‘Maybe I Am Arnold!’ How Michael Urie Agreed to Fill Harvey Fierstein’s Shoes

When asked by Mr. Fierstein and the play’s director, Moisés Kaufman, to consider the role, Mr. Urie felt the same way. “I never thought of myself as Arnold,’’ he said. “I thought they were insane.”

It was not that Mr. Urie, 37, hasn’t played larger-than-life roles over the course of his career, from Marc St. James on the ABC comedy “Ugly Betty,” to Barbra Streisand’s assistant in the one-man play, “Buyer and Cellar,” to the frenetic lead in Gogol’s “The Government Inspector recently. And after “Torch Song,” which runs through Dec. 8, he will play Hamlet at the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington.

But there was something about this part that Mr. Urie said he found daunting. “In the first scene, the character is in drag,” he said. “And I thought, ‘I could never do that. I could never be that guy. I’m never going to be that free, that brave.’ It was way too scary.”

Mr. Fierstein said one reason he had held off bringing the show back to New York for 30 years was to make sure that he had the right Arnold. And while he knew Mr. Urie’s work, mostly from “Ugly Betty,” and said that he was a “wonderful actor,” it wasn’t until a 2016 reading that he realized he had found his leading man.

“It was just there,” Mr. Fierstein said. “There was that thing you hope for, a magical connection between actor and role.”

The reading was equally revelatory for Mr. Urie: “At the end, I thought, ‘Maybe I am Arnold!”

“Michael understood the character at that first reading,” Mr. Kaufman said. And, he added, laughing, “Actors aren’t always the best judges of what parts they should play.”


Harvey Fierstein as Arnold Beckoff and Estelle Getty as his mother in “Torch Song Trilogy” in 1982. Credit Gerry Goodstein Photo

Michael Urie and Mercedes Ruehl in the same roles in the revival, now called “Torch Song.” Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Noticed, but Not Typecast

On a recent Saturday afternoon, in the three-hour break between the matinee and evening performances of “Torch Song,” Mr. Urie threaded his way through the crowds of Times Square to an early dinner at the Lambs Club, fashionably dressed in a dark green quilted jacket, a pair of skinny black jeans and black ankle high boots that he said were almost an exact replica of a pair his “Ugly Betty” character had worn.

As he passed a cluster of middle-aged men standing on the sidewalk, one spotted Mr. Urie, did a double-take and then yelled out, “You were great last night.”

“That was a trick,” Mr. Urie said, not missing a beat. “I don’t remember his name.”

He was joking of course.

Mr. Urie lives with his boyfriend, Ryan Spahn, also an actor, in an apartment on the northern fringe of Hell’s Kitchen decorated with items taken from the sets of previous jobs. (Their dining room table is Vanessa Williams’s desk from “Ugly Betty” and a bedroom lamp was lifted from the set of “Partners,” Mr. Urie’s short-lived CBS sitcom.) The two recently celebrated their nine-year anniversary by going to a disaster movie, the critically savaged “Geostorm.” (“It was wonderfully terrible,” he said, giggling.)

At the restaurant, he glanced at the menu, announced that he tried to avoid both red meat and alcohol when doing a play, because they make him sleepy, and ordered the halibut, a side of roasted carrots and a Diet Coke.

As the waiter walked away, Mr. Urie said he had only broken that dietary rule once, when he was in Washington doing “Buyer and Cellar,” and was up for a part in the Broadway revival of an award-winning play he declined to name: the role of the gay best friend to the female lead.

The audition had gone well, and he and the director seemed to be on the same wavelength, he said. But that day, in between his matinee and evening performances, he got a call. “You were great,” Mr. Urie said the director told him. “But there is one small, but probably insurmountable, obstacle: The estate that controls the rights is insisting that the role not be played by an openly gay character.”

The part went to someone else.

Mr. Urie said he was so angry, “I went out and had a beer and a huge hamburger. And then I went home to take a nap.”


Mr. Urie during off hours at the theater, where the play runs through Dec. 8. Credit Gabriela Herman for The New York Times

That was perhaps the only time in his career, he said, when his sexuality might have lost him a role. (He said the producers were convinced that if audiences knew the actor was gay it would take the ambiguity out of the opening scene in the play.) In fact, he said, his openness about his sexuality had mostly been a boon to his career: “If I had never done these gay characters, you would have no idea of who I was,” he said. “You would never have heard of me.”

His Own Way In

Getting the role in “Torch Song” was one thing. But Mr. Urie said he struggled early on with how to make it his own.

Should he get to know Mr. Fierstein, who based the character on his early career experiences as a drag performer? Spend more time with him? “But I gradually realized he didn’t want me to ‘do’ him, or else he wouldn’t have hired me,” he concluded. “He would have hired someone who was just like him.”

Mr. Fierstein was, however, a frequent and unpredictable presence at rehearsals.

“What was so funny is that he would always walk in the room when I would be questioning something about the role,” Mr. Urie explained. “I would read a line and then ask, ‘Why do I even say this?’ And then I would hear from the back of the room, this voice yelling out” — he imitates Mr. Fierstein’s raspy growl — “‘Who wrote this?’’’

“I finally asked him, ‘Do you wait out there in the hallway for 20 minutes, and then pick the perfect moment to come in the room?’”

At another point, Mr. Urie asked Mr. Fierstein for guidance about his character’s relationship with Ed, his bisexual, on-and-off lover. “Why do I keep going back to him? Why do I love this guy? And Harvey said to me, ‘Because he lets you.’ Which is such a great answer, because when you think of the gay community — especially then — we can be so withholding with love.”

There are reports, for now unconfirmed, that this critically acclaimed “Torch Song” will move to Broadway in the fall. No one involved will discuss that possibility. But Mr. Urie is convinced that this production has firmly reestablished the play’s theatrical importance and the power of its message.

“I run into people all the time who tell me that they saw this play in its original run and it changed their lives,” Mr. Urie said. “In fact, I got a letter the other day from someone who wrote, “I’ve been in love with Arnold for 35 years.’”

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