She was one of the biggest and most popular movie stars of all time, making her first film appearance at the age of seven and earning the first of three Oscar nominations at 17 for her starring role in what may well be the best-loved American movie of all time, The Wizard of Oz. She was also a prolific recording star, selling millions of records and winning five Grammy awards in a single year nearly three decades after starting out as one of the youngest performers ever signed to a major record label. These accomplishments alone would be enough to impress anyone who was somehow unfamiliar with her work, but “to experience Judy Garland’s full power,” as the PBS series American Masters put it, “one had to be in the auditorium when she brought her God-given gifts to bear on a suddenly unified collection of strangers.” Never did Judy Garland so unify a collection of strangers than on April 23, 1961 during the famous Carnegie Hall performance often called “the greatest night in showbiz history.”
The raucous standing ovation that greeted Judy Garland when she took the stage that night at Carnegie Hall set the tone for the evening that followed. “They were on their feet even before the goddess grabbed the microphone,” wrote Lewis Funke for the New York Times. “And then she sang,” wrote Judith Crist for the New York Herald, “And she sang, let it be reported, as she hasn’t in years.” She sang 27 numbers in front of the rapturous crowd that night and was frequently interrupted by extended ovations. Was it merely the quality of Garland’s performance that night that earned her such an incredible reception? Perhaps it was, but it is also fair to note that the concert took place on the one night a week that Broadway performers have off—Sunday night—and that the audience was therefore, to say the least, a friendly one.
Judy Garland’s performance on this night in 1961 was captured on a live recording that would go on to spend 95 weeks on the U.S. album charts (including 13 weeks at #1) and sweep the 1962 Grammys. But the experience of seeing it live was clearly something else entirely. “She’ll be back in May,” wrote Frank Aston for the New York World-Telegram. “Try to get tickets. Just try. This kid is still a killer.”
READ MORE: Judy Garland’s Personal Life Was a Search for Happiness She Often Portrayed Onscreen
1961 Judy Garland plays Carnegie Hall
She was one of the biggest and most popular movie stars of all time, making her first film appearance at the age of seven and earning the first of three Oscar nominations at 17 for her starring role in what may well be the best-loved American movie of all time, The Wizard of Oz. She was also a prolific recording star, selling millions of records and winning five Grammy awards in a single year nearly three decades after starting out as one of the youngest performers ever signed to a major record label. These accomplishments alone would be enough to impress anyone who was somehow unfamiliar with her work, but “to experience Judy Garland’s full power,” as the PBS series American Masters put it, “one had to be in the auditorium when she brought her God-given gifts to bear on a suddenly unified collection of strangers.” Never did Judy Garland so unify a collection of strangers than on this day in 1961 during the famous Carnegie Hall performance often called “the greatest night in showbiz history.”
The raucous standing ovation that greeted Judy Garland when she took the stage that night at Carnegie Hall set the tone for the evening that followed. “They were on their feet even before the goddess grabbed the microphone,” wrote Lewis Funke for the New York Times. “And then she sang,” wrote Judith Christ for the New York Herald, “And she sang, let it be reported, as she hasn’t in years.” She sang 27 numbers in front of the rapturous crowd that night and was frequently interrupted by extended ovations. Was it merely the quality of Garland’s performance that night that earned her such an incredible reception? Perhaps it was, but it is also fair to note that the concert took place on the one night a week that Broadway performers have off—Sunday night—and that the audience was therefore, to say the least, a friendly one.
Remembering Judy Garland On Stage At Carnegie Hall
It's been called "the greatest night in show business history." Judy Garland performed at Carnegie Hall on this day in 1961. There were no flashing lights, no extravagant dance numbers, just Judy.
Next, we have a voice that's likely been heard in every country on earth. It's the voice of Judy Garland, who, on this day in 1961, delivered one of her most famous performances.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED PERFORMANCE RECORDING)
She's performing here in Carnegie Hall. There were no flashing lights, no extravagant dance numbers, just Judy. Some audience members were excited, they interrupted her.
: I know. I'll sing them all, and we'll stay all night.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW")
INSKEEP: Judy Garland was making a comeback. She battled drug and alcohol abuse. At the age of 38, she had already had a long concert and film career, including, of course, her role as Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW")
MONTAGNE: The recording of that concert received four Grammys, including Album of the Year.
