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Big man in town

Harvey Fierstein is the toast of Broadway again, but he remains an irrepressible realist.

June 08, 2003|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — For a man accustomed to the spotlight, Harvey Fierstein is in danger of being upstaged. As the star of "Hairspray" emcees the Drama League Awards luncheon, introducing a glittering array of theater celebrities, all eyes turn to Antonio Banderas, who is appearing in the hit revival of "Nine."

Actress Cherry Jones tells the packed gathering at a midtown hotel that she has just seen the musical, declaring: "I am a gay woman, and I loved every woman up there. But Antonio, I want you to know that I am now a latent heterosexual."

Then actor Stanley Tucci turns to the tanned, handsome performer and says: "Antonio, I, too, have seen your show. And now I am a latent homosexual."

As the audience roars, Fierstein -- a gay man who plays a frumpy, overweight housewife in "Hairspray" -- notes dryly: "What an educational afternoon it's been." He speaks in his trademark gravelly voice, a rumbling, rasping spiel that has been compared with the sound of a vacuum cleaner backing up. And for many Broadway insiders, his comment is laced with irony: Both Banderas and Fierstein are considered the front-runners for this year's Tony Award for best actor in a musical.

But there is no doubting who steals the show at the recent luncheon. Fierstein's crack gets the biggest laugh, and he also takes home the league's award for performance of the year, winning a tumultuous ovation.

"I guess [the award] was seen as a homecoming by some people, and they got very emotional," he says several days later, pausing for a quick dinner at an Italian restaurant between Saturday performances of New York's hottest musical. "But the fact is, I really haven't gone anywhere. I've been working hard for a long time. Maybe it's because I'm back here on Broadway now for the first time in nearly 20 years."

Fierstein's eye-popping performance as Edna Turnblad -- an insecure, agoraphobic mother with a heart of gold -- will be featured prominently in tonight's national broadcast of the Tony Awards. And it marks a new high point in the career of a pioneering gay activist, playwright, actor, essayist and cabaret performer whose outrageous shtick and blunt humor only make him more endearing.

A big papa bear of a man in his comic yet realistic portrayal of a shy woman in housecoat and scuffies, he bears no resemblance to the edgy drag characters he played in "Torch Song Trilogy" and other shows. Edna Turnblad is loving, vulnerable, gossipy and defiantly protective of those she loves -- the very image of the real Harvey Fierstein, according to many longtime friends, stagehands and cast members.

In a recent essay on www.playbill.com, the 48-year-old actor described the painstaking 90-minute process by which he is transformed nightly into a Big Baltimore Mama: "My chest, hands, arms, underarms and legs are all clean-shaven," he wrote in "Becoming a Woman, or How Edna Gets Born." "My hair is grown longer than I'd like to accommodate the wigs. Even my face is strangely unrecognizable as my eyebrows are daily shorn to allow the painting of a more feminine line."

The transformation is complete with the application of "56 EEE breasts of rubbery silicone," he continued. "From there they added childbearing hips, a pie loving tummy and a rear end upon which tailgate parties could be staged." Fierstein and other cast members won glowing reviews from a host of critics. His portrayal is "absolutely transcendent," wrote Howard Kissel of the New York Daily News. Clive Barnes, in the New York Post, said, "There's just one question: When Tony time comes, is Fierstein to be nominated as Best Actress or Best Actor?"

BESET BY FANS

On a recent afternoon, Harvey (or is it Edna?) revels in the confusion as he walks three blocks from the Neil Simon Theatre to a nearby restaurant. It takes time to get there because he begins by patiently signing 49 autographs for screaming fans outside the stage door. Then he turns a casual stroll into street theater.

"Hey, you wanna have sex?" he adds, striding past a colleague from the show.

"Uh, I don't know," the man jokes, checking his watch. "Gotta go."

"He's just a drummer," sniffs Fierstein, pushing on.

Turning the corner, he spies a longtime friend and spontaneously pinches both his cheeks, a classic Harvey hello. Then a woman, a star-struck fan, confronts him.

"Oooooh, I love you," she gushes. "I mean, I love your performance. I mean...."

"My dear," he says solemnly, clasping both her hands, his voice growling and grating. "The single most important thing is that we're here together."

Motorists honk as they drive by, a VH1 television crew doing sidewalk interviews for a rock music special surrounds Fierstein with cameras, and other passersby turn what should have been a three-minute walk into a 15-minute journey. One after another, strangers tell him he's a shoo-in for the Tony.

If Fierstein is nervous, he doesn't show it. "I didn't pay these people to walk by and do all this, you know," he jokes. Yet the hoopla clearly weighs on his mind.

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