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Ceramics, Broadway, gay rights activism, Tevye, memoirs — for Harvey Fierstein, they’re all parts of the same quilt

“Hello, Merv,” the unmistakably familiar voice says, gravelly yet warm. “What can I tell you, cookie?”

The first thing I want to ask Harvey Fierstein, the 67-year-old multiple Tony Award-winning actor, playwright and librettist, is why he decided to write a memoir.

“COVID hit,” he says. “Which I’m sure is the reason for most people doing anything the last two years. And my agent said to me, ‘Why don’t you write a memoir?’ I said I don’t write prose. I write op-ed pieces every now and then, but that’s different than the long form.

“But then I actually thought of a story that’s in the book. When somebody first said to me, ‘Why don’t you write a play?’ I said because I can’t spell. And he said, ‘There are people that get two dollars an hour who’ll fix your spelling. Go ahead and write.’ So I did. And I thought that this is the same situation. Now I have a computer that can fix the spelling. It can even change some of the bad grammar if you want it to.”

So, he said, he wrote the first chapter — “the one that starts with me wanting to be the evil witch, and not the king, in ‘Sleeping Beauty’ in second grade. And it made me laugh. So I sent it to Philomena, the girl who played the evil witch — we’ve been friends since kindergarten — and she sent back the photograph that’s in the book of me at Halloween. And I thought not only did I remember the story correctly — 60 years is a long time — but the story meant something to her. So I said, let me give this a try.”

In the 400-page memoir, “I Was Better Last Night,” Fierstein sums up his life this way: “You got your name in lights, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and your bunny slippers in the Smithsonian goddamn Institution. Not bad for a fat c—ksucking drag queen from Bensonhurst.”

Fierstein has won four Tony Awards in four different categories. In his groundbreaking semi-autobiographical 1970s “Torch Song Trilogy,” he starred as a gay Jewish drag queen in pre-AIDS New York; he played XXL-sized housewife Edna Turnblad in the Broadway musical “Hairspray”; he wrote the libretto for the musical “La Cage aux Folles”; and the not-so-traditionally-nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn played Tevye in the 2004 revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway.

Last year, he donated $2.5 million to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts to create the Harvey Fierstein Theatre Lab. And this spring, the first-ever Broadway revival of “Funny Girl,” for which Fierstein revised the book, will open at the August Wilson Theater starring Beanie Feldstein.

And yet, Fierstein says, his life could easily have turned out completely different. “Writing the book, I saw several places where I could have taken a different turn,” he says, “Mostly when you read a showbiz biography, 10 pages into it, it says, ‘And then I saw a Broadway show, and I said, that’s me, I’m going to be up there one day.’ Or ‘I saw a movie, and said that’s me, I’m going to be a movie star.’

“Well, that’s not my story. I never wanted to be an actor. I never wanted to be a writer. I just lived my life — this sounds really full of myself — as an artist. Which meant, when a challenge comes along, whether it’s a piece of clay or a typewriter or a stage role, you say, ‘Can I take this on? What can I make of this? What can I do with this?’ That’s the way I approach life. There’s a point in the book when I’m in college and I’m making ceramics.

“And I write that if the board of the school had given me a one-person show as a graduate, as my professors wanted them to do, I would probably be a ceramicist now. But they refused, and I said, ‘Well, f—k it,’ and turned my head the other way and went in a different direction. As I say in the book, life is as exciting as the number of times you’re willing to say yes.”

In Fierstein’s memoir, he writes of the enormous changes he has seen for gay people since he first wrote “Torch Song Trilogy” in the late 1970s.

”When we first opened Off Off Broadway, the gays in the audience looked nervous,” he says. “They were nervous about what was going on onstage, how openly I was talking about gay sex and gay lovers and what we wanted out of life. That was scary to people then. There was a feeling you could get arrested coming out of the theater. But when we did the revival of ‘Torch Song’ à few years ago the gays walked in with an ownership. They owned ‘Torch Song Trilogy.’ They owned that history. They came in knowing who they were, where they came from. They had this remembrance of the prizes won. They weren’t frightened to be there anymore.”