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Restoring Judy Garland's Carnegie Hall Concert
It’s been a few months since I’ve written, but I just had to come up for air to share some exciting news with you: Michael Feinstein has invited me to join the Judy Garland Carnegie Hall Concert Restoration Project team as Editor, for The Judy Garland Heirs Trust. As part of this project to preserve Judy Garland’s musical legacy, our aim is to restore all of the original symphonic arrangements from the 1961 Carnegie Hall Concert and make them available for live performance once again. Since late last summer I have been restoring and performing a handful of Judy’s original arrangements that the Trust, of which Michael Feinstein is a trustee, very graciously shared with me. But to get the chance to work on a preservation project like this is so exciting that I still have to stop and pinch myself. (And then I look at the long road ahead and it sobers me up in a hurry, but I digress…)
Let’s take a moment right here for a little background, just in case you’re a bit hazy on the details of Judy Garland’s Carnegie Hall Concert. A few bare facts: Judy performed at Carnegie Hall on April 23rd, 1961, with Mort Lindsey conducting a 40-piece orchestra. After an instrumental overture, Judy sang 21 numbers — or 24 songs if you count the songs in the medleys separately — plus 4 encores. The concert was recorded for Capitol records and released as a double album, charted number one on Billboard for 13 weeks, and won 5 Grammys including “Best Female Vocal Performance” and “Album of the Year” — the first live concert album and the first one recorded by a woman to win such an honor. By all contemporary accounts, it was an artistic tour-de-force, with Judy at the top of her game and leaving her audience in a frenzy and clamoring for more. “Iconic” and “legendary” would not be at all hyperbolic to describe it. People who were lucky enough to be there still speak of it as a spiritual experience. Reviews were ecstatic.
And then, there’s the music itself, which is what we are actually restoring: 22 song arrangements for orchestra (3 other songs were performed with just Mort Lindsey on piano — maybe I’ll transcribe those, too, stay tuned) plus the overture, written by a gaggle of the greatest songwriters and arrangers of the 20th century. To quote conductor Mort Lindsey, reminiscing about the concert, “…her orchestrations — by everybody — were just as spectacular as you could want. All the songs were very carefully thought out. Each one was a production…” (from Judy Garland: A Portrait in Art and Anecdote by John Fricke).
Bringing all of these arrangements back to their former glory is, however, an extremely tall order. For starters, there are a few tunes that the Trust doesn’t have and that appear to be lost. How could this happen. Well, if you know anything of Judy’s history, she moved around quite a lot, things got misplaced or misfiled, musicians accidentally took a part home here and there, and several of her arrangements were even impounded during her lifetime and sold at auction after her death. And it seems that people just didn’t value them as much as we do now. MGM infamously discarded its musical library in a landfill circa 1969, and more than a few yellowing manuscripts penned by the great Hollywood and popular orchestrators have been rescued from the curb moments ahead of the trash collector. Of the songs we do have, maybe only a manuscript score survives, or only the instrumental parts but no conductor score, and whole parts may have gone missing or be nearly illegible. They are all hand-written, of course, and some copyists had much neater handwriting than others. (You can see the hurry in which some of the parts were copied!) Microfilmed copies may have so much glare that the musical staff lines are not even visible. “Come Rain or Come Shine,” which was the first of these Garland orchestral restorations I attempted, had no conductor score, cuts that didn’t match up between the parts, and the bongo part had apparently taken a slow boat to Havana. I copied every note, marking, and articulation into the musical notation program Finale to make a full conductor score, then generated the newly-legible instrumental parts.
By this point, you are probably thinking that this doesn’t exactly sound like a lot of fun, so why am I so excited about it? Well, since I can remember, I have been in love with Judy Garland’s singing, and also the orchestrations I heard on my Wizard of Oz album and other musicals of the era. I have been transcribing orchestral reductions and piano accompaniments note-for-note from Judy’s original recordings (some elaboration in this post) for the past twenty years. And now I am getting to bring her actual arrangements back from faded notes on dusty, tattered pages and SING THEM in symphonic surround sound. In my wildest dreams, I could never have thought this up. It seems, paradoxically, both crazy and inevitable that the path would lead here for the toddler who used to sing all the Wizard of Oz orchestral parts. As for orchestration, I have come rather late to the party and that is just one of the reasons I am so humbled and grateful to be given this chance to help preserve Judy’s legacy — a woman who has given me, personally, so much through her artistry. It is a tremendous responsibility and also a great joy to be working with this music and learning firsthand from the top arrangers of the era, including Conrad Salinger and Nelson Riddle. Not to mention getting to play on a team that includes two great storehouses of Garland knowledge, Michael Feinstein and John Fricke — who is also generously supplying music and arrangements from his collection, as well as offering other valuable help. Having written three Garland biographies and produced Garland TV specials for PBS American Masters and A&E, John can answer any question I throw at him and Michael's knowledge is likewise bottomless!
