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Harvey Fierstein The American

A life in Kinky Boots ...and other great shows. The American author, actor and singer says life is as exciting as the number of times you say yes!

W

e settled down over a coffee to chat. Well, The American did – Harvey Fierstein hasn’t touched caffeine for years. “I just find it easier. It’s one of those drugs that does affect me – some people it does, some it doesn’t!” Life is buzzing enough for the 61 year old actor and playwright not to need a cup of joe. This Fall, in London alone, his musical Kinky Boots debuts on the West End stage while his new play Casa Valentina coincidentally has its European premiere off-West End. Harvey loves visiting England, but then, as he says. “They say Brooklyn is like living in the UK! I’ve had lovely, charming, fun times in both places.” Harvey, you’re a third generation Brooklynite, from a Conservative Jewish family. Not the usual backround for a flamboyant actor? My father’s was the more Conservative side of the family. He was brought up in an orphanage in a small town in the Catskill Mountains. I think he clung to religion more than the rest of the family for structure, to belong. Religion has a wonderful way of making you feel like you belong to a community and I think he needed that. So we belonged to a Conservative Temple. But I’m an atheist. I also understand that being Jewish means you’re dif-

46 September-October 2015

ferent – it is a race of people, which a lot of people forget. It’s not just something you choose. Was that a problem when you became an actor, then one of the first openly gay celebrities? No, we were all very cosmopolitan in Brooklyn! I grew up near Coney Island and there was never any of that. Even as a young openly gay person – and there weren’t a lot when I started out - I found that success is the key that opens all doors. Nobody puts you down if you’re making more money than them! I grew up in a small, insular neighborhood – there were people there who hadn’t been out of the place since they were born – but thankfully not my friends. I still have friends from kindergarten, from five years old on, and they also went out into the world to become painters and artists. We were poor, for sure, but there was a real love of culture and of self expression, a real appreciation of the arts. I realize that they don’t have quite as bad a problem with theater ticket prices in London as in New York now, but when I was a kid you could buy the first row of the family circle for 3 dollars. My mom had a great appreciation of living in New York and she would send out for tickets as soon as a show was announced. I can’t say my father loved it quite as much [laughs] but he was a good

A multiple Tony-winning powerhouse: Harvey Fierstein (center), writer of Kinky Boots, with Jerry Mitchell (direction and choreography) and Cyndi Lauper (music and lyrics) PHOTO: GAVIN BOND

sport. The four of us – mom, dad, my brother and I - saw everything. Is that what started you acting? Not really, I was going to art school and a friend of mine’s mother was starting a community theater group so she asked us arts students if we would come and make posters in the basement of a church. We went along, and there were these nice people, adults who didn’t treat us as kids, and they asked if we would help with the settings and pulling the curtains. Slowly I got more involved. I was on the board of directors of this community theater by the age of sixteen. I’m happy to say I was there on the day it was born and it’s still producing today. Until my mom passed she was a member and went to every single production of theirs. It was kind of wonderful for people whose dreams had been crushed or been put on the side in order to make a living ...there was Leonard the dentist who always wanted to be a singing star, or Tara the housewife who always thought she could someday be an actress. I loved it. It taught me life skills and I grew up from being a very immature kid. I never expected to have a life in the theater. But I have a philosophy that I’ve developed over the years – it’s not very wise, but it works: life is as exciting as the number of times you say yes!

The American September-October 2015 Issue 746  

Bumper issue: the leading cross-media publication for Americans in the UK - and anyone interested in American culture

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