Fierstein, Harvey

Fierstein, Harvey
▪ 2004

      If Harvey Fierstein did not exist, the American entertainment industry would have had to invent him. The 49-year-old actor, playwright, social activist, and sometime drag queen spent 2003 eliciting bravos from Broadway audiences for his exuberant cross-dressing performance—for which he won his fourth Tony Award—in the hit stage musical version of John Waters's camp film Hairspray, while he simultaneously racked up accomplishments in film, television, and publishing. Having declared at one point that his drag days were over, Fierstein wisely reconsidered when offered the Hairspray role of teen heroine Tracy Turnblad's plus-sized mother, Edna (played in the 1988 movie by the late Divine). Beyond Broadway, film and TV audiences heard his distinctive gravelly voice on the sound tracks of Disney's animated feature Mulan and Fox's The Simpsons; gay-rights activists welcomed his commentaries on public TV's documentary series In the Life and on the talk-show and lecture circuit; and children's publishing was rocked by the success of his book The Sissy Duckling, which was a spin-off of his Humanitas Prize-winning animated program.

      Harvey Forbes Fierstein was born into a strict Jewish family on June 6, 1954, in Brooklyn, N.Y. His mother recognized his artistic potential early on, recalling, “Even as a child he was different. He was very artistic; he had hands of gold.” Fierstein graduated from the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1973, but rather than becoming a teacher as his family hoped, he plunged into the world of downtown New York theatre and playwriting. Having already won a part at age 16 in Andy Warhol's play, Pork (1971), Fierstein went on to perform in more than 60 Off-Off-Broadway productions, inevitably appearing in drag roles. It was Ellen Stewart, doyenne of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, who insisted that Fierstein move beyond drag and write and act in his own work—an exhortation that led in the late 1970s to Fierstein's trilogy of plays (The International Stud, Fugue in a Nursery, and Widows and Children First), eventually performed together as Torch Song Trilogy. Seen all at once on Broadway (1982), in a production starring the author himself, the trilogy proved to be a powerful, profoundly moving statement that took audiences into the “exotic” world of gay families and their struggle for self-acceptance and love. With Tonys for acting and writing to his credit, Fierstein went on to appear in the 1988 screen version of Torch Song with Anne Bancroft and Matthew Broderick. His book for the 1986 musical La Cage aux folles (which won another Tony) continued to move gay issues into the mainstream.

Jim O'Quinn

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Universalium. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

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