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Here's Hildy! Comic Lea DeLaria dons a dress and stands Broadway on it's ear.

Comic Lea DeLaria dons a dress and stands Broadway on its ear

"I was over at Sandy Bernhard's the other day to see her new baby," says Lea DeLaria, who opens in November as the star of Broadway's hot-ticket musical On the Town. "I noticed a Hirschfeld caricature on the wall. Then it all started coming to me: Hirschfeld caricature. Cast album. I turned to her and said, `You know, Sandy, we're both going to be on Broadway?' And we just started screaming!"

Broadway has been DeLaria's dream destination, she says, ever since she was a 5-year-old obsessed with the musical Oklahoma/ But that may come as a shock to gay men and lesbians who know her as the stone-butch stand-up comedian who announced on The Arsenio Hall Show "It's 1990, it's hip to be gay, and I'm a big dyke!"

Since then DeLaria's acting gigs have ranged from cameos in the film The First Wives Club and on TV's Friends to a recurring role on the series Matlock. Meanwhile, her standup shows and recordings have evolved to include extended jazz sets, with DeLaria as bebop vocalist. The reaction, from audiences and critics alike: "Wow, she can really sing!"

Actually, DeLaria explains, singing was her first professional job: As a teenager she accompanied her jazz-pianist dad in jazz clubs in the Midwest. "Then," she recalls, "I moved to San Francisco because I was gay and it was a hotbed of stand-up comedy. I got into that and did so well, I quit my day job in 1982. Stand-up allowed me to get into acting, which was what I really wanted to do all along."

DeLaria's big break into musical theater came last summer when George C. Wolfe, producer for New York City's Public Theater, mounted a limited-run revival of On the Town. Assembled by some of the American theater's most creative talents--concept by Jerome Robbins, music by Leonard Bernstein, book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green--On the Town is the rollicking 1944 story of three sailors and the women they romance while on 24-hour shore leave in New York City before being shipped off to war.

Wolfe couldn't find the right actor to play Hildy, the lady cabdriver who falls for one of the sailors. When fans at the Public Theater mentioned her name, says DeLaria, "George really didn't care that I'd been going around saying I was a big dyke. That's the big difference between Los Angeles and New York. In Hollywood they put you in a box and never allow you to stretch. In the New York theater world, they want to see what you can do."

DeLaria obliged by turning the supporting role of Hildy into the show's must-see performance, winning an Obie and a New York Theater Award in the process. Suddenly On the Town was a shoo-in for a full-scale Broadway run this fall.

How big a stretch was it to play a straight woman from the '40s? DeLaria does admit it was tough learning to walk in heels. But not everything about portraying Hildy was a chore. "They thought I was going to hate the dress," DeLaria says, grinning, "but I l-o-o-oved it. Everyone likes to play dress-up once in a while."

Che is a contributing editor for Time Out New York.
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Article Details
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Author:Che, Cathay
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Sep 15, 1998
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