Peter Mill Finds His Voice in Streamlined 'Torch Song'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday November 23, 2022

Peter Mill in a publicity photo for Moonbox Production's "Torch Song"
Peter Mill in a publicity photo for Moonbox Production's "Torch Song"  

Actor, singer, and drag artist: The trifecta of theatrical skills applies to Arnold Beckoff, the main character of Harvey Fierstein's seminal 1982 play "Torch Song Trilogy." Arnold is a proudly out Jewish man who might don elaborate costumes and makeup on stage, but who refuses to hide who he really is in real life — even though the play is set in 1980s New York, a place and time where homophobia is frighteningly internalized, wreaks havoc on families, and drives deadly gay-bashing attacks.

Those same three qualifications — actor, singer, drag artist — belong to Peter Mill, who has graced Boston stages at Club Café, where he performs his drag cabaret act, as well as with Moonbox Productions, with which he's collaborated many times on plays like "Musical of Musicals: The Musical," "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," "A New Brain," and now a production of "Torch Song," the shorter version of "Torch Song Trilogy" that Fierstein created in 2017, shaving more than an hour off the original's four-hour runtime.

Fierstein played Arnold in the play's original production and reprised the role in the 1988 movie; now, Mill plays Arnold in the Moonbox production, bringing his own voice, and his own hard-earned sensibilities, to the work. Mill told EDGE all about the production, which also stars Boston stage favorite Bobbie Steinbach as Ma Beckoff, Cristhian Mancinas-Garcia as Arnold's conflicted onetime boyfriend Ed, Janis Greim Hudson as Ed's wife Laurel, Jack Manning as Arnold's lover Alan, and Jack Mullen as David, the gay teen Arnold adopts in his quest for authentic found family.

Peter Mill
Peter Mill  

EDGE: Having worked with you in the past, did Moonbox reach out to you for this production?

Peter Mill: When we were doing "Rocky Horror" for the second time, [Founding Artistic Director] Sharman Altshuler approached me in between shows one night and said, "This was a great success. What other projects are you interested in right now?" I sent her the script for "Torch Song," and she read it and said, "This sounds fantastic! Let's do it."

EDGE: You're doing the shorter, 2017 version of the play. As a performer, do you wish you were doing the original longer version?

Peter Mill: There are certain moments in the show where I do wish there were more. It covers a lot of ground, and there are certain characters that do suffer more than others in the cuts. But the overall message of the show is still there, and it still definitely works in the shorter format.

We just did our first run through of it the other day, and I have no idea how an actor could do a four-hour version of the show, because I was exhausted. The physical and emotional toll it takes with just the three-hour version is incredible.

EDGE: Harvey Fierstein has such a singular voice and iconic presence. How are you making the character your own?

Peter Mill: At first, I was very intimidated by it because I had the same idea; I hear his voice in my head, and I can't do that. I can't be all the incredible things he is. But I saw the revival of it on Broadway with Michael Urie, and that felt like something closer to what I would do with the character. It made me realize that it can work without Harvey Fierstein's persona in it. As I've dissected the script, it's amazed me how naturally it fits into my own persona. I haven't felt out of place with it at all. I'm approaching it as I would any character and living it through my own experience and my own truth, and I'm finding that it works.

Peter Mill in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show"
Peter Mill in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show"  

EDGE: "Torch Song" feels like such a part of the '80s. But do you feel that there is also a modern sensibility to the play?

Peter Mill: This character was so unbelievably ahead of its time. He's not a stereotype. He's not the brunt of a joke, like so many queer characters were in that time period. He's just a human being who wants a very simple thing. He wants a husband and a child, but for 1982, when [the play first] came out, that's an absurd thing for a gay man to want. I think it's proving to be very timeless material.

There are certain things we're doing to go further, because we it's safer for us now — things like [getting] into physical intimacy between characters. [That's] not as shocking or taboo now as it would have been when the play came out.

EDGE: Arnold is an incredibly funny character. I know that standup is often part of drag performance. Are you finding that you're able to put those things together pretty easily?

