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Harvey Fierstein’s Gender Studies: Why His New Musical Kinky Boots Is More Than a Drag Show

Drag queens out of costume look just like guys. So during a street-clothes run-through in the rehearsal room last month for the new musical Kinky Boots, the big numbers were a bit confusing. The plot, based on the 2005 movie, was clear enough: A drag queen named Lola and a regular bloke named Charlie collaborate to save Charlie’s shoe factory by developing a line of high-heeled fetishwear sexy enough for a lady yet strong enough for a man. But why were these slim boys singing “We give good epiphany”?

That would become evident later, once the cast put on its costumes and the boys became glamazons. But for now, the details of their drag were of no interest to the show’s book writer, Harvey Fierstein, even though his whole career has been connected to the subject. As he watched the run-through, mostly with pleasure, he was also noting words to cut and lines that weren’t quite landing. Afterward, he told the cast they were pushing too much. “Some of those jokes were hit so hard,” he said in that kindly-mother-scary-father voice of his, “they were limping out of the room asking if they had Blue Cross.”

Greater subtlety was not a priority when Fierstein started. His first professional stage appearance was as an asthmatic lesbian maid who stood in a corner reading Penthouse in an Andy Warhol play called Pork. He was not quite 19. Pork starred the drag queens Jayne County and Cherry Vanilla in a story about, well, never mind; it was 1971, it was La MaMa, and all that really mattered to Fierstein, who during the day was a student at Pratt, was that he was making art or something that might be mistaken for it.

The fact that he was wearing women’s clothes—an orange housecoat with a green zipper and a cheap wig he’d bought at S. Klein—made no difference. “I was an actor, and even more pressingly a poor actor,” he says now. In any case, he’d long since gotten comfortable with female alter egos. As a kid, he dressed for Halloween as a girl (“a girl monster, which made it okay”) and would wrap a towel around himself while playing cast albums and lip-synching “If I Loved You” in the mirror. The logic was clear to him: “If you’re watching Gone With the Wind and you know you’re hot for Clark Gable, you gotta be Vivien Leigh.”

It was clear to everyone else as well. At an acting class in a church basement, Madama Barbara Bulgakova, late of the Moscow Art Theater, told him: “You are a very emotional person. They don’t write boy roles for people like you.” Instead, she had him play Frankie in The Member of the Wedding and, perhaps less obviously, considering his Brooklyn accent and six-foot-two frame, Juliet. “ ‘Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face,’ ” he starts growling now, in an ushers’ break room at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. “ ‘Else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek’—you don’t forget Juliet.”

Elsewhere in the theater, the ectomorph chorus boys are bepainting their cheeks for the evening’s preview performance. (With a score by Cyndi Lauper, and direction and choreography by Jerry Mitchell, Kinky Boots opens April 4.) But the function these drag queens serve in the tale is so different from that served by the ones in Fierstein’s 1983 adaptation of La Cage Aux Folles, or before that in his own Torch Song Trilogy, or before that in his experimental days in the East Village, that they might as well be a new species. And if no one is linked more closely and more publicly to that evolution than Fierstein, it is an irony he does not completely embrace.

He is, after all, more than just Hairspray’s Edna Turnblad out of costume. He’s one of the most Tony-fied people in the theater and a kind of borough president of Broadway—try walking up Eighth Avenue with him. He’s also a respected book doctor (though uncredited, he contributed hugely to the script of Hairspray) and a paragon of professionalism backstage. (Out of more than 600 scheduled performances as Edna on Broadway, he missed exactly half of one.) Having proved himself in these ways, he doesn’t want to be known as the guy producers go to for drag but the guy they go to for heart. And Kinky Boots, Fierstein says, is about the latter, not the former.

“This is not ‘I Am What I Am’ 30 years later,” he says. “The political message in La Cage comes in the second scene, when the boy sings that stupid ‘With Anne on My Arm’ to his fiancée, a stock kind of love song even I could sing, and then five minutes later, the gay couple sing the same song. That’s it, you can go home now, you’ve just had your lesson: There’s no fucking difference between my love and yours.

“Now, I think you can still do drag very politically, but the question I’m interested in in Kinky Boots isn’t political. It’s ‘What is a man?’ The drag guy and the straight guy are the last two people to ever be friends but have the same problem: being wounded by their fathers’ expectations and growing up fearing failure. They have to first forgive their fathers, then themselves. It’s not about accepting someone else for who they are anymore; it’s not so hard to accept someone else. But to accept yourself! That’s the trick.”

So drag is just a given in Kinky Boots, an ornament and a plot element but no more of a theme than Lola’s being black—a fact that is barely mentioned. There’s no plea for tolerance; when the queens belt out “We give good epiphany” in the song “The Land of Lola,” they are basically announcing the complete rebranding of drag as a form of self-help. Not for themselves; they don’t need it. But “straight” people, of whatever sexuality, are being encouraged to think more freely about the options they have and the way the path to happiness, now especially, is their own to make.

Which is why Fierstein recommends drag—that “wonderful mask”—for everyone: “When I took it off, nobody knew who I was; when I put it on, I could be anyone I wanted.” This even though he can’t be bothered with it himself anymore. It’s too much trouble—and perhaps, in the end, too limiting. Forty years ago, La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart warned him of this, saying, “I want my baby out of bloomers” and wiping her hand across his face before performances to make sure he was makeup-free. And now, without need of a mask, he is anyone he wants to be anyway, or almost. He improbably got to play Tevye for two years, but not, as he’d hoped, a gay Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey. He has also had to turn down some roles he “didn’t want to see a gay person do,” such as the killer clown in Stephen King’s It. “I was dying to do it, a huge TV mini-series, more money than I’d ever made in my life, but I couldn’t be Harvey Fierstein eating children!”

In the right circumstances, though, he’s as camp as they come; he introduced me to Lauper by saying to her: “Mary, I’d like you to meet my lover, Mary.” But in other circumstances—like when he’s around the young cast of Newsies, that paean to newsboys for which he also wrote the book—he turns the Freedom to Mary act way down. “While I have absolutely no shame playing with old-fashioned homosexualisms,” he explains, “many others do. Homophobic detractors will never allow the affection that defines this playfulness. And those just chewing their way out of their cocoons often find personal shame in camp behavior. Camp and matches should always be handled with care and respect for their destructive power.”

What’s most unexpected about Fierstein isn’t the freak-flag-waving but the discretion; not the subversiveness but the discipline. Yes, he helped make possible a time when cross-dressing, at least onstage in Kinky Boots, could prove as morally neutral as shoe selling. And yes, in La Cage, he presented the first case for gay parenting to Broadway audiences, who by the show’s second revival, in 2010, were fully convinced. But he did these things (as he is doing in his next play, Casa Valentina, about straight transvestites) because he found them interesting and the opportunities arose.

He doesn’t actually live any of it: Drag is now only for pay, and as for long-term relationships, he says he’s lousy at them and “pretty content” to let go of the dream. (He lives alone in Connecticut in a showplace built for one.) And thanks to the young actors who went through Torch Song with him—Matthew Broderick, ­Patrick Dempsey, and Jon ­Cryer, among others—he is glad to have played out the fantasy of having children without needing to put any through college.

But then Torch Song itself was something of an accident, and it only became a trilogy because Fierstein thought that calling it one would guarantee him more bookings. “So much of life is invention,” he says. “Saying yes, saying no. Mostly yes. It doesn’t look like a pattern to me. I mean, I know people who are driven, and I ain’t driven. I walked”—only sometimes in heels.

*This article originally appeared in the April 1, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Photos: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine; Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine