Even after two decades in a celeb-packed career, “bucket list” moments can still happen. Picking up the phone and hearing the ten-packs-of-cigs-and-a-barrel-of-rye wonder that is Harvey Fierstein’s voice growl, “Looorrrrrrrri! Are you ready for me, Looorrrrrrrri!” is one of them. A big one. A “maybe I can make this my ringtone” one.
I was most certainly ready for Harvey. And for the next half hour, the Broadway legend shared with me his thoughts on the impact of live performance, TV versus theater and — the reason for the call in the first place — Hairspray Live!, Fierstein’s second live production with NBC, which premieres tonight at 8/7CT.
Fierstein, who wrote the star-packed event’s screenplay, also reprises his Tony-winning performance as Edna Turnblad, mother of Tracy Turnblad (played by charming newcomer Maddie Baillio), the centerpiece of avant-garde auteur John Waters’ 1988 film Hairspray, which originated the quirky tale of the Rubenesque teen’s quest to integrate her favorite local dance show in 1960s Baltimore. NBC’s 3-hour spectacle also features Martin Short as papa Turnblad, Wilbur; Dancing With the Stars pro Derek Hough as Corny Collins; Kristin Chenoweth as cutthroat momager Velma Von Tussle; pop star Ariana Grande as Tracy’s best pal Penny; Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson as Motormouth Maybelle, and a host of other tested and emerging talent.
CGM: I would never have believed that writing for a TV magazine would afford me the chance to talk with you, Harvey Fierstein. I’m unabashedly thrilled.
HF: [Laughs] I have, over the years, had such a strange relationship with the television! I’ve had I don’t know how many deals. At least two or three with CBS. At least one with FOX. I’m not sure if I ever had an ABC deal. I had a couple with Showtime and a couple with HBO. None of them have ever gotten on the air. I did do a movie with HBO — in the early days of HBO doing movies — called Tidy Endings, but generally, my relationship with television is we never quite got there. It’s interesting, because I am obviously, obviously a theater creature, and that’s what I really love, but more people will see me play Edna on TV in this one night than ever saw me onstage.
Yes! Let’s see — I’ve done at least a thousand performances of Edna, because I did it for two years on Broadway, then I came back and did the last four months of the run. So that’s 28 months. I did it for three months in Las Vegas, and I did it at the Hollywood Bowl, so that means that, all together, well over a thousand. But a thousand times two thousand people, that’s like two million people, right? Two million people would be not a good rating on television!
Are you pleased that NBC’s commitment to these productions allows an audience that doesn’t have access to the theater, logistically or financially, to see these productions and performances? Because that, unfortunately, is far too many people
It’s not as easy as it used to be, but, obviously, we try to tour things — because theater shouldn’t just be Broadway and the West End.
Television is intimate. It’s incredibly intimate. It’s intimate in a way that nothing else is, because — let’s face it — you’re watching in your underwear or you’re eating dinner or lunch, or you’re rocking your baby in your lap, or you’re exhausted from your day and you’re trying to relax. But you’re in your environment, for the most part, in a very relaxed state, by yourself or with some loved ones, so you’re experiencing something on a very intimate level. Which is why it’s so funny when you’re walking down the street and somebody recognizes you from TV and they start talking to you. They talk to you as if they know you, because you have been in their bedroom. You’ve been naked with them.
Theater is a religious experience. Theater, you take a piece of time that you plan to put away. You get your tickets — even if you get them at the last minute, you’ve decided to go to the theater, right? You choose to see this. It’s not just flipping through channels. You make a choice, and then you get there and you go into this room with a bunch of strangers, and you all sit together, closely together, and then the lights come up and there’s live people onstage.
It’s not a movie. It’s not a dead thing. It’s a living thing, and you all have what I think of as a religious experience together. You are human together. You are all human together. You’re watching people live and breathe in front of you, so that’s why I believe that theater is the most life-changing. You’re actually having a deeper, more personal relationship with the people onstage than you do with some people in your life.
You also wrote the screenplay for last year’s The Wiz Live! How does Hairspray Live! compare?
Kenny Leon, who’s directing Hairspray and we also did The Wiz together last year, he likes to say it’s not television and it’s not theater. It’s a hybrid. The Wiz we did very theatrically. It was one set. The set changed, but it was all done in the space of a theater stage. That production that we did for The Wiz could have been moved into a theater exactly as it is. The experiment was to do it that way and see what that looked like.
