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."
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