Harvey Fierstein’s seminal masterwork Torch Song Trilogy, newly streamlined and renamed Torch Song, is back on Broadway—and sexier than ever.
Last year’s acclaimed 35th anniversary off-Broadway revival, directed by Moisés Kaufman, has transferred to the Hayes Theater (formerly the Little Theatre), the same space where the Tony-winning play made its Broadway premiere in 1982 and ran for three years. Filling Fierstein's heels, Michael Urie stars as Arnold, a Jewish drag queen in New York City with a complicated love life. Michael Hsu Rosen makes a big impression wearing very little as Alan, his passionate boyfriend.
Rosen, a classically trained dancer from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, tells NewNowNext how he found his voice by embracing his sexual and cultural identities.
You’re one of two Michaels in the Torch Song cast. Do you go by anything else to avoid confusion with Michael Urie?
They call me Rosie, actually. I don’t remember who came up with that, but it was really early on. We all have little notes and stuff on our dressing room doors, and mine always say Rosie.
When you previously performed on Broadway in West Side Story and On the Town, you were credited as Michael Rosen. Why did you add your middle name?
I’ve always been ethnically ambiguous. People assumed that would be an asset, that I could jump into any identity, but it wasn’t always the case. I’ve played Latino a lot. People just assumed I was Latino and then felt betrayed when they found out I wasn’t, or they’d think I was trying to trick them into thinking I was.
You were a very convincing Chino in West Side Story.
Because of identity politics, I’ve had top casting directors call my personal cell phone to demand I tell them my ethnicity. I get misread daily as other identities, and for a long time I thought that was my fault. I started getting embarrassed having to correct people, and I realized it was hurting my psyche. So I want to be very clear about who I am.
Who is Michael Hsu Rosen?
I’m half-Asian, half-white, and very proud. If I’m ever pretending to be something else, it’s because I’m an actor. Adding my middle name is a way to show my pride and claim that power.
So you changed your name and booked your biggest gig yet.
It’s funny, because Alan has been traditionally played by a blond, blue-eyed white boy—or someone like young Matthew Broderick. The audition room was like my worst nightmare: It was full of, like, all my ex-boyfriends—beautiful blond boys I dated or wanted to be while I was working through internalized racism. [Laughs] But Harvey and Richie Jackson, our amazing producer, said, “Why can’t Alan be a person of color?” So they rewrote lines for me that referred to Alan’s blondness and blue-eyedness.
West Side Story and On the Town are dance-heavy musicals, and you played dancers in plays like Nikolai and the Others and Somewhere. As a classically trained dancer, did you ever think you’d be starring in a non-musical, no-dancing show like Torch Song?
No, but that was the goal. I studied at the School of American Ballet, but at 17 I realized I wanted to be on Broadway. West Side Story changed everything in 2009. Arthur Laurents, our director, shook me by the collar and said, “You have to be an actor. What are you doing dancing?” But it’s really difficult to make that transition from dancer to actor. There’s a stigma—you get this dancer label and it sticks—but I was determined to change people’s minds. Artistically, what interests me most is using language to tell a story.
Tell me about Alan. Can you relate to him?
I love Alan because he’s so full of love. In 1974 he’s out, proud, and ferociously loving. I think of myself as emotionally giving—and emotionally demanding. I’m not afraid to tell people how I feel, but I expect them to tell me back. So Alan and I are both emboldened by our feelings.
Alan’s also a sexual magnet.
Yeah, everybody wants to fuck him. I’m not sure I relate to that. [Laughs] Sometimes it’s hard to feel like the sexiest one on that stage. Ward Horton is a perfect specimen, and I’m desperately in love with Michael Urie. I’m not fishing here, but I don’t think of myself as “the hot boy,” so finding that sex appeal has been a struggle. I’ve been objectified a lot in my work, which is fun, but it doesn’t necessarily make me feel better about myself. The assumption is that if everyone says you’re beautiful, you must feel beautiful. It’s the opposite, because you become obsessed and anxious about it. It can be overwhelming for me because I’m very neurotic.
Harvey has been closely involved with this production. What insights did he share about Alan that weren’t on the page?
Harvey has actually kept a very respectful and generous distance, but he’s been illuminating for all of us. He explained to me about the time in which these characters are living, and he helped me understand the context for Alan’s joy and bravery. He explained the dangers of being gay in 1974 and how a fit young man like Alan could be susceptible to violence from kids with baseball bats.
What’s it like to perform such an important and influential play that means so much to the LGBTQ community?
It’s beyond moving and deeply gratifying. I feel an immense responsibility, not just because of the play’s power and reach, but because a lot of people don’t know how Torch Song changed the public conversation about gayness. The AIDS crisis changed everything, and the political works of that era overshadowed Torch Song, so I’m excited to share this play with a new generation of gay people. Because it’s not a tragedy; it’s an incredible snapshot of this moment in history before a terrible thing happened—a moment of hope and genuine pride.
There’s increasing pressure on Hollywood and Broadway to cast LGBTQ actors in LGBTQ roles. What’s your take on that conversation?
Well, I’m very proud to be gay and playing gay in such an iconic gay work. But we have a fantastic straight actor in our cast, Ward Horton, who plays a tortured, conflicted, self-hating gay man beautifully.
Should actors be allowed to play anything, regardless of their sexuality?
Ideally, yes. Ultimately, it shouldn’t matter, but that’s not the world we live in. It’s like how I feel about race: I’m half-Asian, half-Jewish, and I’m an actor telling stories that aren’t my own. But there have been an inordinate amount of straight actors honored for playing gay roles, representing our community, and not nearly enough gay actors. So right now we do need to make an effort to represent people more authentically.
When did you decide to be out professionally?
I came out at 15 and never pretended to be straight in a professional context. But when I did an interview for Rosie O’Donnell’s radio show while doing West Side Story, the producer asked beforehand if we could talk about being gay on Broadway, and I said I didn’t feel comfortable with that. Then I got emotional telling Rosie how moved I was as a teenager watching her on Will & Grace, when she tells Jack, “I’m gay.” It was pretty clear I was saying, “Me, too.” After that I decided that of course I can talk about being gay. Why wouldn’t I?
Do you worry about being pigeonholed?
I’ve played straight before, but if I only played gay for the rest of my career, I’d be thrilled. If I get to keep working on amazing shows with incredible people like Moisés Kaufman and Harvey Fierstein, hell yeah, I’m gay as the day is long!
Torch Song runs through February 24 at the Hayes Theater.