They say that good things come to those who wait. Well, the cabaret industry waited, even though it didn’t know what it was waiting for. Indeed, the industry and the community didn’t know that something was missing – rather, that someone was missing – then one day the wait was over. Joanne Halev had arrived. Oh, people knew Joanne from cabaret classes she took (for years) and from seeing her at shows around town, but they didn’t know that there was a quality, an essence that only she possessed that would enhance the art form, the business, and the family of artists working in New York City’s nightclub scene. It was an aura of old-style Hollywood glamor mixed with Manhattan literati and laced with modern-day empowered woman… and a voice, both musical and artistic, that would catch the attention of everyone exposed to it. With only four performances of her 2019 debut show LIKE A PERFUMED WOMAN, Joanne snagged a prestigious Bistro Award, a prize voted upon and bestowed by a panel of industry leaders and experts. Everyone sees something special in Joanne Halev.
Broadway World Cabaret is proud to welcome Joanne in her most in-depth interview yet. We know our readers will see that same something special, too.
This interview was conducted digitally and is reproduced with minimal edits.
Name: Joanne Halev
First Cabaret Show (Title, Year, Club):
Like a Perfumed Woman, 2019 & 2020; Birdland Theater and Laurie Beechman Theatre
Most Recent Cabaret Show: That’s it!
Website or Social Media Handles: None as yet!
Joanne Halev, thank you for taking time out to chat today! How is life by you as we approach the one year mark?
It’s hard to imagine that it’s been nearly a year since the world as we know it literally stopped. Appropriately, my last dinner out was with Alex Rybeck, my Musical Director, on March 11. Life by me has been calm and peaceful, if pretty much regulated by a certain sameness! But I have no right to complain at all. I am filling my (interchangeable) days with reading some good books (including some classics I’ve been wanting to revisit!), and with Zoom yoga classes, Zoom group voice lessons with Patrick de Gennaro, and Zoom performance classes with Lina Koutrakos. Zoom, Zoom, Zoom! And the weeks and months have gone by…
I have also ventured up to Hudson, New York several times with my close friend Dorian Woodruff where we’ve enjoyed poking around in the great stores there, antiquing and having lunch together. Those have been great times.
I also did a table reading of a really interesting play with music about the so-called Spanish flu of 1918 and its parallels here in the US with our own pandemic. The music was all from that period. I sang After You’ve Gone and a little something called What Kind of an American Are You? It was clearly a politically polarized time just like ours. The reaction to that pandemic was disconcertingly similar to the one we’re living through now – especially the way President Wilson and President Trump both mishandled the response and dismissed the seriousness of the respective viruses. It seems we didn’t learn our lesson from that time.
Did you and your family do the quarantine here in the city or were you able to escape to someplace with some space?
I am very lucky. My husband and our family dog, Riley, and I have been at our cottage in upstate New York since March 23. It was really meant to be a summer-only place; we only put in air-conditioning, heating, and a decent kitchen in 2019 so the timing couldn’t have been better. With winter coming, we added insulation so that we could survive these months. So I’m able to go for long walks around the nearby reservoir to get some exercise and breathe the fresh air; that has been just great.
One thing that has been really hard is not seeing my two daughters much at all. They are both very much in the world: Becca is the Art Director for Helmut Lang so she is constantly doing fashion shoots and is exposed to a lot of people. We have only seen her once, in Riverside Park, since March 11. Talia is a nursery school teacher so she’s exposed to about 11 families and the other teachers. For now, we can’t really be with them, and Zoom family dinners are lovely but they’re just not the same as the real thing!
The cabaret season or 2019 to 2020 was an exciting one for you. You made your club debut, got great reviews, and took home a Bistro Award. Any regrets that you waited so long to take the plunge?
I look back on all of that and sometimes I ask myself “Did all that really happen? Did I actually win the Bistro for Best Debut??” It somehow all seems like a mirage. But I know that it did happen, and I am incredibly grateful.
