“Funniest woman on the planet!” That’s what Rex Reed shrieked when he first saw my friend Julie Halston’s one-woman show Off-Broadway. To call Julie “inimitable” is like calling Harvey Fierstein “offbeat.” In her act, as in life, she knows the difference between saying funny words and saying words funny.
Nathan Lane almost choked on a blini while ringside at Ms. Halston’s Firebird Café whine-tasting; Liza dragged her to sit front-row at the Streisand concert. Julie is popular for the same reason she’s funny: because she’s the smartest person any of us know. I mean, she used to be a gold analyst on Wall Street, for Lord’s sake! (I don’t even know what that is, but she did, and I’d hazard that she was a damn good one.)
As a founding member of Theater in Limbo, Julie camped and vamped her way through the ’80s alongside Charles Busch. The ’90s were a mad concoction of stand-up and theater. When the millennium approached, she was ready: movies, a role on Sex and the City, and finally Broadway! She can currently be seen in Gypsy, getting screams of laughter as an Olive Oyl-like Miss Cratchitt and a lethargic wino stripper, Electra. As our phoner began, Ms. H. was twittering about a recent meeting with a new fan. He’s a lucky guy; he has so much to look forward to!
JULIE HALSTON: Darling! So this beautiful guy came up to me outside the theater and said, “Miss Halston, I love you and your work. I don’t know if you know this, but you’re a gay icon.” I almost spit out my Pellegrino. He was sincere, so I acted surprised and gracious, as gay icons will do. But hello? Do I know I’m a gay icon? I was wearing false eyelashes at four in the afternoon! What are my choices?
JIM CARUSO: So, how did it all start for Julie Halston: Gay Icon?
JH: On a dare from a friend. I got up on stage, yakked for 45 minutes, and called it an act! My friend Robert Cohen, who is now Robert Ducharme — don’t ask! — kept telling me about Charles Busch and how we needed to know each other. I was like, “Yeah, yeah, but I don’t need a gender illusionist in my life. I need an acting job!” I was working on Wall Street during the day at that time. Anyway, in 1983, Robert asked me to go to San Francisco to perform at a benefit because a lot of people out there were dying of something called GRIDS, which we now know as AIDS.
JC: And you did your act?
JH: If that’s what you wanna call it! I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. I did know enough to wear a very glamorous white jumpsuit with a cowl-neck, cut my hair in a chic style and wear long earrings and false eyelashes because I wanted to look like Kay Thompson! Well, Charles Busch happened to be in the audience at that benefit. He didn’t know what to make of me, but he obviously adored my look. He knew that anyone who dressed like Kay Thompson on purpose had to be interesting! So he invited me to see his upcoming one-man show when I got back to New York.
JC: Did you know who he was at the time?
JH: Not a clue. He didn’t even know who he was; Charles was a weird, skinny, Northwestern University graduate. I finally went to his show and fell completely in love. He wasn’t in drag, but he played men and women — and he used a lot of props. It was one of those touchstone moments for me. I brought every one of my friends. Half of them thought I was out of my mind, the other half totally got him and thought he was divine. The ones who didn’t are no longer my friends. I went back to the show five times, always with about 10 people. Charles said to his director, Ken Elliott, “I don’t know what her deal is, but this girl is very popular.” They needed someone to play opposite Charles in Vampire Lesbians of Sodom and they knew I could provide the audience!
JC: Did you get the job right away?
JH: I’ll never forget it. I read the part for them and I was terrible. Ken took Charles into the kitchen and said, “She’s terrible.” Charles said, “Yes, but she’s popular.” So I got the part! The very first performance was at an illegal hole-in-the-wall club called 8-BC; it was so hip, you couldn’t find it. The audience knew I was bad but, evidently, there was something compelling about me. So they were with me.
JC: When you went on for Jean Smart in The Man Who Came To Dinner, it seemed like everyone in town was there to see you do the role. There was an eruption of applause when you made your entrance, so the people who didn’t know you felt like something big was happening. And it was! You really delivered.
JH: I hope so. Maybe it’s — dare we say it? — the “It” factor.’ Who can say why it works? Vampire Lesbians was the beginning, though. I had a ball, and never stopped.
JC: And now, Gypsy!
JH: The greatest musical ever written.
JC: You’ve been in Broadway shows before, but this one is a gigantic hit.
JH: It’s been a slow-to-get-there hit. There was a lot of negative publicity. Bernadette was sick and some people were not convinced that she could do it, but now we’re sellin’ out every night and way into the future. Being in a Broadway musical gives you a different, jaunty walk. I walk down the street in my Gypsy hat and people talk to me. Philip Seymour Hoffman winked at me on the street! There’s nothing to compare with the feeling.