In case you’re curious, here’s how some of “Come Rain or Come Shine” turned out, revoiced slightly for symphonic pops orchestra (without saxes):
"Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall: The 50th Anniversary Concert" with Lorna Luft LIVE! at the Paramount Theatre
On April 23, 1961, 3000 music lovers packed New York City’s Carnegie Hall to witness a monumental moment in show business history — a live concert by the legendary singer and actress, Judy Garland.
The original recording of that evening’s performance, Judy at Carnegie Hall, shot to the top of the Billboard charts, was certified gold, and even won four Grammy Awards including Album of the Year, making Judy Garland the first woman to ever receive that honor.
Since it’s release in 1961, the album has never gone out of print.
On Sunday June 23, 2019, music lovers packed Asbury Park, NJ’s Paramount Theatre to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Garland’s death in June of 1969 with a performance of Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall: The 50th Anniversary Concert, hosted by Garland’s daughter, singer and actress Lorna Luft.
Andrew DePrisco, artistic director of Deal Park, NJ’s Axelrod Performing Arts Center, welcomes the crowd. A co-presentation of Axelrod PAC and the Paramount Theatre, DePrisco thanks the sponsors in addition to those working behind the scenes of tonight’s tribute, notably singer and music archivist Michael Feinstein who recently said about tonight’s performance, “This is the first time the Garland concert will be performed with meticulous research and preparation, giving listeners a true sense of what the orchestra really sounded like in 1961.”
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The 39-piece orchestra stands as conductor Michael Berkowitz takes his place center stage, the grand architecture of the theater graced by a golden iridescent back curtain that envelopes him and the musicians.
Berkowitz raises his baton to open tonight’s concert with an instrumental “Overture” of Judy Garland classics including “The Trolley Song,” “Over the Rainbow,” and “The Man That Got Away.”
Building in dynamics and mood, the living and breathing orchestra’s swinging instrumental performance builds in dynamics and mood, the percussion beating as strings whirl and swirl about the stage. The crystal clear sound inspires audience members to rise to their feet.
Lorna Luft enters the stage, takes a deep bow, and welcomes the audience saying, “Hello, Asbury Park!”
Announcing, “50 years ago, the world lost a legend,” Luft talks about her mother, Judy Garland. Calling her “an incredible person,” Luft reveals that at the tender age of nine, she was in the audience at Carnegie Hall when her mother presented the original 1961 concert that will be recreated here at the Paramount tonight.
Recalling, “Everyone was dressed up in fantastic gowns and jewelry, and the men were in tuxedos,” Luft exclaims, “and when when my mother came out, they all went bananas!”
Continuing, “I never saw adults act like that,” Luft praises tonight’s orchestra, calling their sound “stunning” and inviting the audience to “sit back, relax, and have a wonderful time.”
This evening’s program consists of all 25 numbers originally performed by Judy Garland at her historic 1961 Carnegie Hall concert. Tonight, they are not only performed by Luft, but by four additional talented singers as well: Joan Ellison, Debbie Gravitte, Karen Mason, and Gabrielle Stravelli.
Joan Ellison opens the show with “When You’re Smiling.” Looking elegant in a sequined gown with 50s style hair and makeup, Ellison has heads bopping along to this rousing opening number which has the crowd cheering and whistling by the end.
Smiling as she sings in her black gown with black opera gloves, Debbie Gravitte performs an uptempo medley of “Almost Like Being in Love” and “This Can’t Be Love.”
Moving in sync to the swinging beat and shimmery brass, Gravitte sings her heart out for the enthusiastic audience.
Karen Mason performs a slow sultry interpretation of the ballad, “Do It Again.”
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Her performance is lush and luscious as she pleads “Please, do it again,” the lyrical strings and reedy woodwinds playing long notes in contrast to the walking bass line and brushes of the drummer.
Making this song her own, the audience calls out “Brava!” at the end.
Dancing as she sings on the upbeat cha-cha, “You Go to My Head,” Gravitte entertains with an enticing and intoxicating arrangement which features sparkling percussion and blaring brass.
Ellison follows up with “Alone Together,” the orchestra sounding melancholy on this ballad which features Ellison holding long notes with her pure tone. The timpani rolls as the arrangement comes to a dramatic ending, leaving audience members cheering and whistling at the end.
