When we last chatted with Michael Urie, the genial and charismatic actor was enjoying the success of Buyer & Cellar at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. Playing a fictional version of Barbara Streisand in that solo comedy, he now says, prepared him for his latest venture Off Broadway: the lead in Harvey Fierstein’s celebrated Torch Song Trilogy. Urie plays Arnold Beckoff, a drag queen in search of love and family life in New York City. Now re-titled Torch Song, the hit from the early 1980s is getting its first major revival at the Second Stage Theater (now through December 3). The production, directed by Moisés Kaufman, also stars Mercedes Ruehl as Arnold’s loving yet crushingly disapproving mother. We talked recently to Urie about the return of the seminal gay play and what it was like taking on the role originally made famous by the playwright Fierstein himself nearly four decades ago.
Is it true that you were instrumental in this revival of Torch Song?
I met Moisés Kaufman through my friend Jessica Chastain. I visited her backstage when she was in The Heiress, which Moisés directed on Broadway. I was an admirer of his and we became Facebook friends. He said he would like to work with me, and I said, “Yes, please, what could we do?” Then he said, “What do you think about Torch Song?” I had read it, of course, and I thought it was a beautiful play, but it had never crossed my mind that I could play Arnold. I said, “Sure, let’s do it!” Then, completely coincidentally, not long after that, Richie Jackson, who happens to be Harvey’s manager, and is a producer of the show at Second Stage, reached out to me and asked what I thought about doing Torch Song. I thought, “Oh my God, maybe there’s like some weird synergy going on—and maybe I’m right to play this.” So, I put him and Moises together, and they got along great. And Harvey liked Moisés. Moisés had actually seen the play when he was very young, and it was lifechanging—as it was for so many people. So, basically, all the stars were in alignment. We did a reading for Harvey and, after that, they decided they wanted to move forward and they set it up with Second Stage, and here we are.
What changes were made for this production, in addition to the title change?
Harvey always says that he wouldn’t dream of rewriting it because he doesn’t remember who he was when he wrote the plays. He doesn’t think that way anymore, and doesn’t write that way. So all he’s done is cut. I think that by the time Torch Song Trilogy opened on Broadway it was nearly four hours, which included quite a few songs in the first play, International Stud. There was a singer and a band. The second play, Fugue in a Nursery, was longer. It was a whole act and there was an intermission before and after it. The third play, Widows and Children First, I think, is pretty much left intact. Altogether, this production is a good 70 minutes shorter than it was when it was on Broadway. Now, granted, when it played on Broadway, once it was big hit, Harvey began trimming so that eventually they could do eight shows a week. What we have now is a version that he’s cut down after living with it. He played the role, as you know, for so many years. So, he knows exactly what we need to tell the story. And then, since we have put the first two plays together for one act before intermission, he thought we didn’t need the word “Trilogy” any more.
But it’s still very much three plays, and they’re totally different from one another. The first play is magical and very theatrical, the second is this existential conversation, and the third play really is kitchen-sink dramedy in the style of Moss Hart and Neil Simon. There’s a fridge and a sink, a dining table, a couch. There are hilarious jokes and situations and heartbreak. They really do live in totally separate worlds, these three plays. They just don’t live in three separate acts anymore.
When did you first encounter Torch Song?
I went to a public high school in Texas, but we had a very progressive theater program and a very progressive forensics [speech and debate] program. Torch Song was in our play library. I remember learning about a lot of things that I didn’t know about by reading that play. This was before the internet. I also got my hands on Angels in America and As Is and Love! Valour! Compassion! and some of these other really important gay plays. But Torch Song was the first of these plays and it was accessible, it was funny, it was about family. That’s why this play ran on Broadway for so long, and I think why audiences gay or straight, Jew or Gentile, respond to this. Because it’s really about family—the family that we’re given and the family that we make for ourselves.
This play seems both of its period and ahead of its time as well.
Ahead of its time is a great way to put it. Moisés always says that Harvey was a prophet. He saw the idea of a gay man marrying and becoming a father long before it happened. And maybe he paved the way, in part, for that to happen. When you watch the play now, in some respects, I think it does feels like a period piece, but in other respects, it feels like a series of conversations that we could still be having today. It doesn’t feel like it was written 37 years ago. He started doing [versions of the plays] in the late ’70s downtown before it got to Broadway. At the time he was a revolutionary. Nobody was having conversations like this. A lot people thought he was crazy. And there was a lot of backlash from the gay community. “Why are you doing this, we don’t to want to be like straight people, this isn’t what we are about.” And Harvey was saying, “No, we are the same but different.”
It’s surprising to find a backroom sex scene in a popular play from the ’80s.