Peter Mill: I find that my career doing cabaret work has really helped inform that. I know how to work a room. I know how to hold a crowd without having a script telling me what to do. That is a special skill all on its own, and it certainly helps inform some of the choices I'm making with Arnold.

Peter Mill in a publicity photo for "Torch Song"
Peter Mill in a publicity photo for "Torch Song"  

EDGE:: The moment that stands out to me in the play is when Arnold's mother tells him something like, "If I'd known you were going to be gay, I wouldn't have bothered." That's incredibly shocking. How are you and Bobbie Steinbach navigating such moments between Arnold and his mother?

Peter Mill: I am so incredibly lucky to have Bobbie as my scene partner. She and I are really leaning into the love that these characters share. As awful as the things she says to him are, we're still finding a way to [emphasize] the love between them. Her character's suffering, too. She's got pain, she's got trauma. She's got things she hasn't worked through, and they don't excuse the things she says at all, but we're trying to find ways to understand what makes her tick and what makes her say these awful things.

Bobbie plays it in such a beautiful and honest way that when she says that line: The second it leaves her mouth she instantly regrets it and is broken by it. Those scenes between Arnold and mom, those fight scenes, it [would be] so easy to just go for the jugular and start yelling and screaming, and we're trying to not do that. We're trying to make this the conversation between these two that eventually goes too far and does erupt, but it's not there from moment one.

EDGE: Drag is your forte — you perform at Club Café, you've played Dr. Frank-n-furter in Moonbox's production of "The Rocky Horror Show," and you've even played female characters in "Chicago" and "Hair." What is it about drag that makes it a form of art through which you can best express yourself?

Peter Mill: I find it allows me to access a side of myself that nothing else does. I've always been inspired by larger-than-life women in my personal and professional lives. I find it gives me access to the side of me that lives way down deep, and that's the way it can come out. That's where I feel like my best self. My drag persona is really just an elevated version of me; it's not some completely different personality that comes out. It allows me to accept further parts of myself.

EDGE: Elevated in the sense that elevated text is Shakespearean in nature, or a musical expresses elevated emotions? Larger than life?

Peter Mill: Absolutely. It's very similar reason why I'm drawn to musical theater; it's because the emotion has gone beyond what just speaking can express. I think drag does something very similar, in that it elevates things to a level that normal, everyday life can't express.

EDGE: Drag is a time-honored form of entertainment, and it's never been more popular than it is right now. What's the fascination, do you think, for straight audiences?

Peter Mill: I think drag represents something very different in every culture. I spent a little time in the UK pre-pandemic, and drag over there is a very respected theatrical tradition, whereas if you look over in America, drag is a very subversive part of the culture. It's resistance, it's standing up against the establishment and what's normal. So, I think it means something very different to every culture, and I think nowadays a lot of people are coming around to realizing the freedom it gives you. There's so many people, even straight people, who try drag for the first time and realize, "Oh, wow, I feel powerful in a way I never knew I could."

EDGE: The culture in America is crazy in a lot of ways right now, but it's particularly nuts how they've gone overboard with pushing back against drag in certain parts of the country. What is going on there?

Peter Mill: You know, I feel like it's an easy target because we're out there promoting love and acceptance. We're not promoting anything that's dangerous to people or harmful to people. We're promoting honesty and truth and beauty and living your authentic self. I feel like drag queens are an easy target to distract from the real shit, if you'll pardon the word, that's happening in our country. If we yell about drag queens, that's something we can get people angry. Drag queens are not doing anything to harm the fabric of our society; if anything, they're helping people tremendously. We're living in an age of willful ignorance, where people can just choose to ignore things that they don't want to deal with and find scapegoats for everything. That's all the LGBTQ community has ever been [to certain people], is scapegoats. We're not hurting anyone. We never have been.

Moonbox Production's "Torch Song" runs Dec. 2 — 23 at the BCA Calderwood Pavilion - Roberts Theater. For more information, follow this link.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.