I often wondered about people who did one-person shows — specifically, what kind of person would want to hold a 7500-word script in her head. Well, in the last year, I’ve become that person. And I’m still not much closer to understanding why someone would voluntarily do what amounts to a high-wire act without a net. Except that when it works it is really, really fun.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I finished Round Two of my one-woman show, All Happiness, Judy Garland — the first go-‘round was a year ago June 24th at the Winter Park Playhouse — and this time the script was about fifty percent rewritten and some songs were swapped-in from my back catalogue. As before, my husband Mark Flanders wrote, directed, and fretted that I wouldn’t get the new lines and blocking learned in time. With the performance coming just three weeks after a pair of full-length Garland concerts with the Enid Symphony down in Oklahoma AND coinciding with the last week of pop voice teaching at Cleveland Institute of Music, he was probably smart to worry. But I reassured him that it wasn’t nearly as hard as memorizing a piano concerto, and then bribed myself with vintage costume jewelry to stay on my draconian memorization schedule. Indeed, despite a few excitingly close calls at the first performance, I managed not to fall off the stage or otherwise embarrass myself or him, and it got easier from there.
In the show, I play a fictional character named “Jane Telling,” whose life is a mash-up of mine, my grandparents and great-grandparents, some real people in Hollywood and at MGM, and pure imagination. She’s essentially who I might have been if I’d been born in Iowa (as I was, but not in 1915), gone to Oberlin Conservatory to study voice and piano (as I did, but not in the mid-‘30s), then headed out to Hollywood to seek work at RKO and ended up as Roger Edens’ musical assistant in the magical MGM music department, working with Judy Garland, and copying parts from star arranger Conrad Salinger’s manuscripts for Judy to sing with the MGM Studio Orchestra and Chorus.
Obviously, that last chapter is NOT based on my life at all, because here I am in Cleveland. But the really weird thing is that shortly after the script was conceived, my life starting imitating Jane’s instead of hers imitating mine. Two months after the show premiered in Winter Park, Florida last June (2017), Michael Feinstein invited me to take on the editorship of the Judy Garland Carnegie Hall Concert Restoration Project for the Judy Garland Heirs Trust. And suddenly I was experiencing the odd sensation of sitting down to copy string parts from a Conrad Salinger arrangement written for Judy Garland, and wondering whether I’d just taken this Method Acting thing too far and fallen through a wormhole. (Okay, it wasn’t an MGM arrangement because those were dumped in a landfill in 1969, but he’s the arranger of “The Trolley Song” and many others.) And as the months went by, I began to spend more and more of my time painstakingly restoring these treasures, making my days more and more like Jane’s must have been…if she had existed. Even now, the odd sensation of crossing a 70-year chasm in the blink of an eye continues to strike with frequency, certainly at times while I’m onstage playing Jane or singing Judy’s arrangements with an orchestra, and every time a newly “discovered” manuscript or part set arrives in my inbox, with an iconic arranger’s beautiful handwriting or monogrammed staff paper, or the pencilled scribblings and doodles from the orchestral players at Capitol Records or Carnegie Hall. And it’s as if writing it and believing it made it so.
Of course, I wonder whether this life-imitating-art path will continue, and if so, what will arrive around the next bend in the yellow brick road. I’m crossing my fingers for a chance to sit-in just once with the 1944 MGM Studio Orchestra and Chorus like Jane does….and my husband is really hoping I won't take up with an RAF flyer I meet at the Hollywood Canteen and book passage to Dumfries…
I do hope this all goes some way toward excusing the long hiatus between my last blog post and what you’re reading now. And here is a bit of All Happiness, Judy Garland: