Broadway legend Harvey Fierstein is the man of the moment on London's theatre scene, as this month he premiered his brilliant musical Kinky Boots on the West End - along with his play Casa Valentina at the Southwark Playhouse. “It’s always exciting to get your work done,” says the famously gravelly-voiced Fierstein, talking to Mark Shenton on the phone from his Connecticut home. Our full four-page interview with Fierstein is in the current issue of Attitude - here's a taste of what's on offer:
What do you feel about having your work done back to back in London, and in particular seeing Casa Valentina done again in England?
I’ve not seen this production of Casa Valentina, so I’m very curious. I always thought that English actors would really get right down into it — they would be a little less scared of it. We’re a bit more scared of gender identity in the US, so I’m really looking forward to that. But knowing that it’s happening but not being there means it’s rather like a mystery box. I don’t know these actors or the director, so I have to make that wonderful act of faith when you step off a cliff. But one of the wonderful parts of theatre is that it’s alive, and it will be what it’s now, and someone 20 years from now will do it again, and it will be something else. But your children grow up, and go out into the world. You have to let them go.
Gender identity is a recurring theme in your work. Why do you keep returning to it?
The one thing I keep figuring out the longer I’m alive – and right now I think I’m in my 3rd or 4th century, I’m very old – is that there are no right answers. I keep asking the big juicy questions about what it is to be alive, and what it is to be happy and satisfied.
Are you happy and satisfied?
I am insanely lucky; I’m wildly happy in many things in my life, I’m a total failure at some things, but I do other things rather well, and I sort of have come to terms with the fact that I will be awful at some things and good at other things. I’m happy to trade that off. But I’ve done so much in my life on my own terms and created this world of my own, I would be a fool and ungrateful to be unhappy with my life.
You took gay life to the mainstream with your shows Torch Song Trilogy and La Cage aux Follies. Do you consider yourself a pioneer?
One of my favourite stories is when I met Eli Wallach, a wonderful American actor. He came up to me on a plane and tapped me on the shoulder and said, “So, you’re the big shot homosexual playing the first openly gay character on Broadway? I was playing a homosexual when you were still in diapers.” And I said, “you starred in Staircase [a Broadway play in 1968], which was very brave and wonderful, but Mr Wallach, did you swallow?”
And now you’re bringing Kinky Boots to the UK, that you wrote the book for. It’s kind of a homecoming for the story since it is set in Northampton.
I love the story of it – coming home – but it is coming home a little bit differently than when it first left. It makes me very happy.
How did you become involved in creating a Kinky Boots musical?
Jerry Mitchell [the director and choreographer of the show] called me and asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said no! But then I thought I’d better think about it – he’d asked me to do a couple of shows with him and I’d said no and I thought he may not ask me again if I keep saying no. I’d seen the movie and I loved it, but I don’t see any reason to take everything you love and stick songs in it. When something is right the way it is, you should leave it alone. But when I watched it again, what I saw was an inkling of something to make it sing and mean something to everyone watching it. And it was the story of growing up and feeling that you’ve disappointed your parents, that you didn’t do what they wanted from you. These people couldn’t be more opposite from each other, and yet they had the same problem. We let it paralyse us sometimes – no one really grows out of wanting their parent’s approval, we turn very old still wanting it. Mostly, though, we have their approval. It’s our own approval we don’t have.
There’s an echo of Torch Song Trilogy in that need for parental approval, which Arnold also seeks in that play.
That’s turns out a little different – he doesn’t have his mother’s approval. She never approves of Arnold. It’s not what I was going for with Kinky Boots – it’s a very different parental relationship and has a very different outcome. This is about the paralysing power we put on our parents and give to them, and the disapproval we give ourselves, which is not the same kind of thing at all.
You can read Attitude's full feature-length interview with Harvey in the latest issue of Attitude, in shops now. Download the issue from attitudedigital.co.uk or order the print version from newsstand.co.uk/Attitude.
Kinky Boots is playing now at The Adelphi Theatre London.
Casa Valentina is now playing at Southwark Playhouse.
Mark Shenton is associate editor and joint chief critic of The Stage. He is also London correspondent to playbill.com
and co-founder of mytheatremates.com. Twitter: @ShentonStage