Harvey Fierstein’s ‘Torch Song’ to make Philadelphia premiere

Jamison Stern in Torch Song. Jamison is wearing a blonge wig, makeup, and a red feather dress.
Jamison Stern as Arnold Beckoff, the role originated by Harvey Fierstein, in ‘Torch Song.’ (Photo: Courtesy of 1812 Productions)

In 2011, director Bill Fennelly approached a colleague about a potential collaboration at a noted regional theater. At the top of his wish list: to helm a production of Harvey Fierstein’s seminal “Torch Song Trilogy,” a classic exploration of self-liberation and queer culture, which won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1982.

The colleague seemed less than enthused about the prospect. 

“It was after marriage equality had been passed, and we had achieved a certain mark of progress within the community,” Fennelly told PGN. “This artistic director, who is also a gay man, said to me, do you really think we have to go back and tell those stories anymore?”

For Fennelly, who is also an associate professor at Drexel University, the answer is a resounding yes. And he will finally get the opportunity to bring his version of “Torch Song,” as it’s now known, to the stage this month, when his production opens at Plays and Players Theater, under the auspices of 1812 Productions. Performances begin on April 25 and continue through May 19.

Although “Torch Song” is one of the most successful plays of the past 50 years — the original Broadway production ran for over 1,200 performances, and it was later adapted into a film starring Fierstein and Anne Bancroft — the current staging represents the first locally produced professional production. The action takes place between 1973 and 1980, at the height of the gay liberation movement, ending just before the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Although the play dramatizes events from decades ago, Fennelly feels that it remains a vital work within the queer canon. 

“We must tell our history,” he said. “As an LGBTQIA+ person of a certain age, the play resonates for me in a very strong way. My hope is that it is an important moment of intra-community dialogue, across generations, about where we’ve come from.”

“Torch Song” centers on Arnold Beckoff, a gay man and drag entertainer living in 1970s New York City. Throughout the play, he falls in love, experiences loss, adopts a child and reconciles his difficult relationship with his mother, who is not entirely approving of her son’s lifestyle. When it premiered, the play was notable for its frank depiction of queer sexuality, as well as its representation of a gay character in a loving, stable relationship and becoming a parent.

Jamison Stern as Arnold Beckoff in ‘Torch Song.’ Jamison is wearing lipstick, eyeshadow, eyeliner and a bandana as they look in the mirror.
Jamison Stern as Arnold Beckoff in ‘Torch Song.’ (Photo: Courtesy of 1812 Productions)

“Since the seventies, our alphabet has expanded, our flag has expanded,” Fennelly said. “People who had long-lasting relationships [in that time] were pioneers. They were building love and family in a time when the entire world was saying, that’s not a possibility for you. We will not endorse that, we will not legislate your protections. I look to my ancestors and I think, my god, your love found a way in a world that refused to acknowledge you.”

In his director’s note, Fennelly highlights a passage from Fierstein’s introduction to the play that serves as a guiding force for his directorial vision. 

“I have been blessed with six honest, earnest, free-tongued characters who will impart more of themselves to you than the closest friends would ever dare,” Fierstein wrote. “Not one of these characters you’ll meet is ‘right.’ There are no answers forthcoming. But you might just catch a line, like an old familiar half-hearted song playing on a jukebox, that reaches out and touches something inside of you…That is the goal of these plays.”

“Harvey’s words ring in my ears all the time,” Fennelly said. “This idea that none of the characters you will meet are ‘right.’ As fabulous and heroic as our forebears were, they were human. They also had their blind spots. They were where they were, and they were a product of their time, doing the best they could with what they had.”

The production features many stalwart local actors, including Grace Gonglewski, Karen Peakes and Gregory Isaac. Jamison Stern, an out actor and Broadway veteran, stars as Arnold. The production has partnered with Giovanni’s Room to host discussions and book clubs around the material.

“When we started working on the production, we wanted to honor the moment that was the early ’70s to 1980,” Fennelly explained. “But we also wanted to create a production that felt like it was a fresh, exciting moment in 2024. Giovanni’s Room is selling Harvey’s memoir, ‘I Was Better Last Night,’ which is an amazing read, and also ‘Torch Song.’ We had a phenomenal community kickoff event at Knock, which welcomed community members across generations to be in space together, meet each other and hear each others’ stories. That’s the reason, I think, to do ‘Torch Song.’ It’s a look back on where we come from, and I don’t think we speak about that enough.”

“Torch Song” runs April 25-May 19 at Plays and Players Theater, 1714 Delancey Street. For tickets and more information, visit 1812productions.org/torch-song.

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