Julie Halston, one of the most gifted comedic actors working today, is back on Broadway in the acclaimed musical comedy Tootsie at the Marquis Theatre. The four-time Drama Desk nominee plays producer Rita Marshall in the new musical, which features a score by Tony winner David Yazbek and a hilarious, Tony-winning book by Robert Horn. Halston, whose Broadway credits also include On the Town, You Can't Take It with You, Anything Goes, Gypsy, Hairspray, and The Women, is the recipient of Equity’s Richard Seff Award and the Off-Broadway Alliance’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
We recently asked Halston to pen a list of her most memorable nights in the theatre; her responses follow.
Drama Desks Awards, 1991
In 1991 Theatre in Limbo, the Charles Busch company that I helped found and was a part of, opened the brilliant play Red Scare on Sunset. It was Charles' take on the horrendous McCarthy Era in the late 1940s and 1950s. The play is actually more timely than ever. I was lucky enough to receive a Drama Desk nomination for my portrayal of Pat Pilford, the red-baiting radio host. I loved doing the play, but it was going to the Drama Desks that year that made me feel that our company had finally arrived. We were now a truly legitimate situation, and it made me proud. I believe I lost to Eileen Atkins that year (I've lost a number of times!), but losing to Dame Atkins is not so terrible. And, of course, I love that she is right across the street from Tootsie doing the play The Height of the Storm!
Gypsy is my favorite musical, and so to be cast as one of the legendary strippers (Miss Electra) was a dream come true. Plus, we would be working with the legend herself, Bernadette Peters. The director was brilliant Sam Mendes, and Stephen Sondheim would be around to consult and guide. I had six call-backs for this show, and there was a time that I just gave up on being part of this production. I remember being seriously dispirited. But casting agent Jim Carnahan and Sam didn't give up on me, and I became both Miss Electra and Miss Cratchitt. The cast included John Dossett, Tammy Blanchard, Brooks Ashmanskas, Heather Lee, Kate Buddeke, Jenna Gavigan, Tim Federle, Wally Dunn, and more. We are all still close friends, and we try to have Gypsy reunions at least once a year! Hearing the incredible overture for the first time at the sitzprobe left everyone in a sea of tears. We could barely get to our microphones to do the show.
Doing this play became a highlight in my career. Initially, I wasn't interested in playing Gay Wellington, the eccentric drunk Penny (played by the great Kristine Nielsen) brings home to the family. I just couldn't figure out what I could bring to this small but pivotal role. I wasn't finding her in rehearsal, and even during the first few previews, I couldn't find my way—she felt like an unnecessary character. The wonderful Scott Ellis came to my dressing room and said, “How about I give you a night in front of an audience to do whatever you want as long as you tell the cast that you are using this night to work things out?” I went back to the text, which made clear that Gay had been drinking an entire bottle of gin by herself. Realizing that if someone has that much gin in their system, they are not going to be standing and speaking with any clarity. I fell on the floor and crawled up that magnificent (and long!) staircase by David Rockwell laughing, pausing, careening all the while speaking a suggestive limerick. The audience went rather wild (and the cast did indeed start laughing—Rose Byrne had to turn upstage!), and it became a wonderful set-piece in the show. Scott Ellis trusted me to come up with something original for the show, and I was so pleased that I didn't fail him! I won the Richard Seff Award that year (along with Brad Oscar), and it remains one of my fondest memories.
The Babylon Line by Richard Greenberg
Richard Greenberg is one of my favorite playwrights, and I am so excited that his Tony Award-winning play, Take Me Out, is coming back to Broadway directed by Scott Ellis. I had done a casual reading of Richard's play The Babylon Line sometime around 2009 or maybe 2010. It takes place on Long Island, where I grew up, and it's very funny, poetic, and moving. The play simply haunted me, and I (along with Maddie Corman, who was also part of this reading) always talked about the hope that a full production of this play would take place sometime in New York and that we would still be a part of it. New York Stage and Film at Vassar gave the play a workshop, and it finally opened at Lincoln Center in 2016. Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Reaser, Maddie, Frank Wood, Michael Oberholtzer (who will be seen in the revival of Take Me Out), Randy Graff, and myself were the cast, and it was directed by Terry Kinney. It was simply a dream cast in a brilliant play. To speak Richard's gorgeous, literate words is a privilege. Going to work every day was a joy, and once again I'm happy to say we have all remained very close.
It is no surprise that Tootsie is on this list. Even though we are currently doing the show on Broadway now, I know that it is and will remain a highlight on my resume. To work on a show from the very beginning, to help inspire an A-List creative team, is what actors crave in their careers. Robert Horn's book is quite simply one of the best books to a musical to come along in decades, and the thunderous laughter that comes across the footlights every night is a testament to its brilliance. Our cast, lead by Tony winner Santino Fontana, gets to shine every night in their own great moments, but also to play every night with one another in an atmosphere of pure comedy heaven! Once again Scott Ellis trusted his cast to bring their own original take on Robert's words, and it all meshed together beautifully. Add to this David Yazbek's music, the gorgeous ensemble, David Rockwell's sets, Don Holder's lighting, William Ivey Long 's stunning costumes, and Brian Ronan's sound design. And, on a personal note, Tootsie came at such a difficult time in my life. My husband passed away during rehearsals and getting up to face the day was near impossible. The cast, crew, creatives, musicians, and producers rallied around me and gave me a reason to show up. I'll be forever grateful.