After appearing in powerful gay-themed plays like Angels in America, The Temperamentals, and Homos, or Everyone in America, Michael Urie is going back to their theatrical roots.
Urie now headlines Second Stage Theater’s 35th anniversary off-Broadway revival of Torch Song Trilogy, Harvey Fierstein’s seminal Tony-winning play, newly streamlined and renamed Torch Song. Filling the iconic role Fierstein originated, the Ugly Betty star plays Arnold Beckoff, a Jewish drag performer in New York with a closeted lover and disapproving mother.
How familiar were you with Torch Song Trilogy before this revival?
I hadn’t seen it performed, and I don’t think I’d ever seen the 1988 movie, but I remember first reading it in high school when I was about 15 years old. I found it in the library and devoured it. Before Google, I learned a lot about what it meant to be gay from reading plays like Love! Valour! Compassion!, As Is, and Torch Song.
Although it’s a 1982 play about gay life in the 1970s, the revival feels remarkably fresh and timely. Is that the result of Harvey’s new edits?
I don’t think so. There’s nothing added or changed—there’s just less. He basically cut what we didn’t need to say, but it’s all still infused in our subtext. When this opportunity first came to me, I thought, Is that play still going to work? I guess it’ll be a sweet, moving memory. But then I reread it, and it felt like it was written tomorrow. Moisés Kaufman, our director, calls Harvey a prophet—he knew that gay men would become husbands and fathers.
It must've been harder for ’80s audiences to swallow the idea of a gay man cruising backroom bars and then adopting a gay son.
I’ve talked to Harvey about that period. The gay community mostly embraced the play, but a lot of gay people said, “Why are you writing this? We’re not fighting for monogamy and fatherhood. We’re fighting for free love and sex!” A gay guy adopting a son was science fiction. Here we are today, and that’s the least shocking thing in the play. The most shocking thing now is the way Ma talks to Arnold, but that wasn’t so shocking back then.
In those heated scenes with Mercedes Ruehl as Ma, have you been able to to draw on your relationship with your mother?
If I even imagine that my mother had ever said anything to me like what Ma says to Arnold, it destroys me. In rehearsals, sometimes I’d say, “I have to go call my mom now to thank her for not being terrible.” That’s not to say that Ma is terrible. She and Arnold love each other very much, but she’s an old dog who won’t learn new tricks.
Contemporary queer theater owes a great debt to Torch Song, which means a lot to the LGBT community. How does it feel to perform such an important and influential piece?
It’s a daunting task and a great responsibility, but I feel honored. After doing Angels in America, Homos, and The Temperamentals, which was about the Mattachine Society in the ’50s, I also feel prepared for this experience in way that I probably wouldn’t have felt 10 years ago. I’ve been very fortunate to do projects that have really resonated with people. People still come up to tell me that they or someone they love came out because of Ugly Betty.
You also played a gay man in the solo show Buyer & Cellar. At this point are you most interested in telling queer stories?
I wouldn’t say that. There’s no grand plan—I just did The Government Inspector, and I’m doing Hamlet in D.C. after this—but I am drawn to stories that resonate with me and with my community.
Referring to Torch Song, Harvey recently said, “Theater is a living, breathing entity and so are audiences. Even the most faithful stage recreations are tinted by the moment in which they are experienced.” How is this revival tinted by the current political climate?
Well, we live in a barn on fire. A great play makes you think, and what’s going on in the White House is always in the back of our minds. We opened Homos, which is about a hate crime, on election night, and it was a completely different show after that. We’re all confused, terrified, and clinging to each other, so Arnold, the ultimate caretaker, is the kind of friend we need right now. Yes, he’s flawed, but he has so much heart and compassion.
Harvey wrote Arnold for himself, and the character is so closely associated with him. What’s it like to step into Harvey’s shoes while he's watching you?
Those are giant stilettos to fill. It was definitely interesting to be figuring things out during rehearsals in front of the guy who already has all the answers, but he’s so gracious. When I’d hit a wall, he’d tell me how he approached it, but he’d never tell me what I should do.
What insights did Harvey share that weren't on the page?
The first day of rehearsals he said, “If this play doesn’t embarrass you, you’re not doing it right.” Any great drama about the human condition makes you look inward as an audience member and as an actor. So we’re all embarrassed together.
You deliver your opening monologue while getting into drag. As a former RuPaul’s Drag Race guest judge, did you learn anything from those queens?
I’m very inspired by Drag Race queens, actually. Hosting Cocktails & Classics, I’ve gotten to know and watch queens like Shangela, Bianca Del Rio, and Jujubee. Actors are either on or off, but—and this is a generalization—I’ve found that most queens are delightful and hilarious both in and out of drag. That was something I took for Arnold. I've also had to learn how to do drag makeup, which was challenging, but making myself beautiful is a great way to start the show.
Torch Song runs through December 9 at Second Stage Theater in New York.