I have to believe it happened when it was supposed to. Because I had the kind of job I did, working in the world of global perfume creation which I absolutely loved and which included a lot of international travel, I really couldn’t focus on putting a show together the way I wanted to. I was also raising two daughters…and “raising a husband” (!)… So it was only when I retired from that very full-time position that I could devote time to a show. And the show we did together, Alex Rybeck, Lina, and I, was about that world that I had been part of and the incredible privilege it was to travel so much and to meet so many amazing people. Looking back on it all, it happened the way it did because it was all bershert – what was meant to be! It wouldn’t have been the same show without those experiences, so I can’t regret it being such a long time in coming.
Because of your position in the Lina Koutrakos class, you were a member of the cabaret community long before your stage debut. Did you experience any kind of change, emotionally or psychologically, in the way you felt, once you became an active performing member of the cabaret family?
That is a great question, Stephen. It’s true that I have been around the community for a long time, ever since I attended the Cabaret Conference at Yale in 2005. That’s where I met Lina and started taking her class, in 2006. I also met Alex there. That’s 14 years of classes before I did my first show! I have made so many wonderful friends in Lina’s classes, and in workshops with Sara Louise Lazarus, and KT Sullivan, and Beckie Menzie from Chicago – very talented friends whom I cherish and who were always so supportive of my work. Many of them were understandably shocked when I actually got dates to do my show! But I would have to say that now I do feel more like I actually belong and am not just a “participating observer.” In some ways, it’s like I returned to my roots. I had done musical theatre at college and graduate school and throughout my 20’s as a member of an educational theatre company in residence at NYU, The Creative Arts Team.
During the pre-shutdown season, you could be found in a club a few nights a week, seeing your colleagues. Have you been following their online work these last few months?
Definitely! I have enjoyed seeing people’s work online – like the wonderful Ann Hampton Callaway and Liz Callaway, and Ann Kittredge‘s Virtual Shorts with Christopher Denney, and Seth Rudetsky‘s Stars in the House. It is so impressive how people are getting their work and talents out there.
What about you? Any plans to take your artistry online?
I have only so recently begun performing again that I feel it would be presumptuous. Maybe if I had already done a second well-received show … but I am honestly just getting my sea-legs and figuring out who I am as a performer. So on-line offerings will have to wait.
But, that said, when I had the chance to join Katie McGrath‘s Uprising Concert – performed on a glorious rooftop in midtown on September 17 – I jumped at it. That was such a special – and socially distant! – evening with an outstanding and diverse group of singers celebrating the American immigrant experience. It was a real high during these troubling and trying days when we are only together virtually. To see and feel the audience there watching and listening again was just magical.
LIKE A PERFUMED WOMAN is a fascinating show, not unlike a one-woman play with music. Do you think it would work as a filmed theater piece?
First of all, Stephen – what a compliment! I was thrilled that you felt so positively about the show when you first saw it, and your continuing belief in it means so much.
I would like to think that there could be a broader audience for the show, especially as the world it depicts, in part, is the intriguing but relatively unknown world of fragrance development. Recording it as a theatre piece is something that Alex and I have talked about – but it will need to wait until we’re through this pandemic. I do want to bring the show back live at some point; I was actually scheduled to perform it last June at Davenport’s in Chicago, but … obviously, that wasn’t meant to be!
Put a picture in my head of The Life of Joanne in 2020 – did you do a lot of projects? Did you reorganize your perfume closet?
Hahahahaha! That is a logical question but…. alas, no! My “perfume closet” is in our apartment on 98th and Broadway, so I had to leave it behind last March. But I did bring a small stash of some of my favorites with me upstate.
As for other projects, I’m learning lots of new music – songs I love and some I am thinking about singing in a new show…someday! I am trying to warm up and then sing every day to tracks that Alex has created for me; it is very early days, but I am having fun with it and, of course, working on the songs with Lina and Patrick.
And I am really enjoying cooking for the first time in my life. I never really had time when I was working so full time and being a mom of two young girls. But being in the country – with a new kitchen – Hallelujah! – I have loved finding a new recipe almost every day from the New York Times Cooking website. It’s a revelation! Goodness knows now is not the time to be eating in restaurants, and there aren’t too many nearby anyway, so……I guess it’s a case of “necessity is the mother of invention”! I’m even baking a little.
