Call it coincidence, or something in the air, but this year will be remembered for the revivals of classic gay — and Jewish — plays on Broadway. First came the return of Tony Kushner’s early 1990s “Angels in America,” with its outsize Jewish villain, Roy Cohn, and its neurotic Jewish protagonist, Louis Ironson. Then, over the summer came Matt Crowley’s late-1960s “Boys in the Band,” set at the riotous birthday party of a sarcastic Jewish man named Harold.
Now comes Harvey Fierstein’s 1982 semi-autobiographical play, “Torch Song,” featuring a witty Jewish drag queen named Arnold Beckoff looking for love. A hit last year at Second Stage, the Broadway transfer is directed by Moisés Kaufman with the cast intact; it stars Michael Urie as Arnold and Mercedes Ruehl as his censorious mother, Ma.
Fierstein, who originated the role of Arnold, originally wrote three one-act plays that, after running separately Off-Broadway in the late-1970s, were presented on Broadway in the early 1980s under the title “Torch Song Trilogy.” The play was made into a film in 1988.
In “Torch Song” (now condensed by the playwright into a single two-act drama), Arnold finds a WASPy bisexual lover, Ed (Ward Horton), only to be rejected when Ed finds a woman, Laurel (Roxanna Hope Radja), to marry. Arnold then ends up with a much younger man, a sweet-tempered hustler named Alan, and the two couples spend a weekend of musical beds together in the country.
But it is only when he adopts a gay teenage boy, David (Jack DiFalco), that Arnold is truly fulfilled, despite his mother’s difficulty in accepting her son’s unconventional lifestyle. Reviewing the Second Stage production for The New York Times, critic Ben Brantley said that the director “finds an irresistibly compelling gravity beneath the glibness.”
Kaufman, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Caracas, Venezuela, has directed many important gay plays in New York, including “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” “The Laramie Project,” and “I Am My Own Wife.” In an interview, he told The Jewish Week that “Torch Song” is a “very Jewish play,” that centers on “the meaning of family. In Jewish families, people fight very loudly but then can’t live without each other.” Watching the play, “you feel the love within this tumultuous family.”
The playwright, he added, “created these characters with so much heart and humor that audiences still respond to them 30 years on.” Indeed, he noted, “Arnold is a visionary. He visualizes a family in which he has a husband and a son, which was a foretelling of the future, since we now have gay marriage and gay adoption.” Perhaps, Kaufman suggested, Fierstein actually helped to create this future. “We could imagine gay marriage because we had seen it on stage.”
Michael Tsu Rosen plays Alan, Arnold’s second lover in the play. Rosen, who is part Jewish and part Chinese, has been often typecast as Latino; his Broadway debut was as Chino, a Puerto Rican gang member in “West Side Story.” The actor calls his character, who was played by Matthew Broderick in the film, “really likeable, expressive, and unafraid. He just wants to be cuddled. But he also teaches Arnold how to love.”
Rosen called the play a “really rare snapshot of a moment in gay history that was post-Stonewall and pre-AIDS. This was a genuine moment of pride and optimism.” As a result, he said, the play is “not angry and hurting” like “Angels in America,” Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” or the new play that is being compared to “Angels,” Matthew Lopez’s “The Inheritance,” a highly-praised drama about gay New Yorkers in the post-AIDS era that is about to transfer from London’s Young Vic to the West End. By contrast, Rosen said, Fierstein’s play is “much more joyful. Harvey made audiences laugh and they couldn’t help but fall in love with these characters.”
John M. Clum, an emeritus professor of English and theater at Duke University, who has written numerous studies of gay male drama, pointed out that “Torch Song” ran originally on Broadway at the same time as two other works: “La Cage aux Folles,” whose book was by Fierstein, with its gay anthem, “I Am What I Am,” and Neil Simon’s own semi-autobiographical play, “Brighton Beach Memoirs.”
Jewish humor was thus being used in the service of deeper, richer subjects than ever before, whether Jewish, gay or both. Clum criticized both “Torch Song Trilogy” and “La Cage” for their perpetuation of stereotypes of gay men, in which “gay men were seen as the product of overbearing mothers and absent fathers.” Nevertheless, he conceded that both works did help to open up a space for the acceptance of gay people in American society; Fierstein broke new ground in crafting commercially successful works about openly gay characters. Indeed, both “Torch Song Trilogy” and “La Cage” ran for years on Broadway and won Tony Awards for Fierstein.
But the enduring legacy of “Torch Song” is what critic Jesse Green, in a recent New York Times Magazine article, calls the “normalization of gayness” — the best gay plays, like “Torch Song,” he said, “wage a war for dignity.” Or as Fierstein himself put it in a famous 1983 interview with Barbara Walters, “words like ‘love,’ ‘commitment’ and ‘family’ are not heterosexual words. They’re human words.” ♥
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“Torch Song” opens in previews on Oct. 9 and runs through Feb. 24, 2019, at the Helen Hayes Theater, 240 W. 44th St., torchsongbroadway.com.