Fierstein has a decorated career, to say the least. On paper, he’s known as a renowned playwright and four-time Tony Award winner, with awards for acting in and/or writing plays, films, and TV shows such as Hairspray, Fiddler on the Roof, Mrs. Doubtfire, Independence Day, Cheers, La Cage Aux Folles, Torch Song Trilogy, Newsies, and Kinky Boots.
Behind this impressive list of accomplishments is an incredible string of stories that leads the reader through a journey full of twists and turns, with the whole arc of his story held together by a philosophy that has guided him since childhood; saying “yes!”
“All day long, people ask you to do things. 99% of them are silly, and we often say no because it’s out of our way or is an annoyance,” said Fierstein. “However, when you constantly say ‘no’ over the course of your life, nothing happens. When you say yes, things will change. Life only changes when you challenge yourself to say yes. Hopefully readers will find something in the book that inspires them to think ‘you know what, I’m going to go do those things I’ve been putting off. I’m going to have that coffee with that person who’s been asking,’ or ‘I’m going to talk to that person at Stop & Shop rather than ignore them again.’ Go ahead say yes. You could run into someone you haven’t seen in years or find new inspiration. I’ve been doing this my
As he states in his book, saying ‘yes’ landed Fierstein his first role in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and Dark of the Moon after following the lead of his friend Michale at the Gallery Players. Following this, his philosophy has taken Fierstein on some fantastic rides, to say the least. From dressing in drag and revealing his sexuality in high school, to playing a role in Andy Warhol’s only play Pork and entering the culture’s of Hollywood and New York City. While there is a lot of optimism that caused a lot of interesting turns in the path, the book also reveals many instances of loss and difficult times. In addition to losing friends to the AIDS epidemic and conversion therapy (an institutional practice of trying to ‘cure’ homosexuality that is still legal in many states and abroad), change can represent a loss as well as a new opportunity. Although there was no shortage of content for Fierstein to write about, saying yes to writing a memoir presented Fierstein with another challenge.
A New Endeavor
“Writing prose is different,” Fierstein said. I’ve written op eds, but the bulk of my writing has been with play writing.”
Beyond the difference in writing styles, Fierstein noted that after a career of writing plays and acting, he now had a different character to focus on for the whole
“Writing a memoir is a very personal journey. If you’re acting in something, you’re not playing yourself. I wrote the play Bella Bella, and played Bella Abzug, but I wasn’t playing me. I was trying, if anything, to get rid of Harvey so the audience could see Bella through me. It was a challenge because I was doing it as a man and I wasn’t even in drag. Marlo Thomas said to me, ‘how is Harvey, who is such a strong force, going to disappear so that my friend Bella can shine through?’ She said about 3 minutes after I began, I was listening to my friend
Before he began writing that day, with his generator running and rising temperatures, he reached out to a good friend who had walked the memoir path many times before him; Shirley MacLaine, who gave him sound advice on forging a clear way forward.
“She said to just put in whatever comes to mind,” Fierstein said. “Don’t work too hard trying to remember, just include what comes to the top. Memory is the best editor, and what is important to include will come up each time you sit down to write. I told her ‘I lost a lot of friends to AIDS and I’ve outlived quite a few other friends as well.’ She said ‘well, you are writing about your memory of them so you’re still really writing about yourself and the effect they had on your life, so trust that.’
Because of this advice, his eagerness to take on new challenges, and his incredible life journey, the world now has I Was Better Last Night: A Memoir, written right here in Ridgefield.
Fierstein continues to stay busy with several other projects, including a new Broadway show Funny Girl at the August Wilson theater, starring Beanie Feldstein, and other collaborative efforts with Alan Menken and Jack Feldman.
The memoir is published by Penguin Random House in March of 2022.
Go to ridgefieldplayhouse.org/event/harvey-fierstein-roz-chast/ for event information and tickets. •