JC: What’s your relationship with the cast?
JH: Hate them all. I speak to no one. And that Peters woman… a bitch. [Laughing] Honestly, it’s a love-fest. I think I’m kind of the “best friend” of the cast. Think Eve Arden. The guys all like me, I think, and my fellow strippers and I adore each other.
JC: What about the kids in the show?
JH: That’s been interesting. When we first started, I didn’t feel any maternal stirrings at all. I love kids on stage but I’m often mistrustful. Now that I’ve gotten a little kitten named “Gypsy,” I actually find myself feeling more maternal to the children in the show. I realize this makes no sense, but I’ve found myself saying, “Jordan, get those tap shoes on…Stephen, where’s the reed for your clarinet?” Oh my God, I’m Mama Rose! I’m a mother and a monster! Perfect for Gypsy.
JC: And Bernadette?
JH: We’re all in love with her. It’s impossible not to be. In the past, I appreciated her work, but now I worship at the shrine of Bernadette Peters. She’s gracious and lovely to everyone.
JC: Is Gypsy a glamorous gig?
JH: It’s a lot of work, and it’s tiring. But, let me tell you, it’s worth it. Leaving the Shubert Theater stage door and having people say, “Miss Halston! Miss Halston!” is thrilling. More importantly, it’s fulfilling to know you’re doing something that brings so much joy to so many people. Short of tying up a suture and saving someone’s life, what could be more noble?
JC: How has the show changed your life?
JH: I have to pace myself much more; I just can’t do as much in a day as I used to. People think being in a show involves three hours of work. First of all, just getting into the Electra costume is exhausting. I’d like to think that I’m not one to walk through a performance, and giving 100% takes energy. This is a hit Broadway show that’s sold out every night. Important people are there all the time. Last night, I was chatting with Michael York and, the night before that, Sharon Stone. You have to be ‘on’ all the time. I respect Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents too much to not have the energy I need for the show. So it’s exhausting, but I’m absolutely elated.
JC: Was opening night very emotional for you?
JH: We were under a bizarre cloud because of the negative press. We were nervous about the reviews, I’ll say it. Before we took our curtain call, our director, Sam Mendes — who I would take a bullet for — got the New York Times review on his Palm Pilot. I saw him reading it right near the stage door, and he looked quite serious… almost teary. I thought, “Holy s*#@, we’re done!” So there I was standing in my stripper costume with Kate Buddeke, who plays Mazeppa, watching Sam. He turned to both of us and said, “It’s a rave. You’re all mentioned.” He said not to tell anyone. Well, of course, within two minutes, the entire cast knew and was on cell phones, computers, whatever. We rushed to watch Bernadette sing “Rose’s Turn,” all of us sobbing, having just gone through a very emotional few weeks.
JC: Was the negative press discussed with the cast at any point?
JH: Sam constantly reassured us that the show was looking good. He kept saying “don’t even go there” with the bad press. I’d walk down Ninth Avenue and people would stop and ask “How are you?” with big, puppy dog eyes. And they’d kinda hold me! I felt like screaming, “I’m fine. I’m employed in a big Broadway hit. How are YOU?”
JC: Everyone knows you as a wonderful comedienne, but you’re also a really good actress. Why do so many comics end up being good actors?
JH: Except for Jerry Seinfeld, you’re right. I think being a comic is so hard; you really have to develop a lot of fortitude and a lot of patience. Comics have to rely on their own wits just to get through their sets. So, from working with club owners, drunk audiences, and hecklers, I think you develop survival skills and acting skills.
JC: Did you have idols growing up?
JH: I adored Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby. Still to this day, I put on Bill Cosby albums around the house. Lewis Black really affected me, too. The first time I saw him was during a blizzard; he was late, walked on stage right from the street wearing a raincoat, drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette and holding a New York Times. He started reading from it and ranting about what was wrong with the world. It looked so spontaneous, but of course he was and is completely disciplined. I was flabbergasted. I thought, “I can do this.” Somehow, he emboldened me. My act was full of bizarre childhood stories and I was always freaking out about the state of the world. I’m like the love child of Bill Cosby and Lewis Black, but my wacky voice makes it come out different. I also loved Lily Tomlin and Joan Rivers, but…
JC: I love Beverly Sills, but I don’t want to sing like her.
JH: Exactly. If any woman influenced me, it was Hermione Gingold when she’d appear on the Merv Griffin show. Can you believe it? I wanna be Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, and Hermione Gingold. Now, there’s an act!