Yeah, I can’t think of many examples of plays where you do see that kind of sex, even if it’s simulated in the way that it is in our play. Of course, it’s a very comic scene in our play and there’s only one person on stage. During Saturday matinees, most of the people in the audience are, you know, older and straight. They might not necessarily get all the drag jokes in the first scene, or they may miss some of the subtleties of the fight between Arnold and Ed, one of whom is in the closet and the other out and proud. I’m sure they’re following it, but the comedy of it may be a little lost. But when I go to that backroom and we start doing that scene where I’m being penetrated by a total stranger in this dark room and smoking a cigarette, everyone laughs at that. There are nights when I think, “My God, what’s going to happen? Are people going to laugh?” But it’s foolproof. I think that’s a credit to Harvey’s genius. He’s written this scene where he says this is how gay people have sex and you can laugh at it. It’s pretty brilliant and very ahead of its time.
Of course, it’s a tear-jerker as well.
It’s a heartbreaking love story. And it’s chockfull of ideas, not just gay-related—hate crimes, unaccepting parents, and closeted boyfriends—but also fatherhood and motherhood and things that everyone can relate to. I think that’s what made the play such a classic and why it’s still working. I wasn’t sure how this play would hold up, and so far for me, it’s incredible how fresh and how timely it feels. I don’t think that’s because in society we haven’t come very far, because actually we have come quite far if you think about it. This is before AIDS, before marriage equality, before two people of the same sex could raise a child that isn’t related to either of them, and yet it still rings true today. Even the way the characters speak feels current. I don’t know that it’s necessarily the way we all speak or the way anybody spoke then, it’s Harvey’s beautiful language, the poetry and the wit that he puts into his words, but it’s totally fresh while still being a time capsule.
You’ve mentioned elsewhere that channeling Streisand in Buyer & Cellar was good preparation for this role. Tell us something about Arnold Beckoff, who Fierstein describes in the script as “a kvetch of great wit and want.”
I’ve said that it wasn’t until I played Barbra Streisand that I knew I could play Harvey Fierstein, meaning his character Arnold. It’s a Brooklyn thing, it’s a Jewish thing, it’s an eccentricity thing. Arnold and she both have their delights and eccentricities. They can both turn on a dime. I think it’s always exciting when characters have unexpected turns. Barbra was constantly surprising the audience and the other character, Alex, in that play, who I also played. In this play, Arnold, you get to know him and you imagine what he’s going to be like, but you don’t know what’s brimming underneath. There’s a lot to this guy. He runs the gamut. And also, in Buyer & Cellar, Alex, who tells the story of the play, is a caretaker. Arnold is also a caretaker. Alex has a huge heart and really falls in love with Barbra and they become friends. I think Arnold, too, is the kind of guy who can become friends with anybody. One of my favorite parts, and really one of the illuminating parts in Torch Song, are the scenes in the second play where first you see Laurel, Arnold’s ex’s girlfriend, fiancée, and later wife, doing the dishes with Arnold. They’re combative and a little snarky, but later, Arnold has her over to his apartment and they have lunch. They talk about Ed and they commiserate, she breaks down and he comforts her. I think that’s such a big thing for him to do. So kind and sweet. And that’s one of the things that makes all the pain that they go through so worth it because he cares so much about everybody who comes into his life. It’s a beautiful thing.
Did you get any advice from Fierstein about playing this role?
On the first day of rehearsal he said, and it’s something that I think about all the time, “If you’re not embarrassed to play this play, then you’re not doing it right.” I’ve never heard it said quite like that, but I think that’s probably true of any great play. It really rang true the first time I had close friends in the audience. In that third play, when the mum is saying these painful things to me, I thought about them watching their friend, someone they love, get eviscerated by the mother, who loves him. And my heart broke in a whole new way. She comes on stage, the audience falls in love with her. I’m in love with her. Obviously I was a momma’s boy and we’re obsessed with each other. We’re like really close and we get along. And then all of a sudden the elephant in the room rears its ugly head. And it gets so ugly. In the end, you know they still love each other, but they’ve reached an impasse and it’s devastating. Harvey is right, it’s a humiliating experience. But obviously so worth it. The catharsis the audience goes through is extremely exciting.
Now that you’ve been playing the role in front of an audience in the preview weeks, what’s the best thing about doing this play for you?
It’s the heart. This is a dumpster fire of a world that we live in right now, with our rights being rolled back, with brothers and sisters being sent away or being denied access. With the threat of nuclear war, the hate dripping from our leaders. It’s a sad, horrible, confusing time, and we all need a big hug right now. The play is filled with so much love and so much compassion—the feeling of being in a room full of people and sharing a hug is very special.