BWW Interview: Joanne Halev of LIKE A PERFUMED WOMAN at The Laurie Beechman Theatre
Joanne Halev spent her adult life working in and around the most elegant and glamorous people in places exciting and exotic. Of course, it's to be expected when working in the publishing and the fragrance industries. After a veritable lifetime of being exposed to these worlds, though, the time came for Joanne Halev to take a step back and spend more time with her family and herself. It turns out it was also time for Joanne to spend more time with her first love - performing. After extended periods of time during which she studied and fine-honed her skills, Joanne's retirement could lead nowhere else but to the stage, and what better way to take her place as an artist in the cabaret community, than to tell the story of what she most uniquely knew?
LIKE A PERFUMED WOMAN debuted in 2019 to excellent reviews, both from the cabaret journalists of the city and to the cabaret community at large, and with each passing performance Joanne garners more visibility and more recognition for a career that seems destined to go places. After successful runs at the Birdland Theater, Joanne will be sharing her tales and music with audiences at The Laurie Beechman Theatre on January 22nd and 23rd. Before her opening night in the festive 42nd street nightspot, Joanne sat down with me and gave me a descriptive peek into the perfume industry, her own life, and the creation of a cabaret show being built from the ground up.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Joanne, why, after all this time of having a career working in the perfume industry, did you say, "I think that I should do a nightclub act"?
Well, I've been in a workshop with Lina Koutrakos since I attended the Yale cabaret conference at Yale in 2005. I had been around singers and the world of cabaret for some time and had attended so many shows, but the career in the fragrance world was so all consuming and I was always traveling, I was doing so much, I was moving around so much that I couldn't even commit to dates. And I think when I officially retired ... I still am a consultant for my company ... but when I retired it gave me an opportunity to consider what's next. And one of the things I knew I wanted was to do a cabaret. But, actually, just before that Alex Rybeck said to me, "Okay, you're ready. What is this going to be about?" He ended up asking me what it was that I really cared about -- he said, "Tell me about your career. You seem to love it so much every time you come back from a trip or you tell me about these experiences of working with perfumers." I started to talk to him about some of the experiences I had in places like Madagascar and a small village in Haiti and in India six times and in both Sao Paulo and Rio, all these experiences. And I started to cry, I was kind of overwhelmed by how lucky I was to have had these experiences through my work. There's the human side of it, which was so extraordinary. It's not just going to these places and having meetings in offices. We would go into people's homes, we would have a translator and there would be a group of 10 women in Mumbai to whom we would give soap to smell, to choose a fragrance that they like the best. They would communicate with us through this translator. It was wonderful being in people's homes and really experiencing life in those places. I don't presume to say that I experienced it in a really deep level but I got a sense of being in people's homes in different parts of the world. It is very eye opening. And the opportunity to be a among the sustainable work that my company is doing, raising crops for the ingredients and materials we use in the fragrances, being around those farmers and seeing how they grow the crops for these materials in a sustainable way. Seeing what we built is just so moving. We built wells for people in Madagascar, among the farmers there, to make it possible for their lives to be better. We built a school in Haiti for the children, so they wouldn't have to walk for miles to go to school. All of these experiences made me feel very good about my company and feel good as a citizen. I'm so blessed that I started to cry when I was telling Alex about this. He looked at me and he said, "Okay, I think we've figured out what our show should be about."
Inspiration in the quietest moments.
Yes. So when I left the full time job was when I started to have the bandwidth, and could imagine myself pulling this off. I had often mused about the fact that music and perfume and fragrance have so much in common, apart from the obvious thing that was just notes. There really is this connection to our past that you get when you listen to a song that you knew when you were in high school or when you were dating someone important or whatever it might be. So that idea of scent memory came back to me as an Avenue into this topic that I thought would be fun to explore and to share. I think there's a lot of mystery about fragrance that is unknowable unless you're a perfumer yourself. It really is fascinating and kind of intriguing, and people don't know much about the backstory about how fragrances are created.
How many years did you work in fragrance?
I called on the fragrance industry from the magazine industry for 15 years, working at magazines like the New Yorker and W Magazine and in Conde Nast Corporate as the beauty director. So I was connected to that world of where fragrances are being developed by talking with the marketing companies for 15 years. Then going to the development side of the fragrance development world for 18 years, I did that, working at firms that create the fragrances that the marketing companies sell. And that's the nature of the work, that's the model... we get briefed by the likes of Estee Lauder and Calvin Klein and Marc Jacobs. And we compete with other fragrance houses to win the project. And then in perpetuity we manufacture those oils and we sell them to the companies that are marketing scents.
Before you started working in perfumes, did you have a nose for scents?
