Harvey Fierstein's Tony Award-winning "Torch Song Trilogy" is back on Broadway. Renamed "Torch Song" (@TorchSongBway) and rewritten into two acts, the play follows Arnold Beckoff's struggle to be accepted as a young Jewish gay man living in New York City in the late 1970s and '80s.
The original production first debuted in 1982. It starts with Arnold, played in this version by Michael Urie (@michaelurie), as a heavily made-up, preening drag queen talking to the audience as he dresses.
As Arnold matures, he has a relationship with a closeted, eventually married, man named Ed. They remain friends, and later go on a weekend getaway, Ed with his wife, Laurel, and Arnold with his new young love, Alan — except Ed and Arnold end up cuddling together.
Years later, Arnold is fostering a troubled, gay teen, and he is mourning the death of Alan, who was beaten to death by kids with baseball bats. Arnold's overbearing mother, played by Mercedes Ruehl, hates her son's homosexuality.
"She's trying to get him to change for his own good," Ruehl tells Here & Now's Robin Young, "so that he will be more comfortable in the world, that he might be able to have a family, get married, have children, have the good life that she has had. And he even says in the play, 'The life I want is the life she's had.' "
The play culminates in a huge blowout between Arnold and his mother, who is also mourning the loss of Arnold's father, her husband of 35 years. Urie tells Young that scene "wasn't surprising to people" when they first saw it in the 1980s. Now, "it hits them over the head," he says.
"When we pass each other backstage after the big fight scene ... we're beat," Urie says.
"We are beat," Ruehl agrees. "Sometimes we just hold each other for a second, just for a second, in passing."
On how Urie related to the character of Ed
Michael Urie: “I knew the play, I'd read it in high school, but the idea that I would be Arnold was never on my radar. Really, you know, when I first read it, Ed was the character that I most responded to because I was in Texas and 16, you know, and I thought, ‘That's more like me, I think.’
“I was in touch with this sort of feminine side of myself in great part because I wasn't gay. ... or according to anyone else — because no one was.
“I mean, it wasn't that long ago, but it was also kind of a lifetime ago. As I recall there was one guy in my high school, which was enormous, who everyone knew was gay and who walked around with bright colors and was proud and heroic. And I remember thinking he was so much braver than I could have been. And so it was easier to do the gay voice knowing that no one would think I was gay.
"And in fact, I remember distinctly this very popular girl who sat next to me and some class would never be friends with me for real, but she thought I was very funny saying to me, 'You do that too well.' And that sort of stuck with me. And it has continued. It's something I have been thinking about a lot about lately this idea that gay people are told not to be so big, not to be so flamboyant, don't be so soft ... don't be yourself. And when I got on TV on 'Ugly Betty,' I was playing a very gay, flamboyant, feminine character.”
On whether the play is still relevant in 2018
Mercedes Ruehl: “Interestingly enough, everybody sees, not only is it possible, they see evidence of it everywhere. I mean, there's still a great deal of homophobia.”
“My own dad was one of them. My own dad was one of six — one girl, five boys, Irish cop, you know, Bronx, and the youngest is gay. In fact, he just came last week with his husband. … But my dad and his brothers were very very hard on my uncle for a long time. But my father was the one who came around and realized, he had an epiphany actually. But he reconciled very lovingly with his brother, thank god, before he died and really accepted him entirely.”
MU: “I was lucky I didn't have the same experience that Arnold did. My parents were always really cool. And I have an older sister who's gay, and we got lucky. I don't think about myself in that scene so much as I think about people I know, or I think about other estrangements.”
On the advice Harvey Fierstein gave about playing these characters
MU: “Well, the first day of rehearsal he said, 'If this play doesn't embarrass you, you're not doing it right.' And this is what we do. We get up on stage and show our souls. So the idea that we would be embarrassed by that at first was surprising to me. I thought, 'Why would this embarrass me? I signed up. You know, why would I be embarrassed by this?' But I get it now. It's not putting on a dress. It's the scene with her, that's the scene that's the most embarrassing.
“And I realized it when, it was I think a late preview on off-Broadway with two very close friends of mine who love me very much came, and when I thought about them watching me hear her say the things that she says, it destroyed me, and I was humiliated that they were seeing it. And that's when I realized what he was talking about.”
This segment aired on November 6, 2018.
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