When Harvey Fierstein calls me on a recent weekday morning, ten minutes after the scheduled time, he blames his previous interview. “Too many damn questions,” he says in his famously gravelly voice, the aural smirk sounding clearly over the phone line.
The four-time Tony Award winner’s bio proudly notes he was the first to achieve the feat of winning as performer and writer on both the musical and straight-play sides of the Tony coin: best actor in a musical for Hairspray, book writer for La Cage Aux Folles and best actor and best play for Torch Song Trilogy.
Fierstein, 59, served double-duty again in the 2008 Broadway bow of A Catered Affair, the chamber musical he penned with cult-fave cabaret songwriter John Bucchino. He’s calling to talk about the show on the eve of its Midwest premiere, directed by Nick Bowling at Porchlight Music Theatre with music direction by Doug Peck.
Based on the 1956 Bette Davis–Ernest Borgnine film with a screenplay by Gore Vidal, which was itself adapted from a 1955 teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky, A Catered Affair tells the intimate tale of the Hurley family. Daughter Jane announces her engagement and declares that she and fiancé Ralph want a simple wedding, but mother Aggie, grieving Jane’s brother’s death in the Korean War, wants to splurge on a large ceremony, putting the family under financial and emotional strain.
“It’s a very simple story,” Fierstein says. “They’d put all their hopes and dreams into the son, sent him to college and all that, while the daughter had to stop going to school and work to help support the family. The show opens with them coming back from the memorial service.”
Fierstein had held the adaptation rights to the film for some time, but worried over finding the right composer to collaborate on a story that, despite its brief Broadway run, was necessarily small in scale. “There weren’t a lot of people who want to spend their time writing something that’ll most likely be a chamber piece and will find its home in theaters like [Porchlight],” he says. “My friend Julie Halston said to me, ‘Do you know the work of John Bucchino?’ ”
At Halston’s urging, Fierstein listened to the album Grateful, The Songs of John Bucchino, on which members of Bucchino’s artistic fan club—including Judy Collins, Kristin Chenoweth and Patti LuPone—perform his work. “I freaked out,” Fierstein says. “Here was somebody who, every single song was an entire world.”
“I was at first uncertain and kind of intimidated,” Bucchino says on the phone from his New York home. “I hadn’t written a book musical before, and I didn’t know the story. From his description, it sounded sweet, but I didn’t know if it’d make a good musical. But Harvey had always loved the movie, and I came around to feeling the same way.”
Fierstein is busy at work on his next projects, revising his book for Disney’s musical adaptation of Newsies in advance of its Broadway opening next month. He’s also written a new musical with Cyndi Lauper based on the 2005 British film Kinky Boots; the Tribune reported last week that it may get a Chicago tryout soon, but Fierstein playfully declines to comment: “It’ll be out soon enough. You talk about stuff that’s a year down the line, people say, ‘Eh, I already saw that.’ ”
A Catered Affair previews Saturday 18 and opens Tuesday 21 at [node:151995 link=Stage 773;]. John Bucchino will host a cabaret performance following the February 25 show and participate in a talkback session following the February 26 matinee. Bucchino also performs at [node:136721 link=Davenport's;] February 27.