When I was working in the magazine industry and calling on all the beauty and fragrance companies, I got involved with all of that. I loved it, I was fascinated by it all but I didn't know if I had a nose or not. I didn't know if I could smell well or not. And I had to have a test when I was first interviewed to see whether or not I could discern the difference between various fragrances and to see if I could tell whether something was stronger, weaker, and all of that. I had to be tested, I had to have a crash course in ingredients, to tell the difference between patchouly and an important floral -- to know the difference between two different florals is a different question altogether. That's something that I had to learn over time, just by being around it. How does the tuberose smell? How is that different from a Lilly? I got better at it over time. And it's just a question of recognizing... what are the qualities of Jasmine? There's a banana note in Jasmine, I had no idea until I started to work in the industry. But now I can recognize that Jasmine note, that banana quality... or that vetiver has potato skin scent. That's something that I had to learn over time.
But your show Like a Perfumed Woman is not exclusively about your life in the perfume industry.
A lot is about your family and your travels and that kind of thing.
Well, the travels were all related to my job, but much of the show does talk about scent memory and about a connection to the fragrances that my mother and my grandmother wore. And even remembering when I was in junior high school and learning how to slow dance at an eighth grade party, Judd Phillips wore Brut by Faberge. I've never been able to get that out of my head. Not that that's a popular fragrance now, but the moment I smell it, I think of Judd Phillips,
In 1982 when I was poor and working at Sears Roebuck, I started wearing a cologne called Stetson and I can still smell it today.
Exactly. It puts you back in that place. I remember getting a gift of Caleche from Hermes when I was a college student and I wore that for the longest time. It reminds me now, when I smell it, of when I was in my early twenties. It's something very unique about that.
When I was young, I used to wear too much cologne and my mother would scold me, and now that I'm older, I am very sensitive to how much perfume or cologne people wear, and I was fascinated to hear your story about a Japanese reaction to too much of a strong scent.
Oh yes. Culturally it is absolutely not accepted in Japan. They considered it an invasion of your personal space for someone to be wearing an overwhelming or a strong scent. They love fragrances for the bottles and the print, the luxury brands especially, they put them on their dresser because the bottles are beautiful, but they don't wear them very much.
So tell me how, how does a person put on a proper amount of perfume or cologne?
Well, that's an interesting question because as we get older our olfactive capabilities lessen and sometimes that's why older people, older women, tend to put on too much. I think if you just put it on your pulse points and in your breastbone or by your ankles... you can put in all those places, but not too much of it. And of course it also depends on the concentration of oil in the fragrance. If it's a very strong fragrance with a high concentration of oil in it, it's going to last longer. You don't have to reapply, but it's better to be subtle. It's terrible if you have to sit in a theater or a restaurant and someone is wearing too much fragrance. I'm aware of that and I'm careful about it and I think people should be.
Here's a very particular question for you on the subject of perfume. One of my favorite movies is How To Marry A Millionaire.
Why am I not surprised?
Hello, Marilyn Monroe. Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable. What can I say? There's a scene where Lauren Bacall rushes to her room to put on some perfume and she takes the stopper out and puts it right in her forehead, in her hair. Is that a pulse point? Why did she do that?
That's interesting. In her hair.
Yes. Like right up above the forehead. Like if she had a widow's peak, she put it in her hair right around the widow's peak.
Well, that's an interesting question. I don't know. Can we feel our pulse in our head? I don't know. I don't know if that's a where a pulse point is. It's a very interesting question, but you know, I've never seen that.
All right, let's talk about your show a little bit. You created the show with Alex Rybeck. Did you sit down and write the show together or did you write it and then he helped you to freshen it up? How was your process?
Oh, it was a very interesting process because some of the music I've been working on on my own for quite a quite a while - I just wanted to perform those songs and we had to think of a way to bring them into the story. Once we decided that the show was going to be about this world of fragrance creation, about my travels, and about scent memory, we wanted to talk about some of the fun fragrance facts. We wanted to talk about how fragrances are created or how perfumers are all French or that people all over the world like the same kind of fragrance, how many notes are in fragrance, those kinds of things. So it was my idea to take interesting songs like one note Samba or I've got you under my skin, 'cause I thought it'd be fun for audiences to know that people come to your office and say, "Do you have skin?" because they do! I thought it'd be fun to use popular songs to tell that story. So we worked that piece as a medley specifically and that was very much a collaboration. And we chose themes and then we looked at music, which could bring out those themes. When I came back from my trip to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, I had been so aware of the story that when we were in a store there was a woman who told us that women in the region create their own scent signatures with deer musk oils and that after mixing these different oils together, they put them in private places and she winked it us when she said, you know, to keep them for their husbands faithful. So then I remembered that, I mean, how could you forget that, right? So two weeks later I was at a 92nd Street Y lyrics and lyricists performance and it was a Cole Porter evening where someone sang All Of You, and I listened to those lyrics and I heard the phrase "I'd like to gain complete control of you and handle even the heart and soul of you" and it took me right back to that moment in that in store in Dubai where they told us that story. So I thought, ah, that's fun. I could tell that story. And so each song happened in a different way. So that's an example of something that was directly from my experience in my travels.
