Torch Song Trilogy

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Torch Song Trilogy
Broadway promotional poster
Written by Harvey Fierstein
Characters Arnold Beckoff
Lady Blues
Mrs. Beckoff
Date premiered January 15, 1982 (1982-01-15)
Place premiered Actors' Playhouse, Greenwich Village, New York City
Original language English
Genre Drama
Setting 1970s, 1980s New York City

Torch Song Trilogy is a collection of three plays by Harvey Fierstein rendered in three acts: International Stud, Fugue in a Nursery, and Widows and Children First! The story centers on Arnold Beckoff, a Jewish homosexual, drag queen, and torch singer who lives in New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The four-hour play begins with a soliloquy in which he explains his cynical disillusionment with love.


Each act focuses on a different phase in Arnold's life. In the first, Arnold meets Ed, who is uncomfortable with his bisexuality. In the second, one year later, Arnold meets Alan, and the two settle down into a blissful existence that includes plans to adopt a child, until tragedy strikes. In the third, several years later, Arnold is a single father raising gay teenager David. Arnold is forced to deal with his mother's intolerance and disrespect when she visits from Florida.

The first act derives its name (International Stud) from an actual gay bar of the same name at 117 Perry Street in Greenwich Village in the 1960s and 1970s. The bar had a backroom where men engaged in anonymous sex.[1] The backroom plays a central role in the act.

The award-winning and popular work broke new ground in the theatre: "At the height of the post-Stonewall clone era, Harvey challenged both gay and straight audiences to champion an effeminate gay man's longings for love and family."[2]

Production history[edit]

The first staging of International Stud opened on February 2, 1978 at La MaMa, E.T.C., an Off-Off-Broadway theater, where it ran for two weeks. The Off-Broadway production opened on May 22, 1978 at the Players Theatre, where it ran for 72 performances.[3]

The first staging of Fugue in a Nursery opened at LaMama on February 1, 1979.[4]

Torch Song Trilogy first opened at the uptown Richard Allen Center in October 1981, produced by The Glines.[5] On January 15, 1982 it transferred to the Actors' Playhouse in Greenwich Village, where it ran for 117 performances, produced by The Glines.[6] The cast included Fierstein as Arnold, Joel Crothers as Ed, Paul Joynt as Alan, Matthew Broderick as David, and Estelle Getty as Mrs. Beckoff.

After eight previews, the Broadway production, directed by Peter Pope, opened on June 10, 1982 at the Little Theatre, where it ran for 1,222 performances. Fierstein, Joynt, and Getty were joined by Court Miller as Ed and Fisher Stevens as David. Later in the run, David Garrison and Jonathan Hadary portrayed Arnold, Craig Sheffer was cast as Alan, and Barbara Barrie replaced Getty.

The play won Fierstein two Tony Awards, for Best Play (with John Glines' historic Tony speech that acknowledged his lover and co-producer Larry Lane) and Best Actor in Play; two Drama Desk Awards, for Outstanding New Play and Outstanding Actor in a Play; and the Theatre World Award.

The West End production starring Antony Sher, with Rupert Graves as Alan, opened on October 1, 1985 at Albery Theatre on St. Martin's Lane, where it ran for slightly more than seven months.

In late January 2009, it was revived at the American Theatre of Actors Sargent Theatre in New York City by Black Henna Productions.[7] Directed by Malini Singh McDonald, ran as a limited engagement until February 1, 2009, with each act being performed separately on weeknights and the entire series running on Saturdays and Sundays. The cast featured Cas Marino as Arnold, Ian M. McDonald as Ed, Susan Erenberg as Lady Blues, Christian Thomas as Alan, Amie Backner as Laurel, Chris Kelly as David, and Mary Lynch as Mrs. Beckoff.

The play was revived at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London in 2012, with David Bedella playing Arnold.

Torch Song Trilogy was produced by Studio Theatre in Washington DC as part of its subscription series September – October 2013. It was directed by Michael Kahn, artistic director of The Shakespeare Theatre, also in Washington, DC.

In the fall of 2017, a significantly revised version of the play -cut down by Fierstein from its original four-plus hours to two hours and forty-five minutes and retitled simply Torch Song, was produced by Second Stage Theatre, in New York City, with Michael Urie as Arnold and Mercedes Ruehl as Mrs. Beckoff, that production was directed by Moises Kaufman.[8] The Urie-led production is scheduled to transfer to the Hayes Theater on Broadway in November 2018.[9]


