Amanda Muggleton is one of the most-loved actors on the Australian stage. From Chrissie Latham on Prisoner to Jon English’s Pirates of Penzance, Educating Rita, Steaming, Annie, Shirley Valentine and Calendar Girls she’s earned that following. She’s starring in the revival of Torch Song Trilogy, perhaps more relevant now than 30 years ago when it created such a stir. She talks to IAN HORNER.
It could be seen as a tragedy that Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy (1978) still has relevance. ‘‘Yes. Things were different in the Seventies — gays were being murdered and bashed in the street and blamed for AIDS. This play deals with a gay guy who wants to be married and have children. Back then the gay scene was up in arms against Harvey Fierstein. ‘How dare you want to ape heterosexuals!’ they said.
‘‘But it’s come full circle and today gays do want to get married, they do want to have children and it’s happening.
‘‘The play is very apt today — 30 years after it was written. It’s about a Jewish New York drag queen and his mother, played by me, who won’t have a bar of it, won’t even talk about it. She has such terrible, terrible things I have to say to this beautiful boy. She’s such a nightmare.
‘‘What life is about is love. If two people love each other then they should be allowed to marry. That’s what it’s all about.’’
You’ve done some outrageous auditions in the past. Did you have to test for this part? ‘‘No I didn’t, but I had everything ready to go. I thought the director, Stephen Colyer, was going to audition me to do this Jewish New York accent. In the original play Ma doesn’t sing, only Arnold, but in this production everybody gets a song.
‘‘And, of course, I had a song up my sleeve, a wonderful song ready to go, My Yiddishe Momme by Sophie Tucker. And I’d learnt part of the script and all I wanted him to say was: ‘I really want to talk to you about this play.’ And I was going to launch into this speech from the play:
You don’t wanna tawk, you wanna fight. Well, I don’t fight with my children. Have you ever in your life heard your father and me fight? No! You wanna know why? I’ll tell you why! Because all my childhood I listened to fights. My mother fought with my father, my mother fought with my brother, my mother fought with me. So when I married your father I said ‘Jack I’ll tawk but I’ll not fight.’ So now you know why.
‘‘Then I was gonna burst into My Yiddishe Momme, the most gut-wrenching gorgeous torch song. But it never happenened ‘cos he never asked me!’’
What is a torch song? ‘‘A sentimental song for unrequited love. It’s things like ‘Someday he’ll come along, the man I love...’ That yearning, burning song. Judy Garland, Billy Holiday, all the great divas sang them. For everything that happens in Arnold’s life, he’s got a song (laughs). Like my character in Steaming. I had to burst into song at the drop of a hat: ‘Memories . . . light the corners of my mind’ and ‘Love is lovelier the second time around’ all in this flat Cockney accent. Well, because he’s gay and he’s a drag queen he’s got a song for every occasion. Gorgeous!’’
How is it a trilogy? ‘‘It’s three separate plays, with two intervals. But people still say it seems like it’s only five minutes. The first play is set in a dressing room. The second is in a country house, with a bisexual man and Arnold.
‘‘The third is where I come in, where Arnold is at home and he’s invited his mother to meet his new roommate — a 16-year-old boy. And, of course, she thinks the absolute worst! ‘Oh my God, we’re all going to jail!’ He’s too scared to tell her this is a street boy and he wants to adopt him.
‘‘It’s fireworks! It’s brilliantly written, its very sad and Ma is so against him, and so afraid for him. Put yourself back into the 1980s and 1990s, when the Grim Reaper was around.’’
Most people have memories of Ann Bancroft in the movie. And you wonder how Fierstein’s real mother and he survived the play! ‘‘It’s actually about his grandmother. His mother was very accepting. He saw the way his grandmother dealt with his own mother when he was growing up. The Jewish mother is so strong. The mother is the core of the family and what she says is right and no one questions her.
‘‘I’ve been told my portrayal of Ma brings a little sympathy because she’s so ignorant of the whole situation and, of course, she wants grandchildren and she thinks she’s never going to get any. I find her very tragic.
‘‘And of course they love each other. They adore each other, despite some of the things I have to say to him. In the end he has to turf her out. I won’t tell you what happens.’’
Is there any hope for that older generation to reconcile with gay grandchildren? ‘‘Oh, it’s becoming such a norm today and I hate to use that word but young people are experimenting much more with their sexuality and there’s so much more tolerance and that makes a better world. It’s here to stay whether you agree with it or not but it’s never been as open as it is now and tolerance is something we all have to have in love.
‘‘Tolerance and love — that’s what it’s all about. There are so many people who are homophobic and it’s only a matter of time before we have gay marriage here. Our politicians could be being a little bit foolish. I’d rather have tolerance than intolerance.’’
Details, bookings: Torch Song Trilogy is now playing at Darlinghurst Theatre (to March3), Potts Point, darlinghurst theatre.com or 83569987.
Also: amanda muggleton.com.au.