“Torch Song” Brings Fierstein’s Classic Back to the Stage

Written by | Entertainment, Stage

Michael Urie, Moisés Kaufman, Merecedes Ruehl

We talk to Moisés Kaufman, deft examiner of LGBT life through theater, as he brings a landmark play by Harvey Fierstein back to the stage.

Emmy and Tony-nominated director and playwright Moisés Kaufman — famous for creating such incandescent theater as The Laramie Project, I Am My Own Wife and Gross Indecency — is directing Harvey Fierstein’s iconic Torch Song (starring Mercedes Ruehl and Michael Urie) at New York City’s 2nd Stage Theatre this fall. The play transports audiences back to 1979 New York City, where Arnold Beckoff (Urie) is on a quest for love, purpose and family; he’s “fierce in drag and fearless in crisis and won’t stop until he achieves the life he desires.” Kaufman spoke with us about setting Torch ablaze again.

METROSOURCE: In terms of revisiting Torch Song, what drew you to the play?

MOISÉS KAUFMAN: It’s a masterful piece of work — it still resonates, and I cannot wait to share it with today’s audience. I first saw it when I was 17, and it played a huge role in my life. It connected me to characters that I never knew existed. Coming from an orthodox Jewish home in Venezuela, I had no role models, and so seeing four completely different gay men in the play made me understand my life was possible. So I was thrilled to revisit this play and begin to consider its relevance to an audience in 2017.

The show is now 35 years old. Why revive it now?

This is a play about a man who imagined a life for himself and then went about creating it — at a time when that which he was imagining was considered by everyone to be impossible: He wanted to be out in every aspect of his life; he wanted to have a lover and to marry a man and he wanted to adopt a son. It would take the rest of us over 30 years to imagine and achieve everything Arnold does in the play. In a way, Harvey chronicled the next 30 years of the movement before they happened.

I think our ability as members of this community to imagine our own lives and then build them is as relevant today as it was then, but we’re also at a unique time in our culture where the very idea of identity is being questioned and even challenged. How do we fit in? What roles do we all play in this global community? And how do we navigate and overcome the inevitable backlash that our recent progress has devolved into?

Is there a message you hope people will take away from this production?

In as much as an act of imagining and creating your own life can be an act of hope, yes.

I’ve heard you’re working from a newly edited text. How involved were you with the edits?

Harvey did a beautiful job in revisiting the script. It’s the same story, with some trimming.

Michael Urie

Photo courtesy Polk PR

How will those who loved the original react to this new version?

Devoted fans of Torch Song will not be disappointed.

President Barack Obama presented you with a National Medal of Arts at the White House a few years ago. Did you know you were being considered for the distinction before you were notified, and can you share a little about finding out you were to receive this honor?

I had no idea it was happening. I was told that I should expect a call from [National Endowment for the Arts Chairperson] Jane Chu, but I didn’t know what it was about, so it did come as a surprise. The experience of receiving the medal was impossible to explain. I was overwhelmed. I admired and respected President Obama a great deal, and he did so much for our community, so it meant a lot to get it from him. Had it happened this year and had I been asked to receive it from our current president, I would have declined it.

The Tectonic Theater Project, which you co-founded, recently celebrated its 25th anniversary; how do you feel the company has grown over the years?

Most companies don’t survive their own successes. I am deeply proud that Tectonic continues to thrive today with more shows in development and a more robust education department than ever before. I still can’t believe it’s been 25 years! We are still today a laboratory for new work and we are still obsessed with exploring the potential of the stage. Tectonic has been my life’s work so far and it will continue to be as long as I am able to work — which I hope is another 50 years.

As our conversation continues, Moisés Kaufman discusses coming out, the overall themes of his work and his hopes for the future.

Can you share a little about how you are approaching the story of Torch Song?

For me it’s about one individual’s ability to imagine his future against all odds, and then making it happen. It is, in part, because of the countless members of our community that imagined their future, that we are here today. And this production is also about us today revisiting this play — this artistic artifact — that not only touched so many of us, but in a way helped us visualize what was possible. And of course we’ll embrace Harvey’s humor as well as the enormous heart the show has.

When did you come out of the closet and what was the experience like for you when you did?

I came out to some friends and close family members when I was in my early twenties. And, for the most part, it went ok. And then The New York Times outed me (with my permission — after writing Gross Indecency), and so that took care of the rest.

Roxanna Hope Radja

Roxanna Hope Radja—Photos courtesy POLK PR

What stands out in your memory about the day you received the National Medal of the Arts?

I obsessed about what I wanted to say to [President Obama] in the three seconds we would be standing together. But I had been invited to the White House once before for the signing of the Matthew Shepard/ James Byrd Hate Crime protection act — the hate crime legislation that finally included gender identity and sexual orientation. So I thanked him again for signing it, and told him what great impact that legislation was having around the country.

How do you choose which projects to work on with Tectonic? How are they similar to or different from each other?

That’s a really difficult question, and there’s no straightforward answer. Most of our work begins with a question — when I wrote 33 Variations, it began with a question about the creative act. On the other hand The Tallest Tree in the Forest was about the legendary Paul Robeson. So it varies. Right now I’m working on two new plays: one tackles the experience of long term survivors of the AIDS epidemic, and the other is about a historical artifact newly discovered by a Washington museum. So they are as diverse as can be. I try not to spend too much time trying to figure out why I’m attracted to a certain idea. Writing the play is answer enough.

Michael Rosen

Michael Rosen—Photo courtesy Polk PR

Do you feel you might be searching for any specific answers in your work?

I’m searching for what makes us human. I want audiences to feel a radical empathy for the people they are meeting on stage and off.

Many of your projects have strong socio-political messages. Can theater can affect social change?

You don’t have to look very far to find plays that have changed the world. Even in recent history – think about the global impact of Hamilton and the way it has changed our view of history. Or the political relevance of Eclipsed, which exposed the horrifying plight of women in war torn Liberia. For Tectonic, we’ve never start out with a political agenda in our work, but for us, the very nature of theater is political. And as artists living in these perilous times, our work invariably reflects that.

What is next for you and Tectonic?

We have about 6 shows in development at the moment. I am particularly proud of our fall production of Uncommon Sense, by our company members Anushka Paris-Carter and Andy Paris and directed by Andy. It’s about four people on the autism spectrum and it’s a stunning production.

As we head toward the end of 2017, do you have any hopes for us this fall and winter?

I hope that theaters around the country will serve as our meeting place in these very difficult, scary times. And I hope that the theater will lead the way for coming together, and resisting.

Last modified: September 27, 2018