Mason sings with grace and ease while performing an upbeat and personable rendition of “Who Cares (So Long as You Care for Me).” As she vocalizes, she invites the audience to hang on her every word while being perfectly supported by the swinging orchestra.
The Jersey Shore’s own Gabrielle Stravelli vocalizes with skill and style on “Puttin’ On The Ritz.”
Making her performance look effortless, she handles the quick tempo of the engaging arrangement which features beating drums and New Orleans style brass that makes audience members want to begin to tap dance.
Joking, “Do we all seem like the same person now?” Gravitte retakes the stage to perform “How Long Has This Been Going On” accompanied solely by piano, guitar, bass, and drums. Moving to the center of the stage, she sings with emotion as her gloved hand paints the air above her head.
Ellison follows up by counting off the next number, “Just You, Just Me,” before the orchestra jumps right in on this happy uptempo piece which features syncopated brass licks and a swinging saxophone solo.
A highlight of the evening is Lorna Luft’s interpretation of “The Man That Got Away.”
Explaining, “Harold Arlen was Mom’s favorite composer,” Luft reveals, “She was an avid golfer who, one day, invited Harold to play golf.”
“At the time,” continues Luft, “Howard was working with Ira Gershwin on the music to A Star Is Born. Now, Howard was not known for being able to keep secrets, so Ira explicitly told him not to sing any of the songs for Judy. When they got to the golf course, Harold was humming the first few notes of ‘The Man That Got Away’ and Judy dragged him to the piano at the clubhouse and made him play the song for her!”
Here, Luft knocks the audience’s socks off with her performance of her mom’s famous torch song as she sings with passion, “The night is bitter/The stars have lost their glitter/The winds grow colder/Suddenly you’re older/And all because of the man that got away,” as she’s accompanied by a tight string bass in addition to the sound of a jazz saxophone.
The audience responds with an enthusiastic standing ovation.
Act I concludes with Gravitte’s rendition of “San Francisco,” her dynamic personality shining through and connecting with the audience via her talent, smile, and charm on this two-step which features bold and brassy accompaniment.
During a brief intermission we chat with several audience members who share their thoughts about tonight’s Judy Garland tribute concert thus far.
Says Megan from Marlboro, “I’m really enjoying it. When I was a little kid, my cousin introduced me to the Judy at Carnegie Hall album. It’s very exciting to hear it played live. I love the way each performer brings her own personality to the songs, and, wow, ‘The Man Who Got Away’ is one great song.”
Christian from Asbury Park contends, “This is one historic night! I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than with the recreation of the greatest night in music — Judy Garland is an icon who is loved by everyone.”
Tom from Asbury Park remarks, “This show is amazing. I’m here with my mom and as she was reading the program before the show, she said to me, ‘That’s the exact night I met your father.’ They were both fans of Judy Garland.”
Recalls Avi from Long Branch, “I saw Judy Garland perform about six times,” before confessing, “but I’m also a big fan of Judy’s daughter, Liza Minelli. I took my mom to see Liza’s nightclub act at the Waldorf Astoria where I was invited to bring mom back to Liza’s dressing suite and we both met Judy Garland. My mom talked about that night until the day she died.”
Lastly, we chat with John from Plainfield who tells us he was present for the original Judy at Carnegie Hall concert.
Explains John, “At the time, I worked for a sheet music company, and they had a whole row of seats purchased for the Carnegie Hall concert, so I went.” Declaring, “I was floored!” John recalls, “Everything that night was so right on, and Judy had so much fun with the audience,” before adding, “After that, I saw her at least 20 more times — everywhere from New York to Las Vegas to Los Angeles — and I even met her several times over the years.”
Act II opens with Debbie Gravitte’s lively rendition of “That’s Entertainment” and is followed with a slow and heartfelt performance of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” by Karen Mason, which features the plucking of a harp, a fluttering flute, and a muted trumpet.
After cheers and whistles, Mason jokes, “Let’s do another one. I put on this fancy dress!”
Here, she performs an upbeat arrangement of “Come Rain or Come Shine,” her rousing vocal supported by exciting percussion playing which underlies the big sound of the orchestra on this Garland blockbuster.
Then, Gabrielle Stravelli performs a trio of songs accompanied solely by pianist Don Rebic.
As if part of a recital, Stravelli’s voice fills the theater on her intimate rendition of the ballad, “You’re Nearer.”
After announcing “This next arrangement is different from the original album — it’s more upbeat and jazzy” — she performs “A Foggy Day.”
