The stage lights go up and there, standing against a shower door holding a big red hat, is … Bella Abzug? Actually, it’s Harvey Fierstein, the writer and also the star — Patti LuPone and Bette Midler were reportedly unavailable — of off-Broadway’s “Bella Bella,” playing through Dec. 1 at New York City Center Stage 1.
The 80-minute monologue is set in a hotel bathroom, where the New York congresswoman awaits the results of a 1976 primary — that would give her a shot at becoming the only woman in the US Senate. Fierstein, whose cross-dressing turn in “Hairspray” won him a Tony, tells The Post why he decided to forgo drag. He also discusses what surprised him most about this feisty feminist and civil-rights lawyer from The Bronx, who left us in 1998, at 77. Just don’t ask him about her signature look and “those f–king hats!”
You play Bella without makeup, wig or dress. Why?
I’m trying to be so truthful. I didn’t want to do Disneyland’s Hall of Presidents, where you put on the costume and makeup and stand there and recite their speeches. What the f–k good is that? I’ve seen 100 of those shows, and they change nothing. Empowerment! That’s what it’s about. It’s about saying to women, “Wake the f– k up, you can elect anyone you want!”
Were Bella’s daughters helpful?
They’ve been asking me to write something about her for years, especially Liz. When she first contacted me, she wanted me to write a musical. I said, “Did [she and your father] break up?” She said no, and I said, “So what’s a musical? There’s nothing there.” I wanted to write something that cut to the core of what this woman was doing with her life. Bella was so far ahead of her time — a woman who was anti-war, anti-nuke, pro-Israel, but very balanced. This woman was unlike anyone else.
What did you find in your research that surprised you?
A lot. I didn’t know women didn’t have the right to have a credit card till the ’70s. I didn’t know that she wrote the first gay-rights bill. I didn’t know that she was partly responsible for releasing the Pentagon Papers. She was a lawyer [who confronted] the House Un-American Activities Committee, and she represented all those Broadway actors: Zero Mostel, Jack Gilford, Lee Grant.
And she wasn’t a fan of John F. Kennedy.
She thought he didn’t have “it.” She thought Robert Kennedy did, that Bobby was the smart one, who had the gift and the brains and that Jack was just the older one. She loved Bobby. I really don’t know how she felt about Ted.
Ever meet her?
Yes, several times. The last time I saw her was in my dressing room at “Hairspray.” She came with Shirley MacLaine. They were very close friends.
Was she wearing a hat?
What is WRONG with you? The hat is something she wore, it was not who she was! As I say in the play, “The hat, the hat . . . that’s all the press writes about is the hat. Does anybody care what’s UNDER the hat?” If Bella, from the grave, can get people to understand what’s going on today, then I’ll have done something that’s way beyond THE HAT, THE HAT, THE HAT!
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