Torch Song: Under a Broken Red Neon Sign, A Love Story.4 min read

TST0155r_Michael Urie in TORCH SONG

Torch Song: Under a Broken Red Neon Sign, A Love Story.

By Ross
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It all begins, under the broken neon red Torch Song sign, with the illusion of perfection with big dash of fabulousness, well, one that is under construction. A drag queen preparing in front of a mirror for her performance to come. Applying the layers of camouflage make-up, slinking into a glittery long dress, slipping on some high heels, and carefully donning a wig all the while engaging us in an intimate discourse about unrequited love and desire in a gay man’s world. The application is like preparation for a type of war that is going on in the world outside, a protective armor against the hate and misunderstanding of a gay man’s right to be who they are. All the attempts of love, false or otherwise, coupled with the adoration an audience will give is a tonic (gin perhaps) against what lies beyond in the early 1980’s in New York and America. And now in our present situation, come to think of it. All of that, wrapped up in the final “tragic Torch Song status” of heart break and pain that “ I admire so in others”, as the main character laments; the signature trademark of a true drag queen star. The ‘Lady Blues’ finale song that is destined to always bring down the house in the end. That’s what a drag performer aims for, and what this play wonderful and respectfully delivers.
A ‘Torch Song’ is defined as a sentimental love song, in which the singer laments on unrequited or lost love. This is the emotional staple of every drag queen’s repertoire. It’s the drama and the tragedy of the evening. The drag queen, at least the one in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song revels in the hurt of unrequited love, of lost love, or forbidden love. In this production at Second Stage Theatre, it encompasses every part of each, rolled up into each part of the trilogy, Torch Song. Every relationship within this emotionally intoxicating play explores the idea of love, wanting love, giving love, and holding up a flame for unrequited love, all of which are complicated, addictive, and all of which can bring such pain. No surprise there.
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Estelle Getty, Harvey Fierstein. 1982.
Most people who saw the original production back in the early 1980’s remember it as if it was etched into their soul in the same way we talk about muscle memory. The play resides in the fibers of their hearts and anyone who was lucky enough to see it on stage will gladly tell you all the ways it affected them. I was not one of these lucky souls to have been witness to Harvey Fierstein’s devastating performance, described at the time by Mel Gussow (New York Times, Nov. 1, 1981) as “an act of compelling virtuosity”, but you can feel the historic emotionality in the air of this off-Broadway theater. It is thick, and heavy, yet devastatingly glorious.
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Harvey Fierstein, Estelle Getty. 1982.

Initially Torch Song, written by Harvey Fierstein (Kinky Boots, La Cage aux Folles, Casa Valentina) was presented as three separate one act plays, International Stud (first presented at La Mama on Feb. 2, 1978), Fugue in a Nursery (first presented at La Mama one year later on Feb. 1, 1979), and Widows and Children First! (first presented at La Mama on Oct. 25, 1979). These names are most wonderfully and proudly illuminated within David Zinn’s (PH’s Hir) perfect and inventive set design, with beautiful lighting by David Lander (Roundabout’s Love, Love, Love), concise costumes by Clint Ramos (Six Degrees of Separation), and distinct sound design by Fitz Patton (MTC’s The Little Foxes)currently at Second Stage.

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Reworked back then, into a singular four-hour theatrical event, Torch Song Trilogy as it was called, opened at the uptown Richard Allen Center in October 1981, produced by The Glines, a nonprofit organization dedicated to forwarding gay-themed cultural endeavors. It transferred on January 15, 1982 to the Actors’ Playhouse in Greenwich Village, where it ran for 117 performances. The cast included Fierstein as Arnold, Joel Crothers as Ed, Paul Joynt as Alan, Matthew Broderick as David, and a star-making turn for Estelle Getty as Mrs. Beckoff. Subsequently, on June 10, 1982, Torch Song Trilogy opened spectacularly on Broadway at the Little Theatre, where it ran for a wondrous 1,222 performances. It won a Tony Award for Best Play (Fierstein) and Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play (Fierstein) and instantly became iconic. Fierstein, Joynt, and Getty remained, and were joined by Court Miller as Ed and Fisher Stevens as David. I wish that this had been one of the plays I saw during any of my numerous secret trips (don’t tell my Ma) to New York City when I was a teen. How it would have affected me, is beyond comprehension. I never had to deal with the parental drama that Fierstein wrote so vividly about, but it certainly still resonates to this very day. One thing I am sure of, had I seen Torch Song Trilogy in 1981, my worldview would have been altered, most likely for the better. In the same way I believe anyone seeing this play now at Second Stage will be altered forever as well. (for the full review, click here)


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