Hairspray is more cinematic. We’re on the back lot of Universal. We have whole streets that have been dressed as Baltimore. We have sets built in several different buildings, so it would be impossible to do this exactly this way onstage. And yet I stuck with the stage structure as much as I could to give you the forward movement of the stage production, rather than a movie. So it’ll be much more the experience of seeing it onstage, but it will have the [production] values of a movie.
When you think about it, you’ve also got Sound of Music Live!, Peter Pan Live! — and Sound of Music was done more theatrically, right? Peter Pan had much bigger sets. After Peter Pan, we did The Wiz, and after The Wiz, FOX did Grease. So really, there’s only been four. We’re the fifth, so it’s still a growing thing. We’re still experimenting, seeing what does work best, how it affects an audience best, what an audience is able to get out of it. I believe that bringing an audience to theater this way will help build that live theater audience in the long run.
I also love the idea that kids dreaming of a career in theater who see in Maddie this year and Shanice Williams last year that those dreams can come true. You, too?
Absolutely! I grew up in Brooklyn and my mother loved the theater. Back then, of course, you could buy balcony tickets for $3-4 apiece, and she would get Q magazine, which then became New York magazine — it got eaten by New York magazine, but as soon as Q magazine would come and the new shows were announced, she would send away for the first row of the balcony. So we would sit in the very first row, and it was as if the show was being put on just for you.
The four of us — my dad, my mom, my brother and I — would go, and we saw everything. They went to a lot of theater by themselves in the evening, but we saw lots of stuff — and not just stuff for kids! Yes, we saw Sound of Music and Oliver and Fiddler on the Roof and all those — but we also saw Woody Allen and we saw the Royal Ballet. We saw the Royal Shakespeare Company when they came to New York.
I remember every one of those performances. Not only do I remember, when I walked into the Hirschfeld Theatre where we’re doing Kinky Boots now, I can show you the seat I sat in when I saw the original production of Bye Bye Birdie. I can walk into the Imperial Theatre and show you the exact seat I sat in the first time I saw Fiddler on the Roof. Those memories have stayed with me. I can’t really tell you what seat I was sitting in for any movie. Movies don’t make the same impression.
Hairspray in particular — it’s so much fun and so uplifting — but it’s also a still-relevant story about the power of young people and believing in yourself and stepping up for what is right. Particularly satisfying to bring that message to a TV audience?
Yes — and especially at this moment. We don’t hit you over the head with it. It’s done with love and it’s lovingly told, and we’re not lecturing anybody — but it does come with a history, which is different from the original John Waters movie. I hope that [Hairspray’s original songwriters] Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and I brought this other level. We had our original director, Jack O’Brien, talk to the company a lot about those times of breaking the color barrier and how blacks always had to come in the back door. Even if they would star in an act — even if it was Harry Belafonte or Lena Horne —they still had to come through the back door, and how the white actors didn’t.
I added a speech — it’s obviously not in the movie. It’s only in the show. When the kids say, “We almost all got arrested! We’ve got to stop doing this!” Motormouth Mabel says, “Do you think you’re the first ones to ever try this? I’ve been looking at that door all my life, and one day I’m going to come through that door.” They say to her, “What door?” She says, “The front door,” and then sings that song, “I Know Where I’ve Been”. That’s an important message: that no generation does it alone. It’s always a step-by-step, even in the politics that we’re involved in right now.
I remember the first time I really sat down and thought about sexual harassment, and that was the Anita Hill hearings. We never really as a country talked about women being sexually harassed. You talked about it in terms of women getting whistled at when walking past a construction site, or a boss saying to somebody, “You can wear your skirt shorter.” But there was nothing dangerous in it, and all of a sudden, Anita Hill started that conversation. Of course, she was vilified, but we’re now in the next huge section of that, where we’re seeing that these women who were sexually harassed never spoke out because they were in fear of these powerful men, and now they’re opening their mouths and saying something — and America, once again, is going to learn something. We’re going to take that giant step ahead, and that’s how it works. It goes slowly. It goes step by step — but a wonderful part of history is it is very hard to go backwards. You can have something similar happen again, but the exact same thing never happens again because you never go back to complete innocence.