Her voice strong and resonant, Gravelli’s performance elicits whistles and cheers, at which point she jokes, “If you liked the changes to that one, they were my idea — if you didn’t, it was Maestro Berkowitz’s idea!”
Stravelli concludes her mini-set with the ballad, “If Love Were All.” Crooning at times and singing with power at others, she moves the audience with her emotional performance on this lovely song which has everyone responding with cheers, whistles, and applause.
Luft has fun as she sings with feeling on “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart.” Dancing on the instrumental interlude, trumpets shake behind a honking tenor saxophone solo. The crowd loves Lorna and stands for her energetic and entertaining performance.
Ellison retakes the stage for a sultry rendition of “Stormy Weather.” Weeping strings, tinkling piano, solo trumpet, and a soli saxophone section are featured on the accompaniment to Ellison’ smooth vocal interpretation. As the song builds with melancholy, Ellison and the orchestra inspire great applause at the end.
Mason and Gravitte join Ellison on stage for a medley of three Garland classics. On “You Made Me Love You,” Mason sings sweetly to a string section counterpoint, and on “For Me and My Gal,” Ellison happily sings to the audience as she dances across the stage. The medley concludes with a percussive rendition of “The Trolley Song” where Gravitte brings joy to the melody before the entire trio takes a well-deserved bow.
Luft retakes the stage to announce, “This was Al Jolson’s song until my mom sang it — then it became her song.” Here, she wows the crowd with her dynamic interpretation of “Rock A Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody.” At the concluson, as the audience whistles and cheers with appreciation, Luft lifts her head to the heavens and smiles.
Another highlight of tonight’s show is Joan Ellison’s wondrous performance of “Over the Rainbow.” Her voice strong and clear, the arrangement ebbing and flowing, Ellison gives a master class in interpretation as she sings, “Where troubles melt like lemon drops/Way above the chimney tops.”
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Painting a picture with her talent and emotion, Ellison’s irresistible performance inspires an electric reaction from the crowd.
Gravitte follows up with an energetic and entertaining rendition of “Swanee,” where she invites the audience to sing along. Then, Mason performs a sultry version of “After You’ve Gone.”
Ending the show on a high note, Ellison, Mason, Gravitte, and Stravelli perform “Chicago,” after which Lorna Luft joins the quartet for bows to a well-deserved standing ovation.
As audience members make their way out of the Paramount Theatre, we chat with several who share their opinions of tonight’s Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall: The 50th Anniversary Concert.
Comments Stan from Ocean Grove, “This show was wonderful! I loved the different singers — they were all extremely strong. I brought my 91-year-old mother and she loved it,” before noting, “She never got to see Judy Garland, but this was the next best thing.”
Remarks Matt from Asbury Park, “It was incredible I’m speechless,” revealing, “And seeing Lorna Left was great. Now I’m an ardent fan.”
Elynn from Ocean Twp. contends, “I loved tonight’s show — it was magnificent thanks to the energy and quality of the orchestra, the talent of the vocalists, and the support of the audience, which was so responsive,” adding, “The Paramount Theater here in Asbury Park is so beautiful! Tonight, we not only had the gift of the music, but of the seashore, as well. What could be better than that?”
Marty from Asbury Park agrees adding “I feel very lucky to be here. It exceeded my every expectation. The musicians were terrific — you just can’t beat a live orchestra — plus the Paramount is such a beautiful theater. It made for a pretty incredible night.”
Lynne from Farmingdale exclaims, “I loved this show! Judy Garland is my all-time favorite performer.” Recalling, “I saw Judy Garland at the Palace Theater when I was five years old, “ Lynne notes, “I liked Joan Ellison — I cried during ‘Over the Rainbow’ — and I liked Debbie Gravitte too I’ve seen her before and she’s so very talented.”
Lastly, we chat with Harriet from New Brunswick who exclaims, “I’m a Judy Garland fan from forever — even my kids love Judy!”
Recalling, “In 1962, I received the Judy at Carnegie Hall LP as a birthday present. I listened to that record over and over. As a result, I knew every note of every song tonight, and this was an accurate performance — the orchestrations were right on,” Harriet continues, “so when Gabrielle Stravelli talked about changing ‘A Foggy Day,’ I knew every change that was made!”
Continuing, “Seeing Lorna Luft and getting a chance to hear the original arrangements played by a live orchestra made this a red letter night for me,” Harriet concludes by stating, “It was beautiful, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
In addition to chatting with audience members, we also get a chance to converse with tonight’s on-stage artists who share their perspectives on performing this evening’s 50th anniversary tribute to Judy Garland.
