“Torch Song” is heading back to Broadway thanks to an idea that almost simultaneously struck producer Richie Jackson and director Moisés Kaufman: Michael Urie should play Arnold.
Writer and star Harvey Fierstein had been approached several times about reviving “Torch Song Trilogy” after it ended its original Broadway run in May 1985 with two Tony Awards in tow. He was reluctant to bring it back too soon, given the pervasive narrative and spread of AIDS.
“I held the show off for years because I wanted to wait until AIDs was no longer the definition of being gay, because it’s never true,” Fierstein said.
Following a London production and a film adaptation in the ‘80s, the show had a 2009 revival on the West End, but it was not quite what Fierstein had envisioned. Then he heard from Kaufman and Jackson.
Kaufman, a director and playwright known for “The Laramie Project,” had been watching Urie perform for years and thought he would make the right lead for “Torch Song,” taking on the quick-witted and vulnerable role that Fierstein had originated.
“It’s like ‘Hamlet,’ you don’t do ‘Hamlet’ unless you have an actor who can play Hamlet,” Kaufman said.
Kaufman reached out to Urie. Then, the next day, Urie received a text from Jackson, who wanted to do his own production with Urie as Arnold (“He has the ability to make you laugh and turn on a dime and make you cry. And that’s what this play needs,” Jackson said.).
Urie, however, had always envisioned himself as Ed, the on-again, off-again lover of Arnold.
“I said ‘Moisés said the same thing. Why is everyone thinking about me as Arnold? What is happening?” Urie recalled. But, after rereading the script and talking through the role with Kaufman, Urie felt he could do it.
Jackson and Kaufman decided to move forward together and had Urie do a reading of the play in June 2016, in front of Fierstein, which effectively functioned as his audition. With the blessing of Fierstein, Jackson called Second Stage to see if they could stage the play off-Broadway.
Second Stage was top of mind for Jackson, because he knew he wanted their specific audiences to be the first to see the revival with its trimmed down script, now called “Torch Song,” and Urie in the role.
“I always feel when I’m in their theater that the audience wants to be there,” Jackson said.
This time around, the off-Broadway audience seemed to be more open to the depiction of gay relationships and fatherhood, but were taken aback by the harsh treatment Arnold faces from his mother, Fierstein said.
Following its off-Broadway run last fall, the play is set to begin previews on Broadway on Oct. 9 at Second Stage’s Helen Hayes Theater.
Jackson, who is taking on his first lead producing role, always had Broadway as a goal, because he wanted the play to reach as many people as possible.
“We all need Harvey Fierstein, we need to laugh and we need what he does in every one of his shows, which is that he grows empathy,” Jackson said. “And I think we need empathy in our world.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled the last name of Moisés Kaufman. It has been corrected.