Harvey Fierstein isn’t a guy who tends to fade into a crowd. Walking into a coffee shop before a performance of “Hairspray,” he’s immediately approached by a grinning woman who’s about to see the show for a second time.
Fierstein receives her compliments graciously, then sits down with a look of mock dismay.
“Well, I guess I can’t suck tonight,” he says, his gravelly voice recognizable even at a whisper.
Fierstein, 54, introduced the high-spirited hausfrau Edna Turnblad to Broadway when “Hairspray,” the musical adaptation of John Waters’ cult classic film, premiered at the Neil Simon Theatre in 2002.
The actor/writer played the role for nearly two years, earning his fourth Tony Award, then reprised his part in 2006 for an abridged version of the show in Las Vegas.
Now Fierstein is back at the Neil Simon to bid Edna a fond farewell. He returned to Hairspray Nov. 11 and will be there when the celebrated musical comedy concludes its 61/2-year run Sunday.
“I’m back in my old dressing room,” Fierstein says after ordering a bowl of matzo-ball soup. “No one ever redid it. I put in my contract that they had to clean it.”
He dons the same costumes and wigs to become Edna, who was played in Waters’ 1988 movie by the late drag performer Divine.
“It would have been impossible” for anyone other than Fierstein to so vitally re-create the role for the stage,” says Time Out New York theater critic Adam Feldman.
“Harvey has his own very strong persona,” Feldman says. “There wouldn’t have been a cultural space for Harvey Fierstein if he hadn’t carved one out for himself. He built his own career; he wrote the show (1982’s “Torch Song Trilogy,” a groundbreaking account of gay life) that made him a star.”
As Edna, Fierstein has nurtured at least seven daughters, he figures. The original Tracy Turnblad, Marissa Jaret Winokur, also has returned to the show. “There’s a chemistry that was always there with her. We make each other laugh, and we don’t have to ask each other questions. I’ve had wonderful daughters – I don’t want to make my other children hate me – but your first is your first.”
Offstage, Fierstein dotes on two cats and a dog.
“I live in a small town in Connecticut. I love New York City, but there’s an element of living there that makes it hard to relax,” he says. “The beat of the drums is always right outside your window; you know there’s a party going on somewhere.”
Fierstein hasn’t completely mellowed in middle age. He remains distressed by the dearth of gay actors playing gay roles.
“Not every gay character needs to be played by a gay actor, of course,” he says. “But when it never happens, that sends a message: Gay people are still disgusting to look at. We can tell their stories as long as we don’t show them.”
The birthday bunch
TV host Jack Hanna is 62. Actress Wendy Phillips is 57. Actress Gabrielle Carteris is 48. Movie director Todd Haynes is 48. Actress Tia Carrere is 42. Actor Cuba Gooding Jr. is 41. Model Christy Turlington is 40. Actor Taye Diggs is 38. Actor Dax Shepard is 34. Actress Paz Vega is 33. Country musician Chris Hartman is 31. Actress Kate Bosworth is 26.
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