Five Burning Questions with Torch Song Star Michael Urie
December 19th, 2018
by Josh Ferri
Michael Urie (one of the finest stage actors working today) gives a hilarious, heartbreaking, and universally-acclaimed performance as Arnold Beckoff (a drag queen looking for love and family in 1970s & '80s NYC) in the first Broadway revival of Harvey Fierstein's Tony-winning drama Torch Song. The can't-miss production runs at Broadway's Helen Hayes through January 6, and then Urie will tour the show around the country.
BroadwayBox caught up with Michael Urie to discuss how personal and humiliating Arnold has to be, the timely nature of LGBTQ theatre, and the torch song that brings him to tears.
1. What was the most illuminating thing Harvey told you that influenced your performance as Arnold?
On the first day of rehearsal Harvey told us that if doing this play doesn’t embarrass you, you’re not doing it right. I thought I knew what he meant, but it wasn’t entirely clear until the performance when I first had close friends in the audience. America Ferrera and Becki Newton came to an early preview Off-Broadway—these are two women I kind of grew up with doing Ugly Betty, they were very formative years for all of us, so these two are like family to me. When we got to the scenes with Ma, where she’s eviscerating me for my sexual orientation, I was devastated for it to be happening in front of Becki and America. Obviously, it’s all fiction, I’m not Arnold and Mercedes Ruehl isn’t my actual mother—but knowing how much it must have hurt my loved ones to watch me get so hurt…I was humiliated. Now, I don’t have close friends out there every night, so sometimes I have to channel or substitute, imagine someone in the audience has been through what Arnold is going through—but that was an incredible lesson from Harvey.
2. What’s your go-to diva torch song? What do you love about it?
I’m partial to “Don’t Cry Out Loud” as sung by Peter Allen. Lots of great versions of this classic, but Peter’s is my favorite. I start crying immediately. Yes, out loud. I don’t keep it inside.
3. You’ve done such amazing work off-Broadway. If you could have any of your past stage performances filmed and preserved for posterity, which would you pick and why?
Homos, Or Everyone in America was Jordan Seavey’s beautiful play I did at the Labyrtinth with Robin de Jesus. It was a play about a relationship navigating a hate crime. We were playing during the 2016 election and after, when there was a horrible upswing in hate crimes all over the county, it became so tragically relevant. Mike Donahue’s stirring production and Dane Laffery’s intimate set made the experience so uniquely theatrical that I’m not sure it COULD have translated on camera, but I’d love for it to have lived on.
4. What’s the weirdest or most random place you’ve been recognized by an Ugly Betty fan?
I was at a beer festival in Bergen, Norway and a young woman approached me and in a thick Norwegian accent said, “Excuse me, are you the actress from Ugly Betty??” I said, “Yes. Yes, I am that actress.”
5. What excites or interests you most about bringing Torch Song around America right now?
I think Arnold is a character a lot of people could stand to meet right about now. I hear from people all over the country who had their lives changed by him back in the ‘80s when the original toured and the country—especially the LGBTQ community was in crisis. In many ways, minorities are in crisis again, and many in the LGBTQ community are in crisis still. We could always use a reminder, and some could use a hero—I think Arnold is that hero. Harvey’s play should be in everyone’s vicinity again.
Don't dare miss Michael Urie in Torch Song at Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre through January 6.