Comments Joan Ellison, “It was overwhelming! Like for so many other people, the song, ‘Over the Rainbow,’ is what made me want to be a singer,” acknowledging, “I’ve been a historian of Judy Garland’s music for the last couple of years, and to hear so much of it all at once tonight was simply amazing.”
Adding, “All of these ladies are sensational performers, and to perform with Judy Garland’s daughter, Lorna Luft, just blows my mind,” Ellison concludes by admitting, “I’m going to be processing it for awhile.”
Karen Mason remarks, “It was a privilege — not only to sing tonight, but to get to sing to these orchestrations. They fill my heart — the brilliance of these orchestrations just takes my breath away!”
Adding, “To hear the live musicians performing the music of Judy Garland — what can I say? She was the gold standard we all listened to,” Mason notes, “I grew up studying the great interpreters of song like Judy Garland, and it was great to be on the stage with her daughter — the amazing Lorna Luft — tonight.”
Debbie Gravitte exclaims,“Tonight was just great! The audience was primed for this show, and they had visceral reaction to the music. This is the kind of event that when performers first start out in show business, they all want to do. And it’s kind of dreamy, too, because no one had to sing the whole concert all by herself — we had an incredible mix of women doing that together tonight.”
Continuing, “I loved the sound of the live orchestra — in fact, when the orchestra was rehearsing earlier today, we were all recording them with our cell phones,” Gravitte discloses, “It was amazing to sing with them, and when we weren’t singing, we were all listening to and enjoying one another’s performances.”
Gabrielle Stravelli declares, “It was a thrill to be a part of this event and to watch all of these incredible women who were so nice to work with! We could all feel how special this night was — we had the best songs, the best arrangements, the best orchestra, and a great crowd!”
Lastly, we chat with Lorna Luft who sums up the entire evening with one simple statement:
To learn more about upcoming shows at Axelrod Arts Center in Deal Park, NJ — including Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat which runs from July 11 to July 28, and Remember Jones presents Tommy on Sept. 7 and 8 — please go to axelrodartscenter.com. For information on future performances at The Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, NJ — notably Jon Anderson of Yes on August 2 and Arlo Guthrie on Sept. 28 — please click on asburyparkhall.com/paramount-theatre.
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Rufus Wainwright Plays Judy Garland
BECAUSE Rufus Wainwright looks a little like a lot of people, which is to say handsome in a scruffy, generic and even-featured way, and because his demeanor is modest, and because his manner of answering questions is thoughtful and occasionally loopy, and because the place where he elects to meet a reporter is close enough to his apartment for him to run home afterward and put his laundry in the dryer, it is hard to square this person sitting at an Irving Place coffee shop with certain other aspects of the Wainwright persona.
He does not much resemble, for instance, the performer/party boy until fairly recently known for his cocaine and crystal meth problems, his machine-gun candor and an ego that can make Madonna seem like a shy flower.
Harder still is picturing the man brushing crumbs of Rice Krispies Treat from his mouth taking on a landmark of both show business and postwar gay history that has stood intact, and apparently inviolable, for 45 years. Yet that, for two sold-out days next week, is what Mr. Wainwright plans to do.
Backed by a 40-piece orchestra, dressed by the Dutch designers Viktor & Rolf and filmed by the director Sam Mendes, Mr. Wainwright, a man once called the "first postliberation era gay pop star," will revisit Judy Garland's legendary 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall.
Far from being spooked by the prospect of assuming the mantle of the late singer with the astounding pipes, the appalling life story and the enduringly totemic status in both gay culture and recent gay history (she died the night of the Stonewall riots), the 32-year-old Mr. Wainwright seems downright nonchalant.
"The songbook and the way these songs are built is so amazing that you could get out there and do it with a kazoo," he said.
Everyone knows the Garland story. Or at least everyone does whose first encounter with "The Wizard of Oz" was not on late-night reruns. By the time Judy Garland, nee Frances Ethel Gumm, arrived at Carnegie Hall that long-ago April, she had already been a show business trouper for nearly 40 years.
If she was not the World's Greatest Entertainer — as the posters for that performance asserted — she was surely the most indomitable. Perhaps from the instant she was first pushed onstage, at age 30 months, the person then called Baby Gumm was destined to become a living embodiment of the many ways in which genius can be equal to curse.
In her scant 47 years on earth Judy Garland managed, according to one biographer, to crank out 32 feature films star in 30 of her own television programs appear in 1,100 nightclubs, theater or concert performances win a Tony for a record-breaking engagement at the Palace Theater marry five times produce three children by two of those husbands earn and lose millions of dollars conquer and succumb to a variety of addictions, including ones to Benzedrine and alcohol and record 100 singles and a dozen albums, among them "Judy at Carnegie Hall," which won five Grammy awards and has never been out of print.
Opinions vary widely about whether Garland's appearance at Carnegie Hall was the pinnacle of her career. Certainly it was the event that cemented her legend as a singer and star and elevated her to the pantheon of the unvanquished, where she steadfastly remains. It was, moreover, a comeback show so suffused with the performer's patented showbiz pluck that it helped transform her into an enduring artifact of camp.
"It's a bit dangerous, camp," Mr. Wainwright said recently in a Dutch gay magazine whose title cannot be printed in these pages. "I think that any gay person in the world would be seduced at one point by a certain kind of camp. For certain people it's kind of a saving grace."
In truth, the saving grace in Mr. Wainwright's case is that he is too young to approach the Garland canon with the reverence of a true camp adherent. The melodrama of Garland as a consummate victim is seemingly of less interest to Mr. Wainwright than that of Garland the musician with the phenomenal instrument and profound capacity to inhabit a lyric and a tune. Some female fans, Mr. Wainwright said, see in Judy Garland "a vulnerable victim of male-dominated society, prey to this harsh system." Certain gay ones also tend to view her as "a victim, living a life where there's no compassion and no room for error," he said. Although both viewpoints contain truths, they are also somewhat beside the point, he added.
Before anything else, Judy Garland was a musician with an almost shamanistic ability to divine the meaning of a lyric and to add an interpretation of her own to even the most overplayed tune.
"After 9/11, when we first were going to war and the state of things looked pretty dismal, I bought the rerelease," Mr. Wainwright said, referring to the remastered double-CD recording of the 1961 concert. "Somehow that album, no matter how dark things seemed, made everything brighten. She had this capacity to lighten the world through the innocence of her sound. Her anchor to the material was obviously through her devotion to music. You never feel that she didn't believe every word of every song she ever sang."
Garland could certainly sell a song and the same has been said of Mr. Wainwright, whose talent has been described in a number of ways, but rarely as cool or distanced or ironic. His enthusiasm for opera, particularly Verdi, and for lush arrangements and swelling strings, tends to set him apart from some of his contemporaries, although never so far apart that he runs the risk of becoming some kind of musical novelty.
Mr. Wainwright is equipped, as one critic wrote, with "a strong surging tenor," a pure voice full of quirks and surprises and often melancholy colors. He is also supplied with a show-business family (his father is the folk singer Loudon Wainwright III, his mother the folk singer Kate McGarrigle they divorced when Rufus was 3 and he was raised, estranged from his father, by his mother in Montreal) rich enough in dysfunction that he should have no problem getting a handle on Garland's distress.
Although throughout childhood Rufus Wainwright was trotted out to deliver "Over the Rainbow" as a showstopper at family parties, he insists that the heart-tugging saga of poor Baby Gumm, the singing machine, has limited meaning for him. "It's a little hard for me to get inside that story since I'm a 32-year-old man in my prime and wasn't put on pills by my mother at 8," he said.
Still, talent is a funny thing, Mr. Wainwright said. "It's always there. It never leaves you and it becomes a kind of crutch. You expect people to be as loyal to you as your talent is and when they're not, you're devastated."
For Garland, who once described herself as a slab of meat that could sing, the talent indeed outlasted everything. More than her currency in the world, it became her sole form of security.
"I've thought a lot about this, and I think the secret" to Garland's effect on listeners decades after her death, said Mr. Wainwright, "is that, when she sings, she is beautiful without being actually beautiful."
"She believed in it and you believe in it," Mr. Wainwright said. "That's the key."
The legacy of Garland has been carried on by her daughters, both of whom are singers and have had varying degrees of success. Lorna wrote about her life with Garland in her 1998 autobiography, Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir. It became the basis for the 2001 television mini-series Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. Both of the featured actresses — Tammy Blanchard as young Judy and Judy Davis as more mature Judy — took home Emmy Awards for their portrayals of the famed entertainer.
Despite her premature death, Garland continues to maintain a devoted following. There are countless fan sites online as well as published biographies that explore almost every aspect of her life — from her brilliant talent, her professional successes and failures, and her myriad of personal struggles. In celebration of the late star, the Judy Garland Museum at her birthplace holds an annual festival.