You said that you had been studying with Lina Koutrakos for 14 years. In your youth you were studying drama, weren't you?
Yes. I have a degree in theater and Hebrew actually. And I've a master's in educational theater and I was a part of a theater company that was in residence at New York University for almost 30 years, which is actually now still in residence at CUNY. I did theater all through college and when I graduated school I did a lot of musical theater roles. But then I stopped when I was about 31 and didn't do anything to do with performance for almost 25 years. It just sort of happened that my husband actually suggested to me: "You should really be singing. You love to sing. Why don't you get back to it?" It just so happened that I went with a friend to a concert at the Yale club, which turned out to be a program from the cabaret conference at Yale. I learned about it that night and I thought "Maybe I should audition for this," and I did, and they took me. That's how I met my director Lina Koutrakos. Actually that's how I met Alex too -- he came up to me after the performance that night and, and asked if I lived in New York and would I want to work with him. But I was too intimidated, for years, to work with Alex because he's so amazing, he's the best. I waited for a long time to call him, but I'm glad I did. It's such a privilege working with him and we have a really lovely relationship. I feel very comfortable with him.
It should be that way with your musical director.
Oh, 100%. But he is more than just a musical director for me. He really became a collaborator for this show and he believed in me and supported me so much. It was Alex who got out of me all of this emotion about the world that I was living in, in fragrance and my travels and he's the one that really suggested that I do the show about my life in fragrance development. He's an extraordinary man. And we had a similar vocabulary in terms of our mutual love of musical theater, and that is important. I love singing the great old songs, the great American songbook to make them relevant for today. But I also love working and singing some of the contemporary writers for cabaret and for our music, like Amanda McBroom or John Bucchino. Each of them is represented in the show, and he knows them both, which is so amazing, I mean, he really knows these people. And of course Lina does too. So I'm very privileged to work with these people. Both of them really.
And Lina directed this show.
Oh yes. And it was a work in progress over about three years. But she says I can't do that again -- can't wait for three more years.
Well, as your debut show, I'm sure you wanted to really make sure that it was just right.
Absolutely. I thought, "I've waited this long, let's get it right. Let's not leap into it." Although I think there were a lot of people who thought I would never actually do this, who've been in workshops with me for for years. They said, "Oh sure, she's going to do a show. You know how she is." I finally did it!
So how does it feel being back on stage after all that time off?
In some way it's, it's like I never stopped doing it because it feels comfortable... but at the very beginning I remember walking out on the stage at Yale university, it was a big theater, and I thought, "What the hell am I doing here?" But then it kind of kicked in, the muscle memory of it, the feeling. But my first night of doing my own show in front of an audience that was there just to see me, I felt a huge responsibility. It was a little overwhelming, but as I got into it started to feel more comfortable. I'm grateful that I have had this opportunity but I won't lie, it was pretty overwhelming at the beginning. It's not just when you were having to get on a bike, again, having to sing in front of someone... you feel like you don't want to take up people's time unless you have something to say. And that was really important to do.
I was at your first performance and afterward I was talking to Dorian Woodruff and I asked "How often does she do this?" He said, "This is her first show." I had no idea; so it didn't show,
I think it's all those 14 years of workshops and you know.. And the more I did it, the more I felt like maybe I had a right to do it and, and it felt more comfortable. By the time I was ready to step on the stage that first night, Alex and Lina had both said to me, "This doesn't feel like your first time out, this feels like you're ready and just know that and own it." And I've had such lovely feedback about it.
Let's talk about the feedback. This was your first time on stage in a long time, your first time on a cabaret stage, and the community really took to you. What was your experience like?
I'm overwhelmed. Honestly, just hearing that question I'm feeling so blessed I can't even believe it, the people who've come to my show and who've wanted to see me and who said such beautiful things to me... I feel a responsibility to earn that. And I am so grateful. So there's a part of me that's just kind of still pinching myself.
And since your opening, you have done two encores and you're getting ready to do another two dates at the Laurie Beechman Theatre. So I guess it's fair to say that you are enjoying your freshman year.
(Laughing) My freshman year! I actually was also invited to do 45 minutes of this show at Urban Stages for the Winter Rhythms Festival, so I did that as well. It was really an honor to be asked to do that. But yes, I'm having two more nights at the Laurie Beechman and I'm very excited to be there. I think that JP Perot has done a beautiful job of revamping the sound and lighting systems there. I think it's a beautiful place to perform, just as the Birdland Theater was. It was an honor to be able to do my debut there. Both places are wonderful.
