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Beyond the Footlights with Hairspray’s Julie Halston

July 11, 2013 - by Griffin Miller, Theatre Editor
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Backstage at Hairspray: It’s 11:56 on a Wednesday night when actress Julie Halston descends from the upper warren of dressing rooms at the Neil Simon Theatre, sidestepping a wardrobe staffer toting a plump female torso recently discarded by the actor playing Edna Turnblad, the captivating drag matriarch at the center of the Tony-winning musical. In the show, Halston plays a trio of parts, including a gym teacher and a prison matron. Her most prominent role, however, is that of Prudy Pingleton, an overly protective mom who learns a thing or two about tolerance before the final curtain.

“I love having the audience recognize me in all the different roles,” says the Long Island-born actress, who can hear theatregoers commenting on each new persona every time she steps onto the stage. “It’s good to be funny and get immediate laughs,” she adds.

As the post-show crowd lingers around the stage door, we head to one of Halston’s favorite nearby haunts for a little wine and a generous portion of post-show conversation, including her saga of what it was like replacing noted deadpan actress/comedienne Jackie Hoffman in the long-running production. “I was nervous about taking on this track because Jackie had made it her own and was so good,” notes Halston, who’s at least a foot taller than Hoffman and stylistically at the other end of the spectrum.

Fortunately, her fears were assuaged when the show’s creators proved adamant about Halston making the characters her own—something the actress has specialized in her entire career, from the early ’80s, when she first linked up with Charles Busch (The Dinner Party, The Lady in Question) at the Limbo Lounge for Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, to such recent roles as Bitsy Von Muffling on “Sex and the City,” and Ida Webb, a male role reconfigured especially for her in last year’s hilarious revival of Twentieth Century with Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche.

A no-holds-barred descendant of the wisecracking “dames” of the ’30s and ’40s—right down to her New York accent and in-bred ability to wax comedic on all people, places, and things relating to theatre in the Big Apple—Halston has developed close relationships with a number of Broadway icons, including Harvey Fierstein, who originated the role of Edna in Hairspray and is currently starring in Fiddler on the Roof at the Minskoff. “Harvey and I did a CBS pilot together in 1993 about a divorced woman who lives with her gay friend—a forerunner to ‘Will and Grace’,” says Halston. “Unfortunately, a week after the pilot, CBS got a whole a new management team and the project was dropped.” On the plus side, Halston says, she and Fierstein forged a friendship that has never flagged.

Checking the time, it’s clear we’re well into the early hours of Thursday, and Halston is preparing for her brief trek home. So, Julie, how long does it take you to get to the theatre every night? “I can make it in like four minutes if I need to dash, but when I stroll it takes about six minutes—always an arduous commute,” she sighs.

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