It's six weeks until rehearsals begin for The Boy From Oz and nine weeks until our Love Finds Judy Garland performance, so here at our house it's All-Garland, All-the-Time. Other than some time out for cookie-baking, which I will only be able to taste very sparingly (because do you recall how thin Judy was in 1964?), that's going to be number one on the to-do list until we leave for Naples.
After an initial few readings of the Boy From Oz script and songs, I've deliberately held back from cracking them open again until I immersed myself in Judy's biographies, memoirs, recordings, interviews, and television shows from the period of the show: mid-1964, just after her Australian tour, until her death in 1969 at the age of 47. But now I'm beginning to get that familiar feeling of a character starting to take residence in my body and speaking in my head, so I think it's going to be time to start letting her out this week, at least on a short leash. (This is likely to scare my husband.) Since there are only nine rehearsal days to put the show on its feet, lines and songs need to be memorized before our first rehearsal, research needs to be finished, and the basic physicalization and voice need to be habitual enough that it's not taking all of my attention any more.
Playing Judy Garland — something I've never done before, despite performing her music for years in concerts and shows — is an overwhelmingly daunting task, especially because she was so well-documented and many of our audience members will remember her from television, at the very least. So for a little how-to, I turned to interviews with Michelle Williams on how she approached playing Marilyn Monroe in the film, My Week with Marilyn. Sometimes you can see the seams where someone stitched on a lot of vocal and physical mannerisms — however accurately they may do them, something doesn't quite ring true and it feels vaguely uncomfortable to watch — but her Marilyn inhabitation was seamless.
In one interview, Michelle talks about how she watched all of Marilyn's films chronologically from the beginning of her career, so that she saw her "experimenting and forming Marilyn Monroe over time…so I could actually see it being built and follow her steps. It gave me courage: this didn't come naturally to her, so I didn't have to expect it to come naturally to myself." Well, thankfully I've been watching younger Judy for many years, so I've only had to cover the footage after A Star Is Born (1954) and most specifically The Judy Garland Show on CBS and other television appearances, and a re-view of I Could Go On Singing, especially one key scene (more on that in the next post).
There is an interesting evolution you can see in Judy's physical performance between her last MGM film (Summer Stock, 1950) and the filming of "The Man That Got Away" in 1953. Vincente Minelli gives a glimpse into when this happened: Despite Judy and Vincente's pending divorce, she and pianist Buddy Pepper went out to Vincente's home in early 1951 to seek his advice on her upcoming concert debut at the London Palladium. In his book, Get Happy, Gerald Clarke quotes Vincente's recollection of that performance in his living room: "[Her voice] was better than ever, for it had a new-found maturity. The heartache in the sad songs and the frenetic drive of the upbeat numbers created an extraordinary impact. She'd developed marvelous gestures which put the stresses on the most unexpected words. The effect was awkward and occasionally graceless, but strangely, it was right."
When it comes to her speaking, there are live recordings of her 1951 London Palladium and Palace Theatre concerts. It's fascinating to hear how her patter evolved between her London debut, which was her first foray back out onto the concert stage in many years, to the end of her 19-week run at the Palace on Broadway. By the time she charged out onto the stage of Carnegie Hall a decade later, it was polished to a high gloss. As Jonathan Summers wrote in his liner notes for Judy Garland: The Amsterdam Concert, December 1960, "The performance was as impromptu and informal as it was planned and professional, and that, of course, was part of Garland's great artistry."
Of course, by the time she returned to the States for her Palace run, this gifted mimic had also picked up a slight British accent, which became even more pronounced over the next decade after she'd spent quite a lot of time in the U.K.
And did her singing evolve? Yes, very much so, although it was grounded in how she had been singing all along. There is, for example, a subtle last-minute gaspy breath that she was employing for expressive effect by the '60s, so I'm keeping my ears open for multiple examples and getting it into my ear and body (it's actually rather tricky to time it right) so that it might come out naturally at some point in the four songs I will be singing in Boy From Oz. Stay tuned. The other tricky part, if you're new to that show, is that these are Peter Allen's songs and not songs that Judy ever recorded, so it's not as if I can just recreate her renditions by rote. Oh, and some of the vocal fold thickness she had was probably due to a couple of decades of THIS, which I don't do:
If I were just running this show and then had a few weeks off to recover, I could eat some gluten, corn, and dairy (an unholy trinity of food allergies) to mimic the vocal-fold swelling she gets from smoking and whatever else she was doing, but that's not even an option because we are performing Love Finds Judy Garland two days after Boy From Oz closes, in which I will need to sing all her circa 1936-1944 songs. They are higher and lighter and require a lot of vocal flexibility. So I will just need to be in killer vocal condition — no shortcut available. I had better go put Judy on the flat screen t.v. and get to work!
I'll leave you with this rendition of "The Christmas Song," one of my favorite moments from her television shows: