Carrying the 'Torch': Broadway Director Moisés Kaufman Talks About a Post-AIDS 'Torch Song'
The lights come up to a lone actor on stage, seated in front of a mirror, glamorously making himself up for a drag performance. His name is Arnold (nee "Virginia Hamm"), and he stipples rouge and pastes on eyelashes as he turns to us and says:
"I think my biggest problem is being young and beautiful. It's my biggest problem because I've never been young and beautiful. Oh, I've been beautiful, and God knows I've been young, but never the twain have met."
So begins the landmark play by the legendary Harvey Fierstein, Torch Song, now enjoying a tasty revival on Broadway. The current production stars the adorable and hilarious Michael Urie (known for TV's Ugly Betty and The Good Wife) as Arnold and features dynamic and glorious Mercedes Ruehl as his mother, as well as a cast of smart, funny and talented New York actors. The action of the play takes place in late 70s and early 80s New York and follows Arnold as he searches for love and struggles to find acceptance.
The original production, then called Torch Song Trilogy, opened on Broadway in 1982, and starred Fierstein, Estelle Getty, and featured a young Matthew Broderick. When it opened, it was a revolutionary piece of theatre. This play that showed a gay man heroically and openly living his life without shame or disgrace had never seen before in mainstream America. It was a story that needed to be told, and one that carried in it universal themes of love and family. The play was embraced by the theatre community and garnered many awards including Tony Awards for Best Play and for Best Actor for Fierstein. The play was so well received that a movie was made in 1988 starring Fierstein and Anne Bancroft. By all rights, Torch Song Trilogy should have taken its place among other great American plays, produced by theatres and taught in schools all across the country.
Then something happened. AIDS. And this play that was revolutionary in its tackling of beforehand almost taboo topics of gay love, gay marriage, and gays being just like everyone else became irrelevant in an era when a community was devastated by a virus we knew very little about.
But here we are, 30-plus years later, in a world where people are living healthfully with HIV and gay marriage is the law of the land, it seems the time is right for this snazzy, fantastic restaging of Torch Song. I was lucky enough to have a conversation with the director of this production, the passionate and prolific Moisés Kaufman, about what it took to get this new version of the play mounted.
Charles Sanchez: Mr. Kaufman! I'm so pleased to get to talk to you. I got to see the current production of Torch Song and I just loved it. I re-fell in love with the piece, and I not only thought it was hilarious, I was surprised by how moved and affected I was. Congratulations!
Moisés Kaufman: Thank you. (He laughs,) That makes this interview a little easier than if you said you hated it. Go ahead. I'm all yours.
CS: Tell me about the evolution of this production. I know it started Off Broadway (at the Second Stage Theatre), but what was the impetus, and how did you get involved?
MK: Well, I've always wanted to do the play, but it's one of those plays, like Hamlet, that you only do if you have the right actor. So I went to see Buyer & Cellar (an 2014 Off Broadway comedy hit), and I fell in love with Michael Urie. Then I saw him in Government Inspector (Off Broadway in 2017), and I thought, this is the man that I want to do my Song. I called him, and I said, "come to my house. We'll invite some friends and we'll read the play around my living room." So he said, "Wonderful." So we were scheduling that reading in my living room. And then Richard Jackson, who is our producer, called Michael like a week later, and said, "Michael, I think you should play Arnold in Torch Song Trilogy." And he said, "Richard, that sounds wonderful! Moisés just called me with the same idea! Why don't the two of you talk, and we'll take it from there." It was very serendipitous. So we did a reading and the rest is history.
CS: Once you got Michael involved, what was the rest of the casting process?
MK: It's much harder, you know, we saw about 400 actors. The characters are very, very, very specific. You're required to have actors with a great sense of humor and a great sense of stamina. Except for Mercedes [Ruehl]. She and I had lunch, and then she just agreed to do it. That was a great idea, right? I've been a big fan of hers for a long time.
CS: When the play was originally written, there weren't very many mainstream Broadway productions with a gay theme, let alone gay relationships and someone gay and serious about finding love. The original production was pre-HIV and pre-AIDS, so what was it like to create those moments in a modern context?
Kaufman: You know what I think so the play had a very, very, very big impact on me because as you said, there weren't any representations of, that it was the first play that had a gay character as the lead on Broadway, number one. Number two, the first a drag queen as the lead on Broadway. You know, so it really created an incredible revolution. And when I saw it, I was in my early 20s. And for me it was a cathartic event. I was coming from Venezuela from a very, very orthodox Jewish household in a very, very Catholic and machismo country. And I had never seen a homosexual portrayed on stage. I would say portrayed correctly on stage, but really portrayed on stage other than for comic relief. And so you know, I was very tormented about my own sexuality, and didn't even know whether a life as a homosexual was possible. So seeing the play opened the door for me to understand that my life might, after all, be possible. So that was a big, big, big thing.
And then the other thing is that its effect on me as a human, but its effect on me as an artist, perhaps, was even bigger, because as an artist it taught me that the stage was a platform where you could have important conversations about not only the most personal of ideas, but the most political of ideas as well. And you know this idea that that place can deal with the personal and the political and push the boundaries in both with something that has determined the course of my artistic life. If you look at my body of work [as a director] with Gross Indecency or The Laramie Project or I Am My Own Wife, you know I have been creating work my entire life about that intersection.
CS: Was there any specific approach that you took to make it for this modern audience? We certainly have a different political climate with our current president and everything that's been happening in his administration. Did that affect how you approached dealing with the script and the themes involved?
MK: I think that the two most important things for me in tackling this play for 2018 was yes, at the time when it started on Broadway it was revolutionary because we hadn't seen that before. Now we have seen it, right? So what does the play have to say about us now? And my approach was ... you know, Harvey Fierstein is a brilliant playwright, a brilliant playwright who has written brilliantly about these characters. Can we present these characters honestly and truthfully in the period in which they were created and still have them speak to contemporary audiences? I believe because of the quality of the writing that the answer would be yes. You know the characters are brilliant. Their lives are beautifully portrayed. He has given them great text to articulate their deepest problems, you know, as humans in living in the world. I so I was just trying to create a production in which the characters truly, truly came to life.
You know it played [in New York] from '80 to '83, right. And by that point, AIDS was the one thing we were talking about more than anything else in the world. The community. The play became for the longest time unproduceable on Broadway or in New York because it didn't speak of what was most forefront of our minds. I just think I'm so moved that finally, we're able to look at this work again and see it for what it is. A great American play.
Torch Song runs on Broadway through Sunday, January 6th, 2019. A national tour of the production embarks next fall with Michael Urie reprising his role.