Harvey Fierstein Gets 'Kinky' and Discusses His Jewish Roots

Broadway Star Says Theater Is His True Religion

Trial by Fierstein: The Tony Award-winning actor and author grew up attending a Conservative synagogue in Brooklyn.
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Trial by Fierstein: The Tony Award-winning actor and author grew up attending a Conservative synagogue in Brooklyn.

By Simi Horwitz

Published April 11, 2013, issue of April 19, 2013.
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Harvey Fierstein says he had some reservations about adapting the film “Kinky Boots” into a musical. “To do a drag show doesn’t interest me,” he said. “Been there, done that. A show about shoes doesn’t cry out to me. Also, if something [like the original film] is good, why f–k with it? And a musical takes two to five years. You have to love it to put in the years.”

Ultimately, the Tony Award–winning writer, actor and gay activist was won over in part because he wanted the chance to work with director Jerry Mitchell, and on yet another viewing of the film, which is inspired by real life events, he finally saw what he could bring to it.

Set in working-class Northampton, England, the story centers on a young man who has inherited his father’s near-bankrupt shoe factory. With no interest in the family business, but feeling compelled to live up to his late father’s expectations, he joins forces with a drag queen — a bevy of drag queens, in fact — who are in need of heavy-duty stilettos. An unlikely bond is forged.

“An amazing story is in the film, but it’s not the focus,” Fierstein recalled. “I felt I could bring the focus to that emotional life. That’s the story of these two friends and how wounded they are as human beings and how through their friendship they end up healing each other and themselves. I said, ‘That’s worth a couple of years of my life.’”

Fierstein collaborated with Mitchell and Cyndi Lauper — who made her Broadway debut writing the show’s music and lyrics — and created a musical that is at once comic, original and heartfelt. Its centerpiece is the sometimes difficult father-son relationship.

The Forward’s Simi Horwitz chatted with Fierstein about his life and his hit show, now playing on Broadway at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre.

Simi Horwitz: What do you relate to in this story?

Harvey Fierstein: We are all wounded creatures. But this is not my story.

What was your family life like?

My father died when I was in my early 20s. Also, because he was brought up in an orphanage, he wanted a family and had strong family feelings. There was us and there was them, meaning we can fight with each other, but outside we present a unified front.

Did you come from a strong Jewish background?

We belonged to the Conservative temple [in Brooklyn], though not strictly kosher, which got looser and looser as the years went on and modernity came upon us. My brother and I had bar mitzvahs and that was sort of the end of it for me. I’m now an atheist.

What led you to your atheism?

I left my neighborhood when I was in ninth grade and went to the High School of Art & Design. I was exposed to a mix of cultures, lots of different religions and beliefs. I was a spiritual kid and went to Indian powwows and Buddhist temples. But over a period of time with reading and thinking I started to feel it was all so absurd: The whole idea of life after death is ridiculous. It’s the ultimate ego trip of man, as if we’re all so special we need to exist for eternity. How absolutely absurd!

How do you define your Jewishness today?

I don’t. I am. I don’t see it as my religion, but rather my ethnicity.

What was your parents’ response when you came out?

They always knew. When I was a little kid I wanted the doll and the carriage and they bought me the doll and the carriage. And they didn’t make any excuses when somebody on the street would say, “Why is he walking with a doll and carriage?” They would say, “Because he likes to.” That’s what I mean when I say I don’t have any of the issues [of the characters in the play]. But when I became sexually active, my father gently offered that maybe I wanted to visit [a female] prostitute and try it out just to see. But whatever pain they had, I was certainly spared from it.

Do you think your parents’ liberal responses emerged from their being Jewish?

I never had Italian or Catholic parents. I don’t know.

You can speculate.

Well, my father had cousins who were communists in the Spanish Civil War. But when you have a kid who, at three or four, wants dolls, you have some time to get used to it.

How have your Jewish roots informed your artistic sensibility?

Every time you sit down at your desk to write you bring everything you know. But I definitely think talmudic teaching and reasoning are somewhere in me. They are so dramatic. You put two rabbis in a room and within minutes one of them won’t believe in God. We study the Torah by picking sides and then arguing that side. These are generalizations, but there is something about the way we study the Torah that’s different from the way other cultures study their stuff that may color everything.

I gather seeing “Fiddler on the Roof” as a child was a turning-point moment.

When the curtain went up — it was 1964 and I was 10 years old — it just opened my eyes. All of a sudden there was a stage full of Jews and I identified with them. Years later, when I played Fiddler, a Hasidic kid who saw the show had the same reaction. He looked at me and said, “Are you a Jew?”

You had some unexpected experiences playing “Fiddler.”

When I went into “Fiddler” I wondered about the response I’d get — the backlash because I’m openly gay. There was none. I toured Canada and America and not one single review suggested that I played the role gay or that I seemed anything but Tevye. The only backlash I got was from the cultural elite — certain columnists from whom you’d expect no backlash. They made jokes about my doing “Fiddler.” “If Harvey is in ‘Fiddler’ is he playing Golda?”

What’s more defining to you, being Jewish or gay?

I was Jewish before I was gay. But I don’t define myself.

How did you celebrate Passover?

It was a sad Passover. It was the first year without my mother. She died in May. But I bought matzo.

I’m sorry about your mom’s passing.

Thank you.

Getting back to “Kinky Boots,” what do you want audiences to walk away thinking and feeling?

There’s a line in “La Cage aux Folles” that says if you’ve done your job right you will leave with more than a folded program. I always want audiences to leave with more. Theater is my temple and my religion and my act of faith. Strangers sit in a room together and believe together. It’s a leap of faith [on their part]. So at the very least I want people to feel more represented, heard and less alone.


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