklyn. (The Gallery is now in its 55th season and still doing fabulous work.) When he received his first-ever acting review (a rave, natch), the newspaper happened to feature a casting notice for an Andy Warhol play. The audition was at La Mama, where Fierstein not only got cast but also met and hit it off with Ellen Stewart, the mama of La Mama and one of the creators of Off-Off-Broadway. Over the next weeks, months, and years, he met many people who would lead, join, or follow him from show to show and adventure to adventure. They provided acceptance, artistic growth, and practical assistance (e.g., a place to live). The shows they created include Pork, Xircus: The Private Life of Jesus Christ, Christopher at Sheridan Squared, and The Trojan Women (with an all-male cast). When friends nudged him to write, he came up with In Search of the Cobra Jewels. His next piece, Freaky Pussy, was a musical.
It's so much fun to type these titles, and the chapter names in I Was Better Last Night are similarly vivid: "'Artistic' Is One Way to Put It," "Fucking as a Solo Sport," "Yes, I Wrote Legs Diamond," and "Strapping My Tits Back On." Fierstein's use of blunt language almost reaches poetry. (Example: "Miming being fucked up the ass as a tribute to America's Bicentennial might be questionable, but what the hell?")
It was while writing Flatbush Tosca that Fierstein stopped making excuses (his phrase) and committed to theatre and to playwrighting. Not long after, he spontaneously wrote about his feelings after experiencing anonymous sex that got a little too anonymous; this turned out to be the beginning of what would one day be Torch Song Trilogy, his breakthrough show.
Fierstein's careers as a writer and as a performer blossomed. Writing: La Cage aux Folles, Newsies, A Catered Affair, Kinky Boots. Theatre acting: Torch Song Trilogy, Hairspray, A Catered Affair, Fiddler on the Roof. There is no unit in existence that measures the distance from writing and performing butt-fucking monologues to playing Tevye, yet in I Was Better Last Night it somehow feels like the natural next step in Fierstein's amazing career. Fierstein also acted extensively in movies (Torch Song Trilogy, Mrs. Doubtfire, Independence Day) and on TV ("The Simpsons," "The Sissy Duckling," "Murder She Wrote," "Hairspray Live").
Fierstein's career went from radical to mainstream, yet his mainstream work remained radical. He never stopped trying to improve the world along the way, from AIDS activism to attempting, unsuccessfully, to get Arthur Laurents to cast gay men as the leads in the first production of La Cage. When the show was revived, Fierstein insisted, this time successfully, that gay men be cast.
On top of all his theatrical, movie, and TV success, Fierstein knows how to write an autobiography. The people are vividly sketched, the stories are beautifully told, and the funny anecdotes are really funny. Fierstein's writing voice is so natural that the book feels like hanging out with a particularly eloquent friend. While parts are sad and parts are painful, the overall takeaway is of a life well and fully lived and honestly shared.
I Was Better Last Night