On a Sunday morning in the fall of 1981, I was sitting in my fourth-floor walk-up studio apartment in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan, flipping through that day’s New York Times, when I was struck by a theater review that ran on one of the far back pages of the news section. Its headline was simple enough: “Fierstein’s ‘Torch Song.’” But what followed was anything but.
“Arnold Beckoff, the lonely but far-from-forlorn hero of Harvey Fierstein’s ‘Torch Song Trilogy,’ is a die-hard romantic who takes his heart, soul and fatalism from the 1920s ballads that give the work its title and its tone,” the critic Mel Gussow wrote. “At the end of a long, infinitely rewarding evening in the company of Arnold and his family and friends, he confesses with a sigh that he has always wanted exactly the life that his mother has had — ‘with certain minor alterations.’
“Those alterations — Arnold is a homosexual and a professional ‘drag queen’ — are the substance but not the sum of Mr. Fierstein’s work, three plays that give us a progressively dramatic and illuminating portrait of a man who laughs, and makes us laugh, to keep from collapsing.”
I immediately called my best friend, Barry, who lived two blocks north of me, and got his answering machine. “The Times,” I said. “Page 81. I’m getting two tickets. Call me back.”
Barry and I were theater geeks, and had been since the day we had separately moved to New York two years earlier: Cutting out of work early to stand in line for tickets to Shakespeare in the Park, getting rush tickets at the Public Theater, spending our Saturdays at the TKTS booth in Times Square, occasionally second-acting Broadway shows that we couldn’t afford a ticket to.
But this play sounded like something we had never seen before.
A few days later, we headed over to the Richard Allen Center on West 62nd Street and mounted six narrow flights of stairs, to confront a stage no bigger than my living room, and entered a cramped theater filled with others who had heard the same siren call.
Previously my only experiences of gay theater had been plays like “The Boys in the Band,” “Fortune and Men’s Eyes,” “Tea and Sympathy” and “Streamers” — plays where the gay character was either closeted or bitter or suicidal, and usually all three. It was a shock to see Mr. Fierstein, as Arnold, strutting around his apartment in his floppy rabbit slippers, cracking jokes, sharing affection with both his lover and his foster son, and going ferociously head-to-head with his disapproving mother, played by Estelle Getty, then unknown.
A play in which the gay character was smart, funny and fully alive? A revelation.
A couple of years later, after “Torch Song” had transferred to Broadway, Barry and I were in my cramped living room on a Sunday night in June, sitting on the floor and watching the Tony Awards. When Mr. Fierstein was announced as best actor, we screamed with joy and surprise, doing so again when “Torch Song” was unexpectedly named best play, beating out Marsha Norman’s “’Night, Mother” and David Hare’s “Plenty.”
Mr. Fierstein was funny in both acceptance speeches, but I could hear the room grow quiet when John Glines, one of the producers, stood in front of the microphone. He gripped his Tony with a visibly shaking right hand and ended his speech by saying he wanted to thank the “one person who believed in and followed the dream from the very beginning, who never said, ‘You’re crazy, it can’t be done.’ And I refer to my partner and my lover, Lawrence Lane.”
We were shocked. It was the first time either of us had seen a real-life gay man openly acknowledge a romantic relationship on network TV, much less on an awards program.
Fast-forward to 2017 and the first New York revival of “Torch Song” since the original production closed on Broadway in May 1985. Shortly before its official opening at Second Stage Theater, I talked to Moisés Kaufman, the writer/director of “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” and “The Laramie Project” and now the director of that revival (playing through Dec. 9). He told me that, for him as well, seeing “Torch Song” as a young man (a road-company production in San Francisco in 1985) had been a life-altering experience.
“I was in my 20s and had never seen a play with a gay character before, none,” he said. “I hadn’t seen ‘Boys in the Band’ — luckily, I think, because it is such a depressing narrative about us — and so seeing all these gay men on stage, a door opened for me. I thought, ‘Well, my life might be possible.’”
He added, “It was thrilling on so many layers. Not just because it showed me someone I could aspire to be, but also re-emphasized for me personally that the stage was a place where great revelations can take place. It made me feel, ‘Yes, there is a life of a gay man but also there is life for me in the theater.’”
Mr. Fierstein, the playwright, has long acknowledged how important that original production of “Torch Song” had been for gay men of his generation. And he, too, recognized what a departure it was from the gay-themed plays he had both seen and acted in as a young man.
“I had done some of those plays,” he told me recently backstage at the Second Stage Theater on West 43rd Street. “I did Lanford Wilson’s ‘The Madness of Lady Bright,’ Robert Patrick’s ‘The Haunted Coast.’ I designed a production of ‘Staircase.’ I had friends in ‘Fortune and Men’s Eyes.’ I even saw a play called ‘The Elocution of Benjamin’ in which a fat man comes out on stage, fully naked, and talks about being in love with young boys.”
But, he said, even given those precedents, “Torch Song” was not as revolutionary as others made it out to be. The family life that Arnold so yearned for? Mr. Fierstein said he witnessed it every day when was in his 20s and living in Brooklyn.
“The very first gay people I knew were Bruce Wyatt and Bud Sherman, who ran this community theater in Park Slope, where I lived at the time, and they had been together for 30-some-odd years,” Mr. Fierstein told me. “They had a great life. I didn’t know until I took the subway into Manhattan that we as gay people were supposed to be unhappy. I didn’t know it until I saw things like ‘Boys in the Band’ that we were supposed to be miserable, that we were supposed to be suicidal, that we were supposed to be self-hating. All the gay people I knew were having a very good time!”
Of course, over the years, more gay-themed plays would be written and produced on Broadway, some, like “As Is,” “Angels in America” and “Falsettos,” dealing forthrightly with the plague of AIDS. And gay characters are now woven deftly into the narratives of plays that, nominally at least, are not about the gay experience, like “Come From Away” or “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Everything has changed.
A few weeks ago, when I went to see the Second Stage revival, starring Michael Urie as Arnold and Mercedes Ruehl as his mother, I did so with trepidation. Would it hold up, three decades later, or seem a curious theatrical artifact, perhaps best left to the memory bin?
Not to worry. I still laughed, as did the sold-out audience around me, at the comically mimed scenes of back-room sex; still shed a tear at the telling of a young character’s death at the hands of some gay bashers; still flinched at the moment when Arnold’s mother tells him that if she had known he would turn out gay, she would have terminated her pregnancy.
My only regret? That my friend Barry wasn’t again in the seat next to me. He died of AIDS almost seven years to the day after that Sunday morning phone call, telling him there was a play we had to go see.