A Visit with Julie Halston
"Do you want to see a video of the actress playing Martha Stewart?"
We were already a few cocktails into the evening when my friend Winston asked me this and although I was feeling "a little torchy... a little chanteusey" (i.e. hoping to gather around the piano) I went with the flow. Winston was rehearsing a show he created for the Connecticut Gay Men's Chorus called A CONNECTICUT CHRISTMAS. It allowed the audience a satirical peek inside a Christmas Eve fête at the Stewart compound where all manner of hilarity and hijinks ensues. For the comedy to land Winston needed a comedic actress who could pull off a bedazzled, bewitching, and ultimately bedraggled Martha.
After dinner I refilled my Manhattan, grabbed a large throw pillow, and sat on the hardwood floor in front of the television. I popped in the VHS tape and with somewhat dubious expectations, pressed play. A woman stepped into the spotlight, took the microphone and said, "So...". It was as if she were already in the middle of a conversation and I thought, "If I want to keep up I had better pay attention". For the next hour I didn't take my eyes off of her.
That was my introduction to Julie Halston!
That was in 1996. Twenty years would go by before we'd meet face-to-face. By that time Julie had appeared on Broadway in a slew of shows including HAIRSPRAY, GYPSY, THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, ON THE TOWN, TWENTIETH CENTURY, THE WOMEN, ANYTHING GOES, and YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU. She earned Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award nominations, received four MAC (Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs) Awards for her solo comedy performances, wrote a book entitled MONOLOGUES FOR SHOW-OFFS, stole the show with her hilarious performance as Bitsy von Muffling on SEX AND THE CITY, appeared in feature films (e.g., ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES, A VERY SERIOUS PERSON), and founded THEATRE-IN-LIMBO with Tony Award nominated playwright and drag legend Charles Busch.
I was fortunate to see Julie - who Charles Busch calls his muse - perform in several of his plays including THE DIVINE SISTER, TIMES SQUARE ANGEL, and a reading of RED SCARE ON SUNSET. It was after a performance of THE DIVINE SISTER at Bucks County Playhouse in August 2016 that Charles and Alison Fraser (Tony Award nominee for ROMANCE/ROMANCE and THE SECRET GARDEN) introduced us. They had both been guest artists with Broadway Books First Class and talked it up to Julie. I was thrilled to welcome her aboard but it was almost 2 years before we were able to schedule her visit (it was definitely worth the wait).
Miss Halston may be adept at broad, bawdy comedy but boy, oh boy, is she ever a class act! She arrived for her visit with the preschool, first and second grade students dressed elegantly in a smart sweater/skirt combo. She brought along a photograph of herself in second grade and the children had a great time chatting with her about her elementary school experience.
Believe it or not she was terribly shy as a youngster. Eventually her mother enrolled her in a summer acting program to help break her out of her shell and that was the beginning of a new trajectory. Growing up brings changes. In time, the issues that haunt us in elementary school become simply memories.
This is a "good thing" for a somewhat shy, somewhat awkward first or second grader to know.
Julie has a very engaging comedic delivery that I knew would be a terrific match with Lemony Snicket's writing style in THE BAD MOOD AND THE STICK. The book shows how we can all easily fall into a disagreeable state and how that cloud of irritation lingers for a bit before descending upon another unsuspecting soul. It is told with humor (there is a large man, named Lou, in his underpants) and old-school illustrations by Matthew Forsythe.
After the reading she continued the conversation by asking the children what puts them in a bad mood. They said, "Fighting with my sister, taking a bath, when people steal from me, and when someone doesn't let me play with them." Conversely, she also asked, "What puts you in a good mood?" The little charmers responded with, "Being at school, being with my teachers, being in a play, being with friends, the beach, and going crazy!"
It is exceedingly brilliant watching the guest artists interacting with the students. The children all want to be heard and seen so things can become very lively. Julie joyfully kept them on track while keeping the conversation moving to favorite foods. I think all of the adults were surprised to learn sushi was number one. When Julie said sushi wasn't an option when she was growing up one student good-naturedly called out, "Curse the old days!" (Everyone's a comedian!)
Speaking of comedy... The children wanted to know how she knows a joke will land. The truth is, you don't. You put it out there, finesse it, rework, and tweak until it either gets a laugh or you scrap it. And sometimes laughs come in unexpected places. Obviously not all of them can be winners like this gem shared by a second grader, "What does a volcano eat for lunch?" Answer: "Ash potatoes!" (I'm here all week - Don't forget to tip your server.)
In the end, it is the things we say yes to that make a difference. For Julie it was saying yes to acting classes when she was 11 years old. It was saying yes to leaving behind a well paying job on Wall Street to pursue a dream. It was saying yes to forging a partnership with Charles Busch. It was saying yes to inspiration, laughter and hard work. And it was saying yes to my invitation to come share a morning with an extraordinary group of children that made a difference in their lives.
For me, it was saying yes all those years ago to Winston's question, "Do you want to see a video of the actress playing Martha Stewart?" And I am so glad I did!
Broadway Books First Class