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Broadway Q&A: Mercedes Ruehl of ‘Torch Song’

Category Broadway

|by Jeryl Brunner |

The legendary actress reveals how she got her start on Broadway

Mercedes Ruehl stars with Michael Urie and Ward Horton, Roxanna Hope Radja, Michael Hsu Rosen and Jack DiFalco in Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song. Over three decades ago, the play – then titled Torch Song Trilogy – premiered on Broadway and ran for three years. Back then, Harvey Fierstein stared as Arnold Beckhoff, a drag queen looking for long-term love in 1970s New York. The groundbreaking play won Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Actor. 36 years later, Michael Urie plays Arnold with Ruehl as his judgmental mother, Mrs. Beckhoff. Fireworks fly in this riveting tale of the journey to find love and belonging in a world that refuses to provide those things. Ruehl, a Tony-, Drama Desk-, Oscar- and Golden Globe Award-winning actress, has wowed in film, TV and in countless plays, including The Fisher King, The Goat, The Rose Tattoo, Married To the Mob, Big, Gia and many more. 

Mercedes Ruehl stars opposite Michael Urie in Harvey Fierstein's 'Torch Song' (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Mercedes Ruehl stars opposite Michael Urie in Harvey Fierstein's 'Torch Song' (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

What went through your mind when you were offered the play? 
Mercedes Ruehl
: I had never seen it. I read it and thought, “Okay, I like this character. I like how she comes in. Okay, she has a good sense of humor. Okay, she is very ironic. I like that. Oh, okay, so she wants things her way, okay, okay. Oh, she has deep prejudices about things. Oh, she has deep pain of loss of a husband.” I thought, “This can go very deep.” I think of how I have two sons, and when things are not right with me and one of my sons, I can’t have a happy day. I just can’t have a good day. I’m just at sixes and sevens, and uncomfortable and unhappy.

What was your Broadway debut? 
Mercedes Ruehl
:  It was in I’m Not Rappaport. There was a young woman who was playing Judd Hirsch’s daughter, and she broke her leg. This was at the American Place Theater. And then they brought it to Broadway, and poor thing, she still hadn’t healed. So I went on for her. That was my first show on Broadway.

What advice have you received in your career that has stayed with you? 
Mercedes Ruehl
: The first piece of advice I got was: if there is anything else you can do, do it. It’s a cruel profession. It’s a hard profession. There is a lot of rejection. There is a lot of pain. A lot of loss. But the other thing is, if you can’t do anything else, if you would die if you couldn’t act, then you have to push down your head, get out your horns, and charge. Even in the face of the hardest rejection. And often, people – casting directors, producers – can be rather cruel and dismissive of actors. 

How did you keep going?
Mercedes Ruehl
: Sheer will. Sheer will. Just, I simply wouldn’t let them defeat me.

Do you remember one of the first Broadway shows you saw? 
Mercedes Ruehl
: The Unsinkable Molly Brown with Tammy Grimes. We sat in the box. It was the first show my parents took me to. I must’ve been in fifth or sixth grade. My mom even got me a little box of chocolates, because she knew I wanted to be an actress. And she knew I wanted to sit in a box and eat chocolates and watch the show from a box. There was one moment when Tammy Grimes looked up at the box, at me. And I thought, “She just looked at me!”
For more of the best of Broadway, check out our list of the Top Shows in New York in December 2018.  



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