You are one of the most fashionable women in the industry, embodying elegance and glamor. What would you say to a man or a woman who is trying to find their personal style but not having achieved it yet?
Thank you, Stephen. A question like that from the author/photographer of The Sweater Book? I am beyond flattered.
I think the best thing is to observe other people and how they pull a look together. Other people are so inspiring for style! And this is true of men and women of all ages, honestly. I think older women are some of the most stylish. Why not? We’ve had lots of time to find our style!
But maybe the most important advice of all is not to be married to the idea that you have to spend a lot to look great. I have been a shopper for both clothes and costume jewelry at second-hand, consignment, and thrift stores for over 40 years. Why not?? You can find amazing things that someone else has discarded!
When I would travel on business, other people on our team would go to the department stores in Paris or London. But I would ferret out the best consignment stores no matter where we were. I guess I really am a “Second Hand Rose”…
What was the time in your life when you feel you weren’t quite at your best, style-wise?
Well, I was born in a small town in Maine and we moved to (Kenosha – yes, that Kenosha!), Wisconsin – another small town – when I was nine. So style and fashion weren’t necessarily on my radar. My closest and oldest friend in the world is also from Kenosha, and she likes to remind me that, in the 7th grade, I wore ugly powder-blue pointy glasses, wore saddle shoes and knee socks, and had absolutely no style. I’d like to think I’ve moved on from there. She says I have!
When you had reached a point when you had arrived as a woman of fashion, did you know it?
Well, it certainly wasn’t in the early ’80s when I first entered the corporate world (in advertising sales for magazines)! I remember what I wore to my interview at ARTnews: a powder blue (again!) two-piece skirt suit and a white shirt with a Peter-Pan collar. I thought I had to look like a real businesswoman. Boy, was I wrong. But I did get the job!
It was in the early ’90s that I think I started to find my style. I started to work at The New Yorker in 1992, and at W Magazine in 1995, and my clients included Burberry and Gucci when they were both reinventing themselves with new designers. Other clients were YSL, Givenchy, Chloe by Lagerfeld, Celine by Michael Kors, Chanel, and Joan Vass New York. I went to their sample sales where I watched editors from fashion magazines trying things on and putting together really interesting pieces. It was always a frenzy but it was fun and, at 90% off the retail price, it was actually affordable. I’ll never give away the things I bought there – or I’ll pass them on to my girls!
I’d like to think, though, that I might have inherited my mother’s fashion sense. She was a Flatbush, Brooklyn girl who always looked great. I have pictures of her from the ’40s and she was stunning. She had such innate style and always carried herself proudly, even though she was definitely not from a fancy-schmancy home. She was very, very special.
You are widely praised for the quality of your voice and the depth of emotion in your performances – might there be a CD in your future?
A few months ago Alex and I were having one of our rare working sessions during the pandemic. We finished a song and he looked up at me from the piano bench and said he thought it might be a good idea for us to work on a CD – a mellow, easy-listening CD of love songs. It is not something I had ever entertained before, but since that day I have been tossing the idea around in my head. Who knows?? One thing is sure: It would be a fun project for us to do together!
Joanne, if there were a perfume named HALEV, what are some of the notes that would be used to create it?
I love this question! I would want it to have a certain mysterious, earthy, yet velvety-warm quality. It would probably be a play on chypre – a type of scent I have always loved which incorporates woody, mossy accords of bergamot, oakmoss, patchouli, and labdanum. A famous chypre is Mitsuko, from Guerlain. There would be modern floral notes, too, like iris…and a more complex fruitiness, like dark plum. The dry-down would have sensual, woody notes and warm amber. It would somehow incorporate the feeling of one of the last major projects I worked on with dear friends – the brilliant Perfumer Annie Buzantian and the highly-regarded Fragrance Consultant Ann Gottlieb: Decadence from Marc Jacobs. I wear it all the time and I know it will be a favorite of mine forever.
Photos from the Joanne Halev collection.