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Fierstein, Harvey (b. 1954)  
 
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Gravel-voiced actor Harvey Fierstein has had phenomenal success as both a performer and a playwright, earning many awards and accolades. He has also been recognized for his steadfast commitment to the cause of glbtq rights.

The younger of two sons of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, Harvey Forbes Fierstein was born on June 6, 1954 in Brooklyn, New York. His parents and brother were extremely supportive of him when he came out to them at the age of thirteen.

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The Fiersteins encouraged their sons to attend cultural events in New York City. Saturday matinees on Broadway were a favorite. Young Harvey Fierstein developed an act of his own, dressing in drag and belting out Ethel Merman songs. At sixteen he began his career as a female impersonator at a gay club in Manhattan's East Village.

As a result of his club act Fierstein was offered a role in a 1971 production of Andy Warhol's play Pork at the La MaMa Experimental Theater Club.

Fierstein continued to appear at La MaMa and other venues but also, having some aspirations to become a painter, enrolled at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He received a B.F.A. degree from Pratt in 1973.

Rather than pursuing a career in painting, Fierstein turned to playwriting. Several of his early "raunchy chic" works were produced off-off-Broadway, and the New York Theater Ensemble staged his Flatbush Tosca, a drag interpretation of Puccini's opera, in 1975.

The following year Fierstein became dangerously depressed after breaking up with a lover. His therapist recommended that he write about the experience, and the result was The International Stud, which was produced at the Theater for the New City in 1976 and at La MaMa in 1978, both times with Fierstein in the leading role of Arnold Beckoff, a gay man whose bisexual lover jilts him for a woman.

Critical reaction was not particularly enthusiastic, but Fierstein went on to write two more plays about Arnold, Fugue in a Nursery and Widows and Children First!. Both premiered at La MaMa in 1979, with Fierstein again playing the lead. Fugue in a Nursery subsequently moved to an off-Broadway venue.

Backed by The Glines, a non-profit corporation devoted to sponsoring gay-themed cultural works, Fierstein crafted the three Arnold plays into a single show, entitled Torch Song Trilogy, which was first presented off-off-Broadway at the Richard Allen Center in 1981.

Critic Mel Gussow of the New York Times had dismissed The International Stud as "a sincere but sentimentalized view of a transvestite in extremis," but he joined the chorus of praise for Torch Song Trilogy. He wrote that "Arnold's story becomes richer as it unfolds," and of Fierstein's perfomance he stated that his "self-incarnation is an act of compelling virtuousity." He also noted Fierstein's distinctive "throaty Talullah voice and manner."

Torch Song Trilogy won the Obie Award for Best Play and the Oppenheimer Playwriting Award in 1982. The accolades and the awards continued when it moved to Broadway, where it played to sold-out houses and garnered a Drama Desk Award and a Tony Award. Fierstein also won the Theatre World Award as outstanding new performer, the Drama Desk Award for outstanding actor, and the Tony for best leading actor in a play in 1983.

While Fierstein was appearing in Torch Song Trilogy producer Alan Carr offered him the opportunity to write the book for a projected musical version of La Cage aux Folles, a play--originally in French--by Jean Poiret. As he had in Torch Song Trilogy, Fierstein sought to make respect, both for oneself and for others, central to the story.

As a drag artist Fierstein felt a strong responsibility to craft the role of Albin, the drag queen character in La Cage aux Folles, to show that he was fully human and worthy of respect. In a 1983 interview Fierstein cited the indignities that he had seen people endure--"gay bars being raided by the police, drag queens being beaten in cells." He also recalled arriving at the theater to see "fifty drag queens dancing their hearts out" at an audition for the show on the morning that he had learned the news of Tennessee Williams' death and was mourning both the loss of the great playwright and the pain that Williams had suffered in his life. The poignant moment only increased Fierstein's desire and resolve to promote dignity and acceptance of all people, especially the marginalized.

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A publicity photograph of Harvey Fierstein provided by Outright Speakers and Talent Bureau.
  
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