Harvey Fierstein: No longer an activist

Actor-playwright Harvey Fierstein, a Tony Award nominee for the musical "Kinky Boots."
CBS News

(CBS News) Harvey Fierstein is up tonight for what could be his fifth Tony at the annual awards ceremony here on CBS. Richard Schlesinger of "48 Hours" found Fierstein at his favorite haunt . . . on Broadway:

These days it's not easy for Harvey Fierstein to make his way through the crowded Theatre District. He has two hits playing nearby: "Newsies," which won a Tony last year; and "Kinky Boots," which is up for a slew of them tonight.

If you don't know him Harvey Fierstein by sight, you know him by sound. His VOICE was once compared to "a deep-throated jazz diva who has just tossed back a double-bourbon."

"One of my favorites was 'a sixth grader in shop class learning to use a rasp,'" Fierstein said.

"I mean, at very least, I'm the guy with the voice, you know? Then hopefully, I'm the guy who's really funny with the voice. And then the guy who can not only do comedy, but can do tragedy as well with the voice. And the guy that can really command a stage with the voice."

He comes by the voice naturally.

"I have double cords. We all have double cords. You have your real vocal cord, and then you have the false cord over. My false cords are over-developed. And so a 'double voice' is actually what you hear."

Fierstein's voice has served him well, first on stage, then in film, then on a soapbox. It is a career that began improbably.

"I was a soprano in a professional boys choir before my voice changed," he told Schlesinger. "Boy, did that voice change.

Of course, it's not just the tenor of the one-time soprano's voice that has allowed Harvey Fierstein to be heard so loudly and clearly. It's the messages that he delivers.

His script for "Kinky Boots" has earned him his latest Tony nomination. It's based on a true story and adapted from a British film.

In a nutshell: Boy meets girl . . . girl turns out to be boy, and together they save their world, a shoe factory, threatened with bankruptcy until its new owner decides to make Kinky Boots for transvestites.

Fierstein focused on the relationship between Charlie, the down-on-his-luck shoe manufacturer, and Lola, the over-the-top transvestite.

"These two people who couldn't be more different from each other meet up," he said, "and end up, not quite friends until the very end, but end up in each other's lives. They help each other and they complement each other."

Fierstein isn't in "Kinky Boots," but his footprints are all over it. He started a collaboration with pop star Cyndi Lauper, who wrote the music for the show, even though she had never written anything for Broadway before. Now she's up for a Tony, too.

"I was having a good time," Lauper said. "Even when it was a struggle, I would call him constantly. I left stuff on [his] answering machine all the time. I sang to him all the time."

"My favorite," said Fierstein, "was, she sang me a line of song. But all I could hear was the hair dryer. You were gettin' your hair done. And you were singing something to me."

"Oh. Oh, I'm sorry, I had to keep working!"

The work paid off. "Kinky Boots" has been sold out since it opened. And if Fierstein wins a Tony this year, it will be his fifth.

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He's won in every major category, starting in 1983 when he won two, for writing and acting in "Torch Song Trilogy," his masterpiece about the complicated life and loves of a familiar Fierstein favorite, a transvestite.

Critics said "Torch Song Trilogy" had the first gay character who was portrayed as something more than a silly, mincing stereotype.

"Do you have any sense at all, or do you even believe, that you've had a role in sort of the evolution of the way gay people are portrayed in theater and on television and in show business?" Schlesinger asked.

"I don't have an actual picture of that, no," he replied. "I know I'm part of it. Obviously, I'm part of it. Because I know when I went on 'The Tonight Show' and talked about being gay with Johnny Carson, he didn't seem to know a lot of other people that had done that before."