When Michael Urie first read Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy in high school, the character of Arnold, the out and proud gay man at the center of the 1970s- and ’80s-set play, didn’t call to him. “I felt more like Ed—like I could play Ed,” says Urie of Arnold’s foil—a sometimes lover and forever complication. “Never thought I’d play Arnold. Never thought I’d be that kind of brave, courageous person.”
Now, Arnold is the role that won’t leave him—and he doesn’t want him to.
The actor’s first leading role on Broadway (having starred on TV’s Ugly Betty and won a Drama Desk for Off-Broadway’s Buyer & Cellar), Urie wants to live with Arnold.
Working as a drag queen, Arnold longs for the kind of love the greatest torch singers once lamented about—the all-consuming, heart-breaking, life-affirming love that gives the play its name. Through the revival’s newly abbreviated two acts, Urie puts himself through the paces of inhabiting a character who: unrequitedly loves Ed (a man who denies his own sexuality); tragically loses a second partner; and endures an emotional decimation by the mother who cannot accept his “lifestyle.”
The role requires Urie’s full emotional arsenal, and he relishes every moment with Arnold, onstage and off. “I know that the good parts make me better and I can help him with the bad parts,” he continues. “I like being somebody who’s that in touch with himself and that funny and that loving.
“It’s very empowering to be him because he is so fearless, at least that’s what he presents,” says Urie. “I am not.”
Although whether it’s living within Arnold or just living, Urie, now 38, has begun to feel brave. “I know what I know, and I’m not afraid of what I don’t know for the first time ever,” says the actor. “It made me, in my real life and my personal life, a stronger person and more confident and more powerful—and also sadder. That comes with great sadness, when you open yourself up to the unknowns in the world.”
Urie has also opened himself to a new level of vulnerability, with the help of Fierstein, director Moisés Kauffman, and his co-star Mercedes Ruehl, who plays his mother. “Mercedes always says that it’s much harder to phone it in because you have to pretend and manufacture all that stuff. It’s much easier to let yourself go there,” Urie says.
And “go there” he does, using each nightly audience to shoulder the emotional weight of the play. “You can hear them gasp and hear them cry, and I can feel them seeing themselves on the stage and that is easy to take on,” he explains. “It’s easy to go there when I know somebody out there needs it.”
Who is in the audience, person by person, affects Urie and his performance. “Something Harvey said on the first day of rehearsal when we did it Off-Broadway, he said, ‘If this play doesn’t embarrass you then you’re not doing it right,’” Urie recalls.
“Stupid me. I thought, ‘What embarrassment? I’m not embarrassed about sex.’ I didn’t realize until we were doing it when [my friends] Becki Newton and America Ferrera came. We were doing that scene where my mother is tearing into me—and I know how much they love me, we grew up doing Ugly Betty together—and I’m like, ‘They’re watching this. They’re watching me get destroyed by my mother.’ And it just humiliated me that they were seeing me get eviscerated by my mother,” Urie remembers. “Then I realized what Harvey meant.”
As Urie experiences Arnold’s trauma and as Arnold learns that he’ll survive the beatdowns, so, too, does Urie. And because he’s allowed himself to live through Arnold, Urie has realized he, too, can survive turmoil.
“I found that I’m more willing to enter into conflict than I used to be,” he says. “I don’t like conflict, obviously, but I used to avoid conflict and now I’m OK to step into it and start it if I feel like it needs to be started.”
As much as Arnold has given Urie, Urie has imbued Arnold with new dimensions. He titrates the gutting moments with humor, an equilibrium Urie credits to Fierstein’s writing. “The idea of doing something funny after something devastating is in the play,” he says.
But Urie fuses his singular timing and that ability to read the room to bend moments and discover crevices in the play each night. He lifts Torch Song to the next level.
Like when “I rant and I unload to Ed and he’s like, ‘Oops.’ And I’m like, ‘Oops? You think this is an oops?! No, this is an oops.’ And then I do the whole [miming] killing myself and I rip my heart out and I drink [to drown myself] and that’s supposed to be funny and was written to be funny, but all the physical stuff was added,” Urie reveals. “I did that to make the cast laugh in rehearsal because we’d all seen it and nobody was laughing at anything anymore and I just wanted to make everyone laugh in the room.”
Listening to Urie discuss Torch Song, it sounds as if Arnold beckoned to him. He answers the role like a calling, and his number one priority is to serve his audiences. Which is one of the reasons Urie is hungry to take the show on tour “to places where they need it” even after it closes on Broadway January 6.
The other reason?
“I want to go deeper,” Urie says. “That we went so much deeper between Off-Broadway and Broadway really inspired us. It makes me think that every time we do it we can go even deeper.
“It’s like an onion; there are so many more layers to it,” Urie says. “Mercedes says that really great playwrights don’t even know all that they wrote. I think that’s true. I don’t think Harvey could’ve ever known how much is in there, or could have explained to us how much is in there. We have to just do it and feel it and realize it.”
Hear more about how Urie found his version of Arnold in his opening night interview live from the red carpet:
Torch Song plays Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre (240 W 44th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue) through January 6, 2019, with plans for a national tour starring Urie and kicking off in Los Angeles in the fall of 2019.
Ruthie Fierberg is the Senior Features Editor of Playbill covering all things theatre and co-hosting the Opening Night Red Carpet livestreams on Playbill's Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @RuthiesATrain, on Instagram @ruthiefierceberg, or via her website.