When Broadway producer Richie Jackson was 17, the play Torch Song Trilogy changed his life. “It’s been a road map of a life that could be possible,” Jackson says of worshipping the 1982 show written by Tony Award winner Harvey Fierstein. “It gave me permission to dream bigger.”
Jackson was a student at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts when he wrote to the producers listed in his Playbill, asking them for feedback on how to raise money for a college production he was working on. To his surprise, they called him in for a meeting and introduced him to Fierstein. What they didn’t know was Jackson had already written Fierstein a fan letter, to which he replied with the advice: “Take things slow and easy in life. There is a right time for everything.”
The right time for a revival, Jackson feels, is now. “Who couldn’t use a dose of Harvey Fierstein right now? We are all so full of angst, rage, and upset. He is not only hysterically funny, but he just grows empathy in you,” Jackson says of the actor and playwright. So Jackson, who remained close with Fierstein ever since that pen-pal exchange, dialed his number. “I called him up and said, ‘In order to do Torch Song, you need the right Arnold. It’s time to do Torch Song and Michael Urie is Arnold.’”
The story — originally called Torch Song Trilogy, which was shortened to just Torch Song when the three-act drama was condensed from four hours to two hours and 35 minutes — centers on Arnold Beckoff (Urie), a gay Jewish man who dresses in drag during the late 1970s and early 1980s in New York City. Arnold’s mother, Mrs. Beckoff — played by Oscar winner Mercedes Ruehl — feels his homosexuality is both an unwise choice as well as a sickness. The play is a transfer from an Off-Broadway run at Second Stage Theatre this past winter, where audiences gasped at some of Mrs. Beckoff’s lines, including: “If I’d known you were going to be gay, I wouldn’t have bothered.”
“They didn’t think anything of it — that was commonplace,” explains Urie of the controversial dialogue, which was written in 1979. “That was an accepted opinion and was totally normal for people to think. The audience is shocked when she says those things, and appalled. It’s truly heartbreaking.”
“She really feels that [Arnold] be best advised to straighten up and fly right, marry a nice girl, and have a family,” Ruehl says of her character’s motives. “She loves him. She wants him to be happy, and she can’t see he’s flourishing in a whole different life that she consciously and unconsciously sees as wrong and can’t accept.”
What was shocking in 1982 doesn’t faze most people now. “I don’t have to worry as much in our production as they did about being unlikable,” Urie, who’s originating a role for the first time on Broadway, explains of remounting the story in 2018. (He was last seen on Broadway in 2012 as Bud Frump in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.) “I’m able to go to darker places. I think it helps us remember what the stakes were like.” Urie isn’t trying to re-create the role that won Fierstein his first Tony Award. “I can never be what Harvey is. I couldn’t do a Harvey impression” — which he does, and well — “but you can’t help but channel Harvey.”
For director Moises Kaufman, it’s a thrill to bring the production that ran for nearly four years back to the Helen Hayes Theatre, where it first played on Broadway and launched Fierstein’s career. “Prior to Torch Song, there had never been a gay play that won a Tony. Prior to Torch Song, there had never been this kind of representation on stage,” he says. “It was a real momentous occasion. It was an incredible thing.”
Jack DiFalco plays David, a street-smart, openly gay man, which was uncommon when the play takes place. “It’s funny to watch him and his situation,” DiFalco says of the role. “He really is the future in this play. I have to dig deep for him. He is comedic but he is also very dark.”
Jackson hasn’t decided if he will watch his production from the very seat where his heart started beating the first time he saw Torch Song. The hope is new generations of theatergoers will get as inspired as Jackson was 36 years ago. “Everybody has to come out to their parent about something. It’s warriors like Arnold who firmly planted his feet on the ground and made the world come around. That’s why I want young people to see it.”
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