by Cherise T.
Harvey Fierstein, I beg to differ with your memoir title, I Was Better Last Night. Although I’ve never had the privilege of experiencing one of your shows two nights in a row, every time I have seen you, the performance has been remarkably bodacious and sincere, distinctive and familiar. You immerse the audience in worlds we’ve never seen before, drawing us in even deeper with elements resonating from our own lives. How could you have been even better?
I Was Better Last Night opens a treasure trove of stories for theater lovers. Did you know that Disney thought Newsies could never be a hit musical? That the original producers of 1983’s La Cage aux Folles vehemently nixed the gay couple’s kiss? That beloved actress Estelle Getty of The Golden Girls first found fame at age 59 in Torch Song Trilogy, starring in a role written just for her? Brimming with mostly loving, but occasionally scathing, Broadway backstage tales, Fierstein’s memoir exposes the details of show creation. We learn his insights into what worked and what didn’t and how the cast and creative crew contribute to the final product. We hear juicy tales of relationships gained and broken, Tonys won and lost, musicals with multiple revivals and singular flops.
As an actor, playwright, screenwriter, and proudly out gay icon, Fierstein has a lifetime of stories to tell, and the book truly spans his whole life. The memoir maintains a captivating balance between the personal and the professional. Some of the most poignant chapters in the book explore his evolving sexual identity and the context in which he places his own growth as a queer man within the current social environment. He spares few details when writing about New York City’s bathhouses and the HIV/AIDs epidemic.
Fierstein has won many awards and garnered extensive fame for his contributions to Mrs. Doubtfire, Hairspray, Fiddler on the Roof, La Cage Aux Folles, and Torch Song Trilogy, to name a few. It’s fascinating to learn how he credits his becoming a successful performer and writer to character, lucky timing, supportive mentors, and determination. In another life, he would now be a retired public school art teacher.
The book is available in print and electronic formats. Consider the audiobook version, if you enjoy Fierstein’s distinctive gravel-filled Brooklyn accent as much as I do. Describing the creation of the musical Kinky Boots, for example, he does a spot-on impersonation of Cyndi Lauper, the first solo woman to win a Tony for best original musical score. Offering lyrics he’s sung and lines he’s written, Fierstein is a compelling author-narrator, adding an additional layer of insight into his creative life. His self-deprecating sense of humor really shines. For the wonderful photographs, check out the print version as well.
And the title? Yes, Fierstein seems to have the ego we associate with stars. There’s no doubt he believes in himself and the strength of his work, but like the final principle of Lola’s six–step program in Kinky Boots, “You change the world when you change your mind.” He describes times he could have done better, admits missteps, and encourages everyone to open their minds and hearts.
Cherise Tasker is an Adult Instructor and Research Specialist at the Central Branch. When not immersed in literary fiction, Cherise can be found singing along to musical theater soundtracks.