By this time, it should go without saying that I am a lifelong card-carrying Judy Garland fan. But until fairly recently, I’d shied away from “Judy the Icon” — Judy post-Hollywood, even (mostly) Judy post-1944. I was always more drawn to the sweetness and vulnerability, the sunniness and unspoiled humor she brought to her film roles, recordings, and radio broadcasts circa 1936-1944, and found the later recordings and appearances I’d randomly run across brittle, edgy, and somehow off-putting and disturbing. Perhaps I just wanted her to stay Dorothy and Betsy Booth forever. And I’d heard a few recordings over the years in which she clearly had laryngitis, so I’d made the completely erroneous extrapolation (reinforced by some biographers and playwrights, I’m sorry to say) that it was all downhill, when in reality it just varied depending on her health and the tour or shooting schedule.
So I hereby stand corrected! That’s largely because, as I was researching younger Judy, some songs would break through the defenses. First, there was a request to sing “Last Night When We Were Young” for a presentation at a Tin Pan Alley Symposium at Case Western Reserve University about three years ago, for which I transcribed the piano part from a later recording. A couple of years ago I finally decided I’d lived enough to include “The Man That Got Away” in my new Garland-with-Symphony concert. Then I ran across her television rendition of “If Love Were All,” a masterclass in how to sing a song (more on that in a later post, I suspect), and it wasn’t long until others followed — listening to WKHR Radio in Cleveland, you can't miss them.
So the ground was definitely prepared, when a couple of nudges from the universe happened along. Nudge Number One was a phone conversation with a conductor I’d never met, who wanted to know details about the aforementioned Garland concert with orchestra. His love of her 1961 Carnegie Hall recording convinced me to give it a full hearing, and of course, it will come as no surprise to any Garland fan that I was completely floored by it. So I set to work listening to whatever I could find from her concert years in the '50s and '60s, reading up on the chronology, the discographies, etc., as I hatched a plan to extend my concert through HER concert years.
A few months later, into all of this, Nudge Number Two arrived in the form of a call from Mark Danni, the artistic director of TheatreZone in Naples, Florida. He and cohort/wife Karen had come to see an earlier version of Love Finds Judy Garland the previous summer in Cleveland and offered some helpful feedback, but this call was truly out-of-the-blue. It seemed they were doing The Boy From Oz in their ‘15-’16 season and would I be interested in playing the role of Peter Allen’s mother-in-law, Judy Garland?
Now, you see, I’d also always shied away from actually PLAYING her, partly out of respect and partly out of fear of comparison with The Greatest Entertainer Who Ever Lived, I suppose. Mark Flanders had set-up our three-person show, “Love Finds Judy Garland” so that I appear as a guest on KNX “The Voice of Hollywood”, April 1944, and sing all Ms. Garland’s songs. And in my symphony pops concert, I tell stories that put the songs in context....which doesn’t mean I hadn’t completely immersed myself in her vocal style, vocal technique, gestures, movements, and facial expressions. (Then I just live in the songs and let whatever of her that I’ve absorbed come through as naturally as possible.) But I’d never actually set out to PLAY her, copy her make-up and hair, dress like her...
Something felt right this time around, however, perhaps because it was a biographical musical with others playing real people, as well. Or perhaps because of the dovetailing Nudges. I said yes. And now here I am preparing to add several of her later songs to my symphony concert and talk about that period of her life, and also to play her for the first time, which is a whole new kettle of fish.
Rehearsals for Boy From Oz begin at the end of January, so I’ve been bingeing on all the recordings and television shows and biographical specials I can get my hands on, including the fascinating new release, “Judy Garland: Swan Songs, First Flights.” Just last week, GetTV began airing all 26 episodes of The Judy Garland Show for the first time since the 1963-64 season, so that was another happy synchronicity.
Today I watched a 1985 documentary film called “Judy Garland: The Concert Years,” hosted by Judy’s daughter, Lorna Luft, and featuring interviews with many of the players in her life, including Tony Bennett, music director Mort Lindsey, and ex-husband Sid Luft. Although I’d already seen many of the clips presented in the film, Judy’s rendition of “Lorna” — face-to-face with the real little Lorna — had me crying into my tea. Here the veil of the later Garland persona lifts and all the Dorothy and Betsy Booth sweetness shines forth, still there after all the hard knocks. Here it is:
A further tidbit: the lyric was penned, at Judy’s request, by none other than Johnny Mercer, who carried a torch for Judy for three decades after falling hard for her (by one account) at the party to celebrate her marriage to David Rose. There was a “Liza” song and a “Joe” song, but no “Lorna,” so they made one out of a theme Mort Lindsey had written for "The Judy Garland Show."
So for right now, I’m just feasting my eyes and ears on all the artistry I've mostly been missing. Next up are the rest of the television shows in their entirety, including the specials, and some of her later films. I’ve been doing a bit of haphazard dipping into our two shelves of Garland biographies and discographies and picture books (three by the insightful John Fricke), all of which I’ve read at one time or another, but unlike before, I’ll now be focusing on her Second Act.
I’ll be following-up with some more posts about researching Judy, but in the meanwhile, if your interest is piqued you can tune-in to The Judy Garland Show every Monday night at 8:00 for the foreseeable future on GetTV!