For Fierstein, the mother of all roles

Actor thought he'd hung up his drag past, but then along came Edna

Theater

August 11, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | By J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

SEATTLE -- Harvey Fierstein is shaving his eyebrows.

This is a first for him. Oh sure, he's worn lipstick and eyeliner, dresses and falsies, high heels and pantyhose. But before he began playing Edna Turnblad, the frumpy Baltimore housewife in the new Broadway musical, Hairspray, Fierstein had never taken razor in hand and removed all traces of his eyebrows.

"Don't forget the detail of shaving the eyebrows," he says over the buzz of the electric razor -- as if it were possible to overlook such a distinctive bit of denuding.

This prompts a question that even most veteran reporters never get a chance to ask: "When did you start shaving your eyebrows?"

"The day before dress rehearsal," the 48-year-old actor answers matter-of-factly. He is seated in front of the illuminated mirror in his dressing room at the 5th Avenue Theatre, where Hairspray played a pre-Broad-way run earlier this summer.

On Thursday, the eagerly anticipated musical based on John Waters' 1988 movie opens on Broadway, where it is currently in previews. But it was in this Seattle dressing room that Fierstein honed the look -- created by makeup designer Randy Mercer, wig designer Paul Huntley and costume designer William Ivey Long -- that New York audiences are now seeing.

At 6:30 p.m., when Harvey Fierstein walks into this little room, he's an imposing, 6-foot-plus man with short, graying, curly hair and a voice that sounds remarkably like his electric razor, only several octaves lower. Shortly after 8 p.m., when he walks on stage, he's Edna Turnblad -- a (you should pardon the expression) queen-sized wife and mother with straggly auburn hair and the raspiest voice in the show.

Watching Fierstein apply women's makeup is nothing new. Two decades ago, when Broadway audiences got their first glimpse of him, he was doing just that, on stage in Torch Song Trilogy, the play that won him Tony Awards in 1983 for best actor and best playwright.

Back in drag

In part, Torch Song chronicled a time when Fierstein made a living playing drag queens with names like Virginia Hamm, Kitty Litter and Bertha Venation. But after making the movie of Torch Song in 1988, Fierstein decided he was through with drag.

"I said, I've done that for a large part of my career and I do not need to do that anymore," he explains as he dabs white makeup around his eyes and foundation on his face. "Drag is a mask that you wear when you don't want people to see who you are."

But 32 years after he first donned a dress on stage (playing an asthmatic lesbian in Andy Warhol's Pork), Fierstein exudes self-confidence. This is the man whose charge to the 1992 graduating class at Bennington College was: "Accept no one's definition of your life, but define yourself." This is the man who recently published a children's book called The Sissy Duckling, whose title character proclaims at the end: "I am a BIG SISSY and PROUD of it!"

And this is the man who is about to step back into a dress. "This role was too good to turn down," he says of Edna Turnblad, mother of Hairspray's heroine, Tracy, a rotund teen-ager who becomes a star on a 1960s Baltimore TV dance show modeled after The Buddy Deane Show.

Hairspray is the first time Fierstein has acted in a Broadway musical. It's also his return to the Broadway stage after an absence of 15 years, during which he has had supporting roles in dozens of films, ranging from Mrs. Doubtfire to Independence Day.

"His career is a kind of icon," says Jack O'Brien, the musical's director.

Although Edna is assuredly female, the role is anything but standard-issue drag, as Fierstein, O'Brien and Waters are quick to point out. Sure, the part was created by Waters' late cross-dressing star, Divine. But when drag queens impersonate Divine, they're decked out in the spangly, evening-gowned look from Waters' 1972 cult classic, Pink Flamingos, not in the housecoat and slippers Edna wears in the opening scene of Hairspray. (The character does, however, undergo a makeover in the course of the show.)

In traditional drag, O'Brien explains, the performers always comment on the role. "At some point in the evening they go wink, wink, nudge, nudge, 'I'm a guy.' Harvey doesn't do that at all. At the end of the evening you not only think he's Edna, he's Tracy's mother," the director says.

"I contend that there are certain factions of our audiences who totally believe that he is Edna and I don't think that some of the older audiences stop to wonder whether he is in drag or not; they completely accept him for what he is, and more importantly, they accept that relationship of being mother-daughter."

Waters, who might be expected to be the toughest critic of all, heartily concurs. "It's sweet. Harvey could easily be an East Baltimore mom; he just in real life might be the dad," says the filmmaker, who is serving as a consultant on the musical.

Edna Turnblad's world

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