Harvey Fierstein Gets Back to Drag

With <em>Kinky Boots</em>, the playwright returns to cross dressing to tell a universal story

Forty-five minutes after my interview with Harvey Fierstein is scheduled to take place my phone rings. I say hello and hear, “I’m so, so sorry. I’m never late for interviews.” I didn’t need to ask who it was. You can’t mistake Fierstein’s voice—whether it’s his speaking voice or his written one. The latter is on display at the Pantages Theatre where the 2013 Tony Award-winning musical Kinky Boots, which he wrote, just opened for a three-week run. The show will also play Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa at the end of the year.

Based on the 2005 film of the same name, Kinky Boots tells the story of the failing British shoe factory Price and Son. Charlie, the son, doesn’t want to continue in his father’s footsteps, but he doesn’t want the workers to lose their jobs. Through his friend Harry he meets a drag artist named Lola. She and Charlie team up to create shoes for drag queens in hopes of turning the business around.

“I only write about being human,” the four-time Tony Award winner Fierstein says. “Kinky Boots is about wounds we have as adults that we carry from childhood. You have this boy; he grew up his entire life looking at this factory with his name on it and he has no choice but to be a shoemaker. His girlfriend asks what he wants to do and he says ‘not that.’ Then you have the other boy whose father is a champion boxer who knows his son is a big ol’ drag queen. The opening of the show is him putting on high heels [after] a boxing class. And his father, one assumes, teaches him to box to take care of himself. These two boys look like complete opposites but are actually in the same situation: disappointing [their] fathers.”

Fierstein credits Gloria Steinem with inspiring the themes in Kinky Boots. “She says I don’t care how great your parents are, as a child you have a limited vocabulary to say what you need, what frightens you,” he explains. “You still grow up with certain holes in you.”

Pop princess Cyndi Lauper, who wrote the music and lyrics for Kinky Boots, also won a Tony for her work on the show. She joins an ever expanding list of Fierstein collaborators. “Every collaboration is different even when you work with someone a second time,” he says. “Working with Jerry Herman, I wasn’t even 30 when I wrote La Cage Aux Folles and I’m working with someone who wrote Hello, Dolly! and Mame. Girlfriend was getting schooled. Working with Peter Allen (Legs Diamond), he was always willing, but his brain was somewhere else. If I asked him for a number for the girl character, I’d just get another song for him. Working with Cyndi has its own challenge, not just because she’s Cyndi and has a very strong personality, but her work schedule. It was tough getting her pinned down. That’s why she calls me Mommie Dearest.”

Fierstein’s breakthrough came with his 1982 play Torch Song Trilogy. I asked if he had any plans to revive the show. “It’s hard. It’s not an easy play. We just don’t have the right kid. We’ve done two readings now with actors I thought would work. We offered it to somebody I thought would do a bang-up job and he chickened out. But it has to be right. I let somebody produce it in London, Doug Hodge, who played in La Cage. I’ll allow you to experiment, but if you fuck it up, it will be your last experiment. And boy did he fuck it up.”

His most recent play, Casa Valentina, depicted heterosexual transvestites. He hopes to mount the show in Los Angeles and explains why he uses drag in much of his work: “It’s so dynamic. Quite frankly it’s safer for an audience to hear a story told that way, especially for a heterosexual audience because they can stand back from it. It doesn’t say ‘This is you.’ Gay men can say, ‘I’m no drag queen,’ so they can watch it from a safe distance and not feel like they are being questioned. It’s a lovely device.”

Fierstein might have been late for our phone call, but he doesn’t mince words.