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Funny lady Julie Halston talks about playing a powerful producer in Tootsie
When she first saw the movie Tootsie as a young woman, Julie Halston identified with Dustin Hoffman's out-of-work actor Michael Dorsey because "I desperately wanted to be a successful working actress, and I didn't quite know what I was doing." She also related to the romance-challenged ladies in Michael's life because "I had been a young bride who had gotten a divorce after a very brief marriage, so I was looking to find love in the big city."
Soon after, Halston got her first big break, performing in Vampire Lesbians of Sodom written by celebrated drag performer Charles Busch. It marked the first of their many collaborations committed to, as she puts it, "gender elusiveness." Suddenly, she had an even greater kinship with Michael, who disguises himself as actress Dorothy Michaels in order to land a role on a soap opera.
Thirty-seven years after its release, Tootsie has been made into a Broadway musical, and Julie Halston has a new character with whom to identify: the one she plays on stage, Broadway producer Rita Marshall.
With songs by Tony winner David Yazbek (The Band's Visit), the musical updates the movie's narrative for the 21st century in a variety of ways, most notably the reason Michael (Santino Fontana) becomes Dorothy: to get cast in a Broadway musical, not a soap. "Obviously we had to change that because in the 1980s soap operas were very, very popular, but they really do not rule the airways anymore," Halston explains. Besides, it gives the show a clever meta quality and the chance for Rita, a strong and powerful woman, to give Michael as Dorothy her big shot. Like all the female characters, Rita serves as a role model for Michael as he learns how hard it is to make it as a woman in a man's world.
Known for her way with wisecracks and scene-stealing prowess, Halston has been with Tootsie since its Chicago run last fall. The show is her ninth on Broadway, although she's done many more Off-Broadway, plus character parts on TV. "I have had a very lovely career as an actress and I love playing Rita Marshall," she says. However, at age 64, she's open to other opportunities. "Maybe I will become Rita Marshall. I think in the future I may want to produce." Halston actually has some experience in that area: her own one-woman shows, her pal Busch's Off-Broadway comedy Psycho Beach Party and Broadway Belts, an annual fundraiser for pulmonary fibrosis. But portraying a theatre producer made her realize, "I might want to do it on a larger scale. And it'd be great if I could continue wearing the fabulous William Ivey Long clothes Rita wears."
For now, though, she's focused on Tootsie and loving the ways in which some characters embody female empowerment. One of her favorite lines is when the star of the musical-within-the-musical, Julie Nichols (portrayed by Lilli Cooper) confronts Michael: "'You think because you walked a mile in a woman's shoes, you suddenly know? Walk a hundred. Walk a thousand. Fall a thousand more. There is so much you don't know.' I get very teary every time I hear that because that's more relevant than ever," Halston says. "Women continue to have a rough time in this culture... in every culture."
Rita also talks about the challenges of being a woman, although with comic flair. As she confesses to Dorothy: "You may not believe this, but growing up, I was a wallflower. In school I was voted, Who Is That?. Then I realized my potential, and now I grab success when I see it."
That could be Halston's story, too. "In the first eight years of my life I was very much a wallflower," she says. Growing up in Commack, Long Island, "I was the middle child of three girls, and felt left out. When I was very young, my mom and dad were concerned because I was so withdrawn." That, she notes, is so common for future actors that it's almost a stereotype. "It's why we're attracted to assuming someone else's identity."
The senior follies at Holy Family High School is when Halston realized she had a talent for cracking up audiences. "I did all of these skits and I was roller-skating across stage and I was allowed to improv and people were howling with laughter," she recalls. "I said, 'This was what I want to do'." It took a while. "My parents kept saying, 'What about teaching? What about speech therapy?'"
Turns out those fallbacks weren't needed -- Halston's been working steadily for the past 30-odd years, usually delivering show-stopping punch lines. One of her best in Tootsie is: "Sometimes I wish my first husband could look down from heaven and see me now. But no, the bastard is still alive!" Yet it almost didn't make the cut. Last August, while Halston was rehearsing for Tootsie's out-of-town tryout, her husband of 26 years, celebrated radio broadcaster Ralph Howard, died of lung disease. The musical's book writer Robert Horn was concerned the joke would hit a raw nerve, but Halston put him at ease.
"I said, 'Look: One of the reasons I adored my husband so much is because he totally understood great writing,'" Halston remembers. "He was also a broadcaster who went to work regardless of circumstances. When you're a newscaster you've got to get out there and tell the story. I told Robert I would make this work. The first time I said it in rehearsal, I'll be honest, it was difficult. But now I relish saying it every night. The audience goes wild at this joke. I feel the presence of my husband every night. This musical could not have come at a better time in my life."
Jonathan Mandell is a drama critic and journalist based in New York. Visit his blog at NewYorkTheater.me or follow him on Twitter at @NewYorkTheater. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Julie Halston
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