I Was Bet­ter Last Night: A Memoir

  • Review
By – July 25, 2022

Har­vey Fierstein’s life reads like a fairy tale. Once upon a time, there was a bright Jew­ish boy in a work­ing-class Brook­lyn neigh­bor­hood who loved to sing along with cast albums of Broad­way musi­cals. At the age of sev­en he pic­tured him­self on stage singing I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No.” Now, six­ty years lat­er, he can look back on many the­ater acco­lades, includ­ing four Tony Awards — two for Best Actor, and two for Best Book of a Musi­cal. He has writ­ten hit shows like Kinky Boots, Newsies, and La Cage aux Folles, and he was unfor­get­table play­ing Edna Turn­blad in Hair­spray, not to men­tion his numer­ous tele­vi­sion roles.

The young Fier­stein wast­ed no time find­ing a way into the­ater. He joined an ama­teur the­ater group while still in high school, receiv­ing his first rave review at the age of nine­teen. He was soon tak­en under the wing of Ellen Stew­art, founder of the path­break­ing LaMa­Ma Exper­i­men­tal The­ater, and worked briefly with Andy Warhol. By the age of thir­ty he had already won two Tony awards for his land­mark Torch Song Tril­o­gy, a play that changed the face of gay theater.

When Torch Song reached a wider audi­ence through its film adap­ta­tion (1988), it arguably shift­ed Amer­i­can per­cep­tions of homo­sex­u­al­i­ty, as he no doubt had hoped. Fier­stein, who had his first boyfriend at fif­teen, joined the Gay Activist Alliance fol­low­ing the Stonewall riots of 1969 — while he was still in high school. He has since become one of the best-known advo­cates for LGBTQ vis­i­bil­i­ty and inclu­sion in America.

Whether he’s talk­ing about his per­son­al rela­tion­ships and gay life or chron­i­cling Amer­i­can the­ater, Fierstein’s sto­ries are so fun­ny, arrest­ing, and can­did that you can’t wait to read the next chap­ter. He has known every­body who’s any­body in the the­ater, and he has back­stage sto­ries about dozens of mar­quee names. Fier­stein worked with many of them in shows he wrote, and even the ones he didn’t, as when he starred as Tevye in a revival of Fid­dler on the Roof. Yet despite all his suc­cess, he’s remained a fan­boy at heart, thrilled to meet stage leg­ends like Ethel Mer­man and Hermione Gingold.

Unlike some oth­er the­atri­cal emi­nences, he’s not shy about being Jew­ish. Recount­ing a film stunt where he dove from a boat into the water, he describes him­self being tossed like Yom Kip­pur sins into the sea.” He calls a fate­ful occur­rence bash­ert.

A mas­ter of craft, Fier­stein makes his points by show­ing, not telling. Rather than lec­tur­ing about accep­tance, he recalls the moth­er who, learn­ing that her son was gay, shock­ing­ly said it would have been bet­ter had he nev­er been born. Reflect­ing on the AIDS cri­sis of the 1980s, he por­trays the fear, the cal­lous treat­ment of vic­tims, and the expe­ri­ence of watch­ing a friend descend into demen­tia before suc­cumb­ing to the dis­ease. His rich detail makes you feel as if you had been there. His trag­ic sto­ries inspire sym­pa­thy, and his com­ic punch­lines can make you laugh out loud.

It’s a joy to get to know this brave, gift­ed, devot­ed, fun­ny, car­ing man through his vast­ly enter­tain­ing mem­oir. Har­vey Fierstein’s I Was Bet­ter Last Night is an utter delight.

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