Torch Song Trilogy is a collection of three plays by Harvey Fierstein rendered in three acts: International Stud, Fugue in a Nursery, and Widows and Children First! The story centers on Arnold Beckoff, a torch song-singing Jewish drag queen living in New York City in the late 1970 and 1980s. The four hour-plus play begins with a soliloquy in which he explains his cynical disillusionment with love.
Each act focuses on a different phase in Arnold’s life. In the first, Arnold meets Ed, who is uncomfortable with his bisexuality. In the second, two years later, Arnold meets Alan, and the two settle down into a blissful existence that includes plans to adopt a child, until tragedy strikes. In the third, several years later, Arnold is a single father raising gay teenager David. Arnold is forced to deal with his mother’s intolerance and disrespect when she visits from Florida.
The first act derives it name (International Stud) from an actual Gay bar of the same name at 117 Perry Street in Greenwich Village in the 1960s and 1970s. The bar had a backroom where men engaged in anonymous sex. The backroom plays a central role in the act.
The award-winning and popular work broke new ground in the theatre: “At the height of the post-Stonewall clone era, Harvey challenged both gay and straight audiences to champion an effeminate gay man’s longings for love and family.”
The first staging of International Stud opened on February 2, 1978 at the off-off-Broadway La MaMa, E.T.C., where it ran for two weeks. The off-Broadway production opened on May 22, 1978 at the Players Theatre, where it ran for 72 performances.
The first staging of Fuque in a Nursery opened at LaMama on February 1, 1979.
Torch Song Trilogy first opened at the uptown Richard Allen Center in October 1981. On January 15, 1982 it transferred to the Actors’ Playhouse in Greenwich Village, where it ran for 117 performances.The cast included Fierstein as Arnold, Joel Crothers as Ed, Paul Joynt as Alan, Matthew Broderick as David, and Estelle Getty as Mrs. Beckoff.
After eight previews, the Broadway production, directed by Peter Pope, opened on June 10, 1982 at the Little Theatre, where it ran for 1,222 performances. Fierstein, Joynt, and Getty were joined by Court Miller as Ed and Fisher Stevens as David. Later in the run, David Garrison and Jonathan Hadary portrayed Arnold, Craig Sheffer was cast as Alan, and Barbara Barrie replaced Getty.
The play won Fierstein two Tony Awards, for Best Play and Best Actor in Play, two Drama Desk Awards, for Outstanding New Play and Outstanding Actor in a Play, and the Theatre World Award.
The West End production starring Antony Sher, with Rupert Graves as Alan, opened on October 1, 1985 at Albery Theatre on St. Martin’s Lane, where it ran for slightly more than seven months.