But — “there’s always a but in there,” he says, the audience still felt uneasy about the way he depicted his main character’s relationship with his mother. “They were just a bunch of frightened people again,” Fierstein says. “We never quite get over pleasing or displeasing our parents, do we? It’s something that stays with us.”

About his time as Tevye, he writes: “I’ll confess that no one thought it crazier than I did to have a downtown experimental theater drag performer who arrived on Broadway having anal sex center stage and most recently won a Tony playing a 300-pound housewife now take on one of the most iconic roles in all of the theater’s canon.” And yet he considers it a highlight of his stage career.

“Doing ‘Fiddler’ both on Broadway and on the road gave me some of the greatest nights of my life, both as an actor and a human being,” he told me. “A lot of my best memories onstage are connected with ‘Fiddler.’ One of the things I feel proudest of is to put my name alongside all of the great performers who have done ‘Fiddler’ worldwide. You feel part of this thing that’s so much bigger than you.”

“I saw ‘Fiddler’ when I was a kid,” Fierstein says. “Instead of a stage that fills up with nuns — nuns like in ‘Sound of Music’ or orphans like in ‘Oliver’ — all of a sudden there was a stage filled with Jews. It was shocking to me. My life in Bensonhurst was Jew-centric. Being Jewish was inescapable. But not on a stage.

“Those were the times when you had your nose fixed and you changed your name if you wanted to be in showbiz. Danny Kaye was certainly not born with the name Danny Kaye. And people talked about Barbra Streisand as if she could never have a career with that nose and that name. All of this was the reality of my life. And yet here the Jews were so proudly onstage. And I’ve carried that with me all my life.”

Despite his Jewish heritage, Fierstein considers himself an atheist.

“There’s this wonderful saying Judge Judy has,” he says. “If it doesn’t make sense, it isn’t true. That’s really my bottom line. It just doesn’t make sense that there would be one mind, the super-duperest mind of a god that created it all. It makes us so ridiculously important, and human beings are just not that ridiculously important. That’s part of the problem of how we treat the Earth and everything else.

“We’re just a part of it all, and we don’t treat the world as something we’re just a part of. We treat it as if we own everything. That comes from that insanity of ‘God made us special so we can do whatever we want — the plants are here for us, the animals are here for us, we can throw garbage into the universe and it’s just fine because it’s all ours.’ If there was a god he would punish us just for that.”

Fierstein is also known as a quilter, and the pandemic gave him an opportunity to devote time to that craft.

“I had a bunch of quilts I had promised to people,” he says. “If you have a baby, I’ll make you a quilt. If you get married, I’ll make you a quilt. So I said this is a good excuse to do that. I got out the sewing machine and made five quilts in a row. I still have two that are unfinished.”

Writing about his libretto for “Kinky Boots,” the 2012 musical about a factory that makes boots for drag performers, Fierstein says that one theme of the show is “finally making peace with who you grew up to be.” Is he talking about himself, I asked.

“I think that’s a fight all of us have our whole lives, isn’t it?” he says. “We’re always trying to figure it out. Because let’s face it. If you sit quietly with yourself you can dig down and find your five-year-old self still sitting there, disguised as an old man. We are that five-year-old.”

“We haven’t changed. We’ve learned stuff. We’ve modified stuff. We’ve gained stuff. We’ve lost stuff. But we haven’t changed who we are. Who you were is who you are now. That stuff stays with you all your life, questioning who you are. I don’t think I have an answer for who I am. I think I make that kind of clear in the book.”

Mervyn Rothstein was a writer and editor for 30 years at The New York Times, where his positions included chief theater reporter and theater editor of the Sunday Arts and Leisure section. He was a writer for Playbill Magazine for 30 years. And he was a member of the Nominating Committee for Broadway’s Tony Awards.

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