International Stud first premiered in 1978 at La MaMa, where Fierstein made his professional acting debut in Andy Warhol's play Pork in 1971. Mel Gussow of The New York Times panned the play as a "sincere but sentimentalized view of a transvestite extremes." Despite the criticism, Ellen Stewart, founder of La MaMa, chose to produce A Fugue in the Nursery and Widows and Children First! in 1979, though she personally found the work "too talky."[10] The Glines, a nonprofit organization dedicated to forwarding gay-themed cultural endeavors, financially supported Fierstein in reworking the three one-act plays as a singular theatrical event, which became Torch Song Trilogy and earned excited praise from Mel Gussow. "Arnold's story becomes richer as it unfolds," he wrote, claiming that Fierstein's performance "[was] an act of compelling virtuosity."[11]

Responses From Teaching[edit]

The central character of this play, Arnold, is a sharp-tongued, nurturing, compassionate, vulnerable, and he is someone who is unable to act normal around his mother, his lovers, and his adopted son because he loves each so dearly. This play allows readers to look beyond the invisible cultural assumptions and make it a comfortable experience.[12] A teacher from a high school in Texas decided to add Torch Song Trilogy in his curriculum. This play was particularly important to teach due to the comfort that society feels in being silent about subjects relating to sexuality. The teacher is convinced that silence can only hurt chances of young adults who are emerging whole during their school years. This play was chosen to educate the students that love comes in all forms. Not only did this play help expand conservative minds, but the play is magically structured so that the audience is invited to build a dialogue with the onstage characters. The writing of this play is innovative and the structure of the play itself is unique that it offers ideas for students to explore and expand their ideas on how to creatively write. Fierstein displayed the relationship between Arnold and his son, as well as his partner in a way that the society considers “normal”.[13]

The theme of this play is love, which is a universal language. Although the teacher in Houston, thought that conventional parents would be opposed to the idea that their children are learning about homosexuality, most were open to the idea and spoke about real-life experiences their friends have lived through or they have seen. The student's parents helped their children to try to understand a world where the heterosexuals were the ones being treated the way the homosexuals were. Some students spoke about their friend's experiences about various sexual preferences and how this play helped them understand that homosexuality is not something to be afraid of. The risk of teaching this type of story was much less than expected. This play provides a forum to explore the differences between the taboo topics of sexual orientation and gender. The difference between sexism and homophobia is distinguished as well as identifying gender roles and the society’s preconceived notion of what a “drag”, “trans”, “gay”, “lesbian” “questioning”, “a-sexual” might be. Most of these students were a group of twenty-one-year-olds, who are politically correct, but there was concern that arose about teaching this type of literature in a public high school setting.

Film adaptation[edit]

Fierstein adapted his play for a feature film, released in 1988. It was directed by Paul Bogart and starred Fierstein (Arnold), Anne Bancroft (Ma Beckoff), Matthew Broderick (Alan), Brian Kerwin (Ed), and Eddie Castrodad (David).

Awards and nominations[edit]


  • 1983 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play
  • 1983 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Play (Harvey Fierstein)
  • 1983 Tony Award for Best Play (Harvey Fierstein)
  • 1983 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play (Harvey Fierstein)


  • 1982 Drama Critics' Circle Award Runner-Up Best American Play


  1. ^ "GREENWICH VILLAGE: A GAY HISTORY". Retrieved October 18, 2010. 
  2. ^ Charles Busch (November 12, 2002). "Torch Song Trilogy June 1982". The Advocate. Archived from the original on December 13, 2004. Retrieved June 24, 2008. 
  3. ^ "International Stud". Lortel Archives. 2008. Archived from the original on September 21, 2007. Retrieved June 24, 2008. 
  4. ^ "La MaMa ETC". 
  5. ^ Gussow, Mel (November 1, 1981). "Theatre Review: Fierstein's 'Torch Song'". The New York Times. Retrieved June 24, 2008. 
  6. ^ "Torch Song Trilogy". Lortel Archives. 2008. Archived from the original on September 21, 2007. Retrieved June 24, 2008. 
  7. ^ "Black Henna Productions". Retrieved October 18, 2010. 
  8. ^ Gerard, Jeremy (2017-10-19). "Torch Song Is Revived With Michael Urie & Mercedes Ruehl: Review". Deadline. Retrieved 2018-04-01. 
  9. ^ Vine, Hannah (2018-02-21). "See Harvey Fierstein March Torch Song to Its New Home on Broadway". Playbill. Retrieved 2018-04-01. 
  10. ^ Ben Furnish. "Nostalgia in Jewish-American Theatre and Film, 1979-2004". Retrieved 2018-04-01. 
  11. ^ Claude J. Summers. "The Queer Encyclopedia of Film & Television". Retrieved 2018-04-01. 
  12. ^ Hoffman, Marvin (1993). "Teaching Torch Song: Gay Literature in the Classroom". English Journal. 82 (5): 55. 
  13. ^ "Torch Song Trilogy". English Journal. 82 (4): 86. 1993. 

External links[edit]