What Was Ethel Merman’s Shady Review Of “Torch Song Trilogy”? Harvey Fierstein Shares

Also: The "M. Butterfly" revival is a gender-palooza.

One thing I’m faithful about is dishing the dirt, even if it’s 35 years old; trust me, it’s still delicious. As one of the rotating cohosts on the Emmy winning show Theater Talk (produced and hosted by Susan Haskins-Doloff), I just got to do an episode about Torch Song, the edited-down version of Harvey Fierstein’s groundbreaking gay saga Torch Song Trilogy, which at Second Stage Theater stars Michael Urie and is directed by Moises Kaufman.

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In the Theater Talk green room, Fierstein tipped me off to the fact that Broadway belting legend Ethel Merman saw Torch Song Trilogy on Broadway in 1982, so I dutifully ended up asking him about it on the show. And I’m glad I did. “It is true,” Harvey said. “First of all, she calls for tickets. ‘Can I get a couple of tickets for that trigonometry thing?’ So she comes to see the show and she’s coming down to my dressing room, and I meet her out in the hallway; I’m that excited. I say, ‘Oh, Miss Merman, I worship you. I’m just so thrilled to meet you. What did you think?’ And she said, and I quote, ‘I thought it was a piece of shit, but the rest of the audience laughed and cried, so what the fuck do I know?’”

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Faced with this riotous anecdote, I controlled myself from spitting up with laughter, instead calmly asking Harvey, “Did you put that in the ads? [It was] better than Frank Rich.” The whole episode is a winner; check theatertalk.org for airing details.

Harvey was the honorary chair for a La MaMa benefit last Thursday. (La MaMa is the long running East Village avant-garde theater where the Torch Song plays originated.) On video throughout the night, he served tidbits about that theater’s late founder, Ellen Stewart, who never read the plays she produced; she would wait to hear mysterious beeps, and if she did, she went for it. Well, she definitely heard loud ones for Torch Song Trilogy, though at first she resisted that work because she thought Harvey shouldn’t wear drag anymore—“my baby don’t wear bloomers” is how she eloquently put it. The playwright-actor assured Stewart that cross-dressing was only in the first scene, and when she finally saw the play, she was okay with that—until he got fucked up the ass in the third scene!

Harvey also described a fascinating Christmas show at La MaMa, where he played the baby Jesus and the three wise men brought him a pair of platforms, a Maybelline makeup kit from 14th Street, and a glittery dildo. “Christmas means different things to different people,” he explained, laughing.

Also a theater notable, Lois Smith was honored with an Anassa Tavern lunch after a screening of the holographic drama Marjorie Prime (based on the play she was in), which she’s gotten a Gotham Independent Film Best Actress nomination for. In a Q&A at the lunch, Smith was asked how it feels to get this kind of awards consideration at her age—she’s turning 87 this week—in light of the fact that a Best Actress Oscar nomination would make her the oldest woman to have ever gotten one. “Well, let’s make history—what do you say?” was Smith’s perfect reply. “My first film was East of Eden. It’s 60 years between the making of that and the making of Marjorie Prime. Of course it’s lovely to have acclaim at this point. I’ve been fortunate all the way along.” And we’ve been tickled to have her. By the way, Smith’s advice to young actors has more to do with living than acting: “Be a better person in all situations.” And that’s one of the themes of Marjorie Prime, she added.

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Another figure on the scene, Gerry Visco, is a clubbie/actor/mother-hen and the subject of the documentary Visco Disco. Well, she was recently getting hyper-dramatic on the phone to a bank representative and yelping “I’ll kill myself if you freeze my debit card.” The next thing she knew, Gerry was being dragged off to the psych ward at Metropolitan Hospital. (She got out after a few days.) I never knew Citibank had such power and determination. If so, maybe they can raise their fucking interest rates a little.

Peking Tuck

With identity politics taking center stage, 2017 seems like a perfect time for the first Broadway revival of David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, the 1988 play loosely based on the real story of a married French diplomat who believed his Chinese lover was simply a female actor, not a male spy in drag. (SPOILER ALERT!) As tweaked by Hwang based on newer findings, the play—which pre-dated The Crying Game—is a gender-palooza about fantasy, imagination, espionage, and deceit.

When Rene Gallimard (played by Clive Owen) meets Song Liling (Broadway newcomer Jin Ha), she is a soprano appearing in Madam Butterfly, Gallimard’s favorite opera, partly because of the alluring but tragic leading role of the helpless femme Cio-Cio-san. But Song turns out not to be the docile Asian lady of his occidental dreams. She has spunk and wiles and always seems able to subvert the diplomat’s expectations, especially when it comes to gender, though that hardly deters Gallimard from finding her increasingly irresistible. At one point, Song says she’s in a show (within the play), portraying a female disguised as a male, which is a lot of gender twisting to digest. (A man pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man—this is the flip side of Victor/Victoria’s woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman. Got that?)

Offstage, Song says her parents forced her to live as a male in real life, whereas she’s, of course, all woman. Or is she? Gallimard demands to see Song naked at one point, but then he backs off, preferring to live in his ideal view of their relationship. As for the sex they have, Song ultimately admits to various machinations that allowed her to convince Gallimard he was romancing a female and even got her pregnant. It’s a stretch—but as Gallimard notes, the mind often turns somersaults in order to believe what it wants to.

The play—which is narrated by Gallimard from jail, where he’s serving time for treason—is talky but full of Hwang’s lively, sexy and knowing writing, which also spans the hot topic of men relentlessly trying to dictate how women should act. It’s directed by a woman, Julie Taymor, who was infamously involved with the ambitious flop musical Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, so maybe it should be subtitled Turn ON The Dark (So You Can’t Tell I‘m a Man). She also more successfully did The Lion King, which tends to make this show about mask-wearing into The Lyin’ Queen.

Bruce Glikas/Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

Taymor employs a series of rotating panels—the set is by Paul Steinberg—that are sometimes lovely and other times distancing, and there are Chinese-styled performances studded through the script, and an intricate array of sound cues. Ha is appropriately salty and seductive, and though Owen has to carry so much of the show with his fourth-wall-breaking narration, his energy doesn’t flag. Required sparks of chemistry and shock value seem to be missing this time (the original version sent jolts), but by the end, Owen excels as the disillusioned Rene, repulsed by his attraction to what I call a “male order bride,” which of course makes you wonder if the man doth protest too much. Or should I say the lady? No, I won’t give away every switcheroo here. After all, I’m an inscrutable enchantress.

Michael Musto is the long running, award-winning entertainment journalist and TV commentator.