Pardon me for not writing in over a year. At the same time that we bought a new house, moved, then sold our old house, I was having to finish up the biggest project of my life at least 6 months earlier than I’d even dreamed was possible. To quote one of Judy Garland’s early songs from Love Finds Andy Hardy, “It Never Rains, But What It Pours!”
But, as in all my favorite MGM movies, there were some silver linings. I absolutely love our “new” 1941 house and friendly neighborhood right out of an Andy Hardy movie. And the aforementioned project — restoring the orchestral arrangements for Judy’s 1961 Carnegie Hall concert — culminated in one of the high points of my my life thus far.
With 20/20 vision in the rearview mirror, it kind of looks like 46 of my 48 years have been leading up to the long weekend of June 20-23, 2019…even if I took some big detours off the yellow brick road and had to fight off flying monkeys and got unceremoniously picked up and dropped down by cyclones. But back to the weekend: I was first invited to sing on a concert for the annual Judy Garland Festival at her birthplace in Grand Rapids, Minnesota on the 21st, then to sing on the “Judy at Carnegie Hall” concert recreation (produced by the Axelrod Performing Arts Center with the cooperation of the Judy Garland Heirs Trust) in Asbury Park, New Jersey on the 23rd.
Both events were officially commemorating the 50th anniversary of Judy’s untimely death at age 47 on June 22nd, 1969, but the mood was decidedly celebratory. Hosting the Festival was world-renowned Garland and Oz expert (and grown-up Andy Hardy), John Fricke, and I was over the moon to get the chance to meet him in person after we had worked together for the past two years on the Judy Garland Carnegie Hall Concert Restoration Project. It was also a huge pleasure to see the treasures in the Garland Museum and snatch a few precious hours with him and archivist Michelle Russell perusing the original orchestral arrangements in their collection.
Just a few hours before the concert, I finally got to step into the house Judy was born in, and it did feel like a pilgrimage of sorts, especially seeing the stair landing that the Gumm sisters used as a stage (pictured at the top of this post) and getting to play the piano in the Gumm family living room — not her actually piano, but the same make, a “Lester”.
Then it was off to sing a gaggle of Garland tunes for a wonderful audience of Judy fans and my Minnesota relatives….
….and then spend the next three hours carefully packing my delicate sequined and beaded gowns (and everything else I’d possibly need for the next concert) in a duffel just in case my checked bag went M.I.A. in O’Hare, as it had on the way to Grand Rapids. (The thought of shopping for concert attire at the local Target, even for the few hours it took them to locate my suitcase containing the two gowns and vintage red chiffon frock and the only fragrance-free, phthalate-free hairspray that will hold my vintage set, will forever change how I travel for work.) I’d have loved to attend the closing day of the festival and spend more time with fellow Judy fans, but it was up with the bluebirds and driving the rental car back to the Duluth airport and then hopping two flights to Asbury Park — which was certainly a “We’re not in Kansas anymore!” moment, being about as unlike Grand Rapids as could be. The dance beat in the hotel’s rooftop garden right next to our room finally stopped thumping at about 2:00 a.m….
And the very next afternoon, there I was on the historic stage of the Paramount Theatre, hearing a 40-piece orchestra bringing back to life all of the arrangements I’d been working since Labor Day 2017 to restore to their original, playable glory. There were 23 arrangements total, a handful of which had been completed by some highly-experienced arrangers before Michael Feinstein asked me to come on board and officially become the editor of the project (for the Judy Garland Heirs Trust), but the last 19 — every single note and sforzando and staccato of them — had passed through my hands. I’d joked in some of my concert patter early in the process that they’d likely be done in 2027 and yet, here we were, less than two years later!! And not only was I getting to hear them played by a bang-up orchestra, which would have been heady enough, but I was getting to sing a bunch of them in the stellar company of none other than Judy’s daughter, Lorna Luft, Tony-award winner Debbie Gravitte, Broadway “Norma Desmond” Karen Mason, and charming jazz singer Gabrielle Stravelli. More first-time-in-person meetings were with our project copyist Don Oliver, who had been slaving to get the parts prepared on deadline, and Andrew DePrisco from the Axelrod, who seemed to conjure this concert into being through sheer force of will. Conductor Mike Berkowitz (Liza’s former conductor) felt like an old friend after our “Judy & Liza at the Palladium” concert in February and countless discussions about arrangements.
By the time we got to the evening concert, I was so buoyed by the orchestra, the arrangements, and the marvelous backstage bonhomie that I nearly escaped my usual butterflies before I made my first entrance to open the song part of the concert with “When You’re Smiling.” And that continued through “Alone Together” and “Just You Just Me.” I think this selfie was taken near the end of Act I.
Then I had a long stretch at the beginning of the second half to enjoy the music and the camaraderie and continue to pinch myself, before heading back out for “Stormy Weather” and the Medley. Here they are (you’ll see Lorna taking a bow right before I enter):
When Mike sent out the song assignments a couple of months ago, and I saw “Over the Rainbow” at the end of my list, it was just after I’d been told that many hard-core Garland fans don’t like to hear anyone but Judy sing it, so I naturally lost a night of sleep because the audience would surely be packed with them, including many who’d actually heard Judy sing it LIVE. But, as the idea settled in, it seemed rather less a risky proposition and much more a sacred privilege to be the vessel delivering the song on this special evening. Rainbow was the song that made me long to be a singer when I first heard it 46 years ago, and I am now a year older than Judy was when she passed. Would my two-year-old self have believed it if I’d told her I’d someday have the opportunity to be one of the guardians of “Dorothy’s” musical artistry and legacy, even if it’s in this rather humble way? There have been many obstacles and bitter disappointments along the yellow brick road, as well as countless sacrifices and poppy-field detours. But then I clicked my heels three times and landed on that stage, embraced by the sound waves of the orchestra all around me, a place where I always have felt most at home, singing a song heard so early that it seems I always knew it.