If you’re having the discussion about race, as we’re having with Ferguson [MO.] and everything else going on, we’re not coming at it without understanding segregation. It’s good to remember. Kenny and I were just having a conversation, Kenny, Jerry Mitchell, who choreographed the original Broadway show and he’s choreographing this version and I. In the Broadway version, there’s a dance that the kids did at the Sophomore Hop when Tracy’s discovered, and we used a dance that was created in Baltimore called The Madison. It was sort of a line dance.
We’re not using that in this production. We’re going to use a song that Mark and Scott wrote for the movie called “Ladies Choice.” which sort of has a double entendre. But the point is, when they go to dance in this school room, the blacks have to dance on one side and the whites have to dance on the other. They’re not allowed to dance together. That’s in an integrated school, and that’s the way it was.
The pedigree of this production is just amazing. You have Mark. You have Scott. You have Jerry. You have Kenny. And then you have this breathtaking cast. Did you feel that the world was at your feet with this project in terms of being able to adapt a story so familiar to you for a new medium and audience?
Yes! After the Broadway show, I wrote the adaptation for Las Vegas, cutting the show down to the hour-and-a-half for Las Vegas, and then I did another different kind of adaptation for the Hollywood Bowl presentation. I got to rethink the show twice before, and so, when I approached it this time, I knew from doing The Wiz how long it had to be, that we needed commercials. That kind of stuff was already in my head, so I was able to look at it that way, and it wasn’t until you get into production and then you start matching actors for roles.
The fun part is that so many of them are friends. Kristin Chenoweth, oh my gosh, she must have been 6 feet tall when I first met her. Now she’s a foot and a half tall! Show business has worn her down to the bone. We’ve been friends for 20-some years, but we’ve never done a show together, so that alone is fun. We’ve done concerts together and benefits, but we’ve never done a show together. I’ve known Marty Short for a bunch of years, and yet we’ve never done a show together. I made a cameo appearance onstage with him in his show. He would bring somebody up from the audience, so he dragged me up one night, but that’s the most we’ve ever done together.
And now you get to be married!
Now we get to be married, so that’s so much fun. Rosie [O’Donnell who cameos as the gym teacher] and I, of course, she did Fiddler on the Roof with me for at least three months or more, and the young man playing Seaweed, Ephraim Sykes, he was in my show Newsies. Ariana, I’ve never worked with before, but she’s adorable. Jennifer Hudson and I did the concert version of Hair together when she had just barely come out of American Idol.
There’s a lot of history here that will be fun to explore — and I’m going to personally get to spend time with people that I haven’t gotten to spend time with before. We spend a lot of time together because you rehearse it until it’s machine-like, because it’s live television, and you need to know what the hell is going on. I’ve never done that before. None of us have. This is on-the-job training.
And then you have newcomer Maddie Baillio, who said she auditioned because she wanted to be your Tracy.
I was talking to Marissa [Jaret Winokur, who cameos in Hairspray Live! along with Waters’ Tracy, Ricki Lake], my Broadway daughter, and we were talking about Maddie, and Marissa was going, “You know, when I did Hairspray, I had already been in two Broadway shows. I’d already done a show with a lot of stars,” — Brooke Shields and Rosie and everybody else, when she did Grease — and she said, “I’d done television shows. I’d done movies. I was 30 years old when I played the role. But here’s Maddie, she’s just in her twenties and she’s never done any of this!” We were saying
that we need to all lean in and help her in any way we can — letting her have the full experience of it all, but letting her know that she’s supported.
What a terrific find she is, though.
Yes, she is. It’s all so new. Like I said, more people will see her play Tracy that night than ever saw anybody play it on Broadway. The next morning, she will be very recognizable wherever she goes.
Anything other Hairspray Live! secrets you can share?
We have the original Broadway Dynamites! There’s a singing group that’s sort of like a Shirelles/Supremes kind of group called The Dynamites that is three young African-American women that appear in the show, and Mark Shaiman has always loved the three of them and their voices together. In fact, they dubbed the voices in the movie. They’re not in the movie, but it’s their voices in the movie. Jerry just said, “Why are we looking for somebody else? We got the best, why look at the rest?!”
Hairspray Live! premieres Wednesday, Dec. 7 at 8/7CT on NBC.