You would think it isn't easy to be a leading lady's leading lady, but Julie Halston has no problem with it. She's been doing it for more than 30 years, playing — bosom buddy, lady in waiting, handmaiden, Tonto, whatever is required — to Charles Busch. Busch is famous for all his many entertaining hats: Actor, novelist, screenwriter, drag legend, and, of course, playwright with 18 plays so far.
The Tribute Artist, number 19, opened Feb. 9 at Primary Stages, scene of two of his previous crimes (Olive and the Bitter Herbs and You Should Be So Lucky), and it finds him in a pair of pants for only the second time in his career — Lucky was the first.
Not for long, rest assured. An out-of-work female impersonator, he is compelled to dress up and apply his art toward passing for his late landlady so he can hang on to her Greenwich Village townhouse long enough for his real-estate-lady sidekick (Halston) to peddle it on the open market and make them both rich.
He didn't have to surrender his gay card for this role, either. "My character is definitely gay," he trumpeted. "It's very important, actually, because it's what makes us so different from all of the other 'Some Like It Hot'-Charley's Aunt-'Tootsie' stories." When he and Halston first crossed paths in San Francisco in 1983, it was hardly a "Eureka" moment. He was doing his one-man show, Alone — With a Cast of Thousands, and she was doing an AIDS benefit. He was not impressed. In fact, he found her singularly unfunny. "But I was very popular and had a lot of friends I was constantly taking to his show," she countered. In a pinch for a leading lady for Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, he gave her a shot, and she pretty well came away with a bull's eye.
Now, he wouldn't dream of pulling a caper, or play, without her. She has a permanent place in his creative sandbox. As muses go, she has gone the distance — and well beyond. The secret to their success: He writes for her, and she talks to him.
"A lot of the things he writes for me are things that I say," she admitted. "Like, I'll go over and have a social date with him and be telling [him] about what's going on with my mother or what happened at the gym, and the next thing I know, it's in the play."
But there's a trick to translating the Primal Halston into the Playable Halston, Busch said. "We have to go through a bit of a dance where I imitate her and then she imitates me imitating her. Then, she really goes to town. And still she surprises me. She'll come up with some flourish I've never seen before that'll absolutely floor me."
By any other name, Julie Halston has been Lenore Stupack, the angry, sex-starved wife of a Scarsdale car dealer (You Should Be So Lucky); Pat Pilford, a red-baiting anti-Communist in 1950s Hollywood (Red Scare on Sunset); Kitty, the Countess de Borgia, a showbiz dame with a title (The Lady in Question) and the sexually short-circuiting Sister Acacius (The Divine Sister).
"I do literally remember opening the script of The Divine Sister, and, by page two, I knew it was a gold mine — and I hadn't even come on yet!" Her sentimental favorite Busch play is The Lady in Question, which he had scraped together from the more glamorous backlot Nazi-fights of Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford.
"One, it put us on the map with Frank Rich and the New York Times, and it really changed the course of our company. Two, Charles and I are both obsessed with World War II. We weren't part of World War II, but it resonated with us. We were part of the AIDS crisis, and that's a war we're still fighting." Indeed, it struck close to home and claimed members of their own Theater-in-Limbo company — Robert Carey, the beefcake of Times Square Angel, and Meghan Robinson, the matron of 'Psycho Beach Party.'
Without fail, Busch and Halston play great polar opposites in his plays — the dreamer versus the doer. "It makes a great contrast, and it's a great basis for conflict," she noted.
"I'm the one who gets to say, 'I told you it wasn't going to work.' In the end, as we see, dreams and terra firma can co-exist, and they can make for a lovely world. "As always with Charles, it's a special world. What I love about his work is just when you think you've figured it out, there's always a twist — and it doesn't have to be a gender-bending twist. He's a good enough writer that it will be a twist with a plot.
"I have to say Charles and I, together, are the best team. I don't mean to be self-aggrandizing. I think people like to see us together, and we like to see us together."
That kid from Comack, Long Island, who wasn't so funny at first, seems to have worked out, and, according to Busch, she still works: "Julie can do a true-to-herself line reading, and it cracks me up. We make each other laugh, and that's nice after all these years."