Among his many other talents, Harvey Fierstein is an experienced talk show guest. In his entertaining memoir, “I Was Better Last Night” (Knopf, 400 pages), he devotes one of his 59 short chapters specifically to his talk show appearances, but the book is suffused with the kind of anecdotes ready-made for Carson or Colbert, Corden or Kimmel, although some would have to be bleeped.
When Ethel Merman visited him backstage at “Torch Song Trilogy,” the play that marked his 1982 Broadway debut and first mainstream success as playwright and performer, Fierstein proclaimed himself one of her most devoted fans and asked her what she thought of his show. “I thought it was a piece of shit. But the rest of the audience laughed and cried, so what the fuck do I know.”
At the height of the AIDS crisis, several friends had bequeathed him their ashes to bury in his yard. He was leaving his home on his way to lunch with Joan Rivers, when he received one such package in his mail, and decided to take it with him to the restaurant – and then placed it on the table, figuring his late friend Christopher would love to be dining with Joan Rivers. When told what it was, Rivers reached into her bag, and put a tin of her late husband’s ashes on the table as well. “I never go anywhere without a little bit of Edgar.”
Rivers, a regular guest host on Johnny Carson’s show, frequently invited Fierstein. Before one such appearance, he overheard fellow guest Ginger Rogers telling a producer that she couldn’t stay on the couch after her segment and sit with Fierstein, because Fierstein was a homosexual and she didn’t want to risk catching AIDS from him — whereupon Fierstein enthusiastically greeted her, proclaimed him her greatest fan and kissed her on the cheek.
That is just one of the stories in the book driving home what it was like to be an early out gay public figure, several of them tied to talk shows: Barbara Walters “questioned me as if I were an interstellar alien,” asking him “What’s it like to be a homosexual?”
“I Was Better Last Night” does offer some answers to that question, when Fierstein details his coming-out, recounts his sexually adventurous youth, and catalogues the romantic relationships throughout his life, none ultimately successful. (“I don’t love, I obsess. I don’t share, I possess…” In his sixties now, “I dabble in dalliance.”) But that’s not really what the book is about – just as the sexual innuendo of the title is just a tease: The line is actually what he says to friends who visit him in his dressing room after a performance. This is largely a memoir of a life, and especially a career, in the theater.
If that career is stellar, it began serendipitously.
The younger son of a middle class Jewish family in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn who nicknamed him “The Lawyer” and brought him to see Broadway shows from an early age, he began reading plays because of his dyslexia (“Here were books with all of that wordy description crap excised beyond a few necessary stage directions.”) But his talent seemed to be in visual art.
When he was a student at the High School of Art and Design, a classmate enlisted him to help her mother make posters for her community theater in Flatbush, The Gallery Players. This led to his working backstage, and eventually on stage in the small, comedic role of the TV repairman in its production of Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park.” He was thrilled to get his first-ever review, in Show Business magazine; in that same issue he noticed a casting notice for a play by Andy Warhol. He had loved Warhol’s illustrations of shoes in newspaper advertisements, and decided to audition so that he could meet him.
He was cast in “Andy Warhol’s Pork,” which had little to do with Warhol (who, more or less having just lent his name, rarely showed up.) But it launched Fierstein as a teen into the crazy downtown theater scene for the next decade. First he was a performer (while getting a visual art and teaching degree from Pratt Institute.) Eventually, with the encouragement of several Off-Off Broadway mentors (the most famous of whom was Ellen Stewart of La MaMa), he wrote plays. His first few titles:
“In Search of the Cobra Jewels: An Archeohistorical Poeseurie in Two Short Acts”
“Flatbush Tosca: Fear the Painted Devil”
Then he wrote the three plays of “Torch Song Trilogy,” much of it directly inspired by personal experience, as he details in the book.
I found the weird and lively downtown theater scene that he describes, and his evolving place in it, fascinating enough to have filled the whole book. But Fierstein chooses to go wide rather than deep in “I Was Better Last Night,” chronicling more than sixty years, year by year chronologically beginning in 1959. Even at the outset, the focus is on shows in which he has been involved – at five years old, he was cast as the king in the P.S. 186 production of Sleeping Beauty, but wanted to be the witch, because the witch got to wear green skin and red lips. (He ends before his latest gig, revising the book for the Broadway revival of “Funny Girl”) Each chapter gets both a title and a year. Samples: “Chapter 26: This Is A Job for a Drag Queen, 1982” (the first of five chapters spread out over 28 years about “La Cage Aux Folles,” including revivals); “Chapter 46: Juggling Kinky Boots and Newsies and Casa Valentina. 2010.”)
Fierstein includes his less successful foray into Hollywood, recalling the filming of “Torch Song Trilogy” and, briefly, his two best-known roles, as Robin Williams’ brother in “Mrs. Doubtfire,” and in “Independence Day,” but spending as much time on a series of aborted sitcoms and what he calls “best-forgotten movies,” and even telling us about his scene in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” which didn’t make it into the film.
Fierstein has had much better luck in theatrical adaptations of movies, both as writer and performer. He paints his Tony-winning turn as Edna Turnblad in the musical adaptation of “Hairspray” as a triumphant return to Broadway. “More than once my friends mocked my return with Susan Hayward’s speech from Valley of the Dolls:’ So they drummed you out of Hollywood and you come crawling back to Broadway. Well, Broadway doesn’t go for booze and dope.’” But, rather than that character, he saw himself as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, “awakening in her own bed in Kansas, now filled with the true meaning of home and overflowing with gratitude to have another chance….”
“I Was Better Last Night” includes an index, which is unusual for such a breezy book, but his now almost half-century career arguably tells a story about theater in America. He offers some insights about his shows, and theater in general, but also makes one or two remarks that reflect the peculiar myopia of too many in the New York theater community: “Not meaning to be disrespectful of how another person earns a living, but my career has already outlasted those of twenty-odd New York Times reviewers. When I want to know what a show is like, I ask someone who paid for their ticket. Theater is a place you should attend for healing and not healthcare.”
What makes this passage particularly unintelligible is that it is inserted in the middle of an account of how the reviews by three critics of the first production of “Torch Song Trilogy” saved the show, which had previously announced it was closing. Their raves not only kept the show going, but inspired its move to Broadway, and changed his life.
Such a harsh tone is the rare exception to the humor and good humor in “I Was Better Last Night,” although not the only one. He waits until near the end to tell his coming out story in its humiliating details, which he says he’s never told anyone before. There is some mostly anonymous score-settling. He also doesn’t spare himself, detailing his gallon a day alcohol and two-pack a day cigarette habits (both now overcome), and a suicide attempt.
But the general tone of Fierstein’s memoir indirectly illustrates some reasons for Fierstein’s popularity as a theater artist. He knows what to say that will win people over. And he’s optimistic. He doesn’t give up: More than one chapter about a show that didn’t do as well as he had hoped, or wasn’t done the way he wanted, ends with an appeal to the readers (presumably the ones who are producers or artistic directors) to do the show again, the right way.
“I’m still working for approval,” he concedes early on. “Attention is nourishment.”