I've heard it said that everybody in their life gets to have three careers. Do you think that's true?
It is true. So this is my fourth.
I think I'm on my seventh.
Oh wow. You're really, wow, that's impressive. I don't even know what were they all...
Well that's one for us to talk about.
I guess my very first was working as a waitress and I learned a lot from that. I put myself through college doing that. This is, I guess, my fourth. I'm also very interested in audio book narration, so I'm working toward that as well. I'm very grateful that I've been taken seriously, and that people are responding to this show. I don't know if it can be a career, but it's something that I would love to grow my heart and soul into on a continuing basis because I think that it's a beautiful way of communicating what's in your heart, the art of cabaret, and I'm excited by the fact that it seems like there are more and more clubs opening and more and more people are going out again.
I see you out a lot, in a lot of clubs, seeing a lot of shows. Why is it important for you to catch all the other artists acts?
Well, first of all, I love seeing and hearing other people's stories. And I think it's a responsibility to support other people in the community, but it's also something that... I moved to New York from Wisconsin after college to be in a place where there was theater happening all the time because I was tired of reading the reviews in Time magazine. So this is just another way of absorbing the art of theater and communication because I've always loved it. That was something that I learned from my mom. I really enjoy it, but I also really love the intimacy of watching other people work and seeing what they do, how they communicate a song, if it's done in a fresh and new way. I think it can only enhance my own work if I see what other people are sharing and how they're sharing it.
There are cabaret nightclubs all over this country, and a lot of the New York artists go out of town to do their shows. What would you say to doing Like A Perfumed Woman out of town?
I would love that opportunity. I think it has a universal appeal because everybody remembers the first fragrances, and the first songs that they learned when they were in high school. I think that there is a connection for most people. So I would love that. That would be amazing.
The word gets out. It's a small world.
That's true. I would love that. I think it's a happy show. I think it's a show that most people can relate to and I think there's an honesty to it, and I'm hoping a humanity to it that people would remember, and that would touch people.
Your show debuted last June I think. And since last June I have not forgotten your grandmother. Lillian Frankenstein.
Oh, she's very special. She was a piece of work.
She is a part of my daily conscious. I think of Lillian Frankenstein once a day.
I think I have to bring Lillian back into every show that I ever do because she was a persona and there are many, many Lillian Frankenstein stories, I can assure you of that.
I see an entire Lillian Frankenstein show.
She would love nothing more.
My last question for the day is a simple but complicated question. What's your favorite perfume?
Wow. I have to say there are several perfumes that I love, but the one that I wear when I want to feel special, when I want to feel beautiful and confident is a fragrance that I worked on, that I helped develop called Decadence from Marc Jacobs. It's sensuous and beautiful and rich and warm. I remember the team working on this and finishing the project with me and the perfumer is a dear friend. So I'd have to say Decadence by Marc Jacobs. And I bring Something Blue by Oscar de la Renta, another project that I worked on, to the theater, and I put that on when I'm doing the show because it's also a rich and warm fragrance, but it's great and energetic. And I love wearing that fragrance when I go on stage.
You've just reminded me of a great story that I'll share with you. Don Dellair once told me that one of the most sensual experiences he ever had in a Broadway theater was when he was in the front row of the musical Sophisticated Ladies.
Oh yes. I saw that.
He told me that they kept the air conditioning backstage very high because of the heat generated by the dancers.
Oh yeah. That was a very heavy dance show.
And at the top of the show the curtain went up and as the gust of cool air drifted out over the audience, it picked up all of the perfumes that all of the girls were wearing. Having that sensual feeling of the cool air and all those beautiful smells come out over the audience with something he never forgot.
It's a very sensual story.
Absolutely. I think we all have those stories that we remember about fragrance, and that's one of the things that's so beautiful about it. You know, it's very visceral, it's very real and it's very human.
My whole life, my mother wears White Shoulders dusting powder. And so I have a little box of White Shoulders, and every time I want to smell my mother, I just opened it up.
I was talking to my daughters after they came to the first show... and they had no idea what to expect. I have two daughters, they had no idea. We were talking about it afterwards. And Becca, my older daughter, said to me, "Did Grandma really wear Shalimar? I mean, I know what she smelled like but I didn't know that that's what it was." And I brought out a bottle of Shalamar that I had in my perfume closet and I opened it, and I let her smell it, and she started to cry. She said, "You're right, mom. That's grandma."
That's an amazing story.
Isn't that beautiful?
Photos courtesy of Joanne Halev