In September 2019, the biopic Judy starring Renພ Zellweger explores Garlands final year and London concerts.
Oral History of "Beyond The Rainbow: Garland At Carnegie Hall" at Arts Garage
When the play-with-music “Beyond the Rainbow: Garland at Carnegie Hall” comes to Delray Beach’s Arts Garage, it will be a much different show than any of the other dozen or so stagings.
“It used to be a theater experience and we’re turning it into a cabaret experience,” says director Ron Peluso, from History Theatre in St. Paul, Minn., where he is artistic director. “Our cast is embracing it a lot. They’re embracing the Arts Garage’s intimacy. It’ll be more like Judy Garland is singing at your table.”
Here is an oral history of the show and how it was restaged over the last three days for Friday's (July 19) opening:
Director Ron Peluso: “Here at the History Theatre we commission a lot of works … [about] the diverse American experience of the Midwest. Judy Garland is from Grand Rapids. She’s a local hero. I had an idea about a play for Judy Garland and I brought it to Randy Beard. I believe it was 2003 when he started working.”
Playwright William Randall Beard: “I was actually going after a different commission. Of course I jumped at it. But I got to tell you…I was never a Judy Garland fan. I’d seen ‘Wizard of Oz’….but I didn’t see things like ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ or ‘A Star Is Born’ until I got the commission. I had in my collection a concert tape I found at a garage sale and it was of her singing at Carnegie Hall. It was the best 25 cents I ever spent.”
Lou Tyrrell, artistic director of Theatre at Arts Garage: “My mom was a huge Judy Garland fan so we had all her albums at home. Her image and stature through the generations has had a staying power that few artists from any other era have had. There are a handful of 20th century iconic artists that are emblematic of the century and she’s one of them. It’s the story of America at the time.”
Peluso: “When we were looking into her life we found this quote, something to the effect of, ‘The story of my life is in my music.’ Well, all of those songs kind of do tell the story about her life. I think we use about 80 percent of the concert songs and the other 20 percent are songs that just make good dramatic sense.”
Beard: “I realized that [the 1961 Carnegie Hall concerts] made a really nice way to structure the play…that if you had the elder Garland performing the songs and thereby provoking the memories and the memories come to life. So there is an actress playing the younger Judy and three actors playing all the other roles.”
Tyrrell: “We did [the show] together back in 2006 at Florida Stage and it was a wonderful evening and a great tribute to the enormous talent in Judy Garland. But now, [Peluso] having the experience under his belt, not only him but his whole ensemble cast, now they have the fun of going into a cabaret setting and re-conceiving it.”
Peluso: “I think I get in Monday and we restage the whole show in three days to get it ready for Friday’s opening.”
Tyrrell: “Doing it in a cabaret environment is so perfect for this play. They are bringing the play out into the audience. It’s a spontaneous venue. An event at Arts Garage is very much in the moment. We don’t focus on a lot of bells and whistles. We focus on raw talent.”
#OnThisGayDay: Judy Garland At Carnegie Hall
She was only 37-years-old, but near death, addicted to booze and pills. Her acting and singing careers were considered finished. Defying doctors’ directives, Garland put all her eggs in one big showbiz basket: A Carnegie Hall Concert. That performance became a moment in time for those who were there and a showbiz legend for everyone else. That evening is still considered the greatest night in entertainment history.
Garland had not worked in films since A Star Is Born in 1954. In 1960, after a period of rest and careful nutrition, along with a more moderate indulgence in alcohol and pharmaceuticals, she had gradually built back a reputation for showing up on time, and giving well-regarded, nicely reviewed performances in all sorts of venues of all sizes around Europe and North America. But, no one was anticipating the mania the evening she brought her act to Carnegie Hall on Sunday, April 23, 1961. Her audience called her back for encore after encore, even asking her to repeat songs after her conductor’s book of arrangements had been sung through.
After the overture had whipped up the audience’s emotions, Garland made her entrance. She was almost a half-hour late, looking exceptionally restored, thin and pulled together. She was greeted by a deafening roar from the crowd, which including theatre performers and showbiz greats on their Sunday night off (theatres were dark on Sunday evenings in those days). The celebrities were zany in love with Garland and so was her usual gay audience.
15-year-old Liza Minnelli was there with her younger sister, Lorna Luft, and her brother Joey Luft, just 6-years-old. Joey Luft:
“The one thing I remember, when you’re a kid, adults are supposed to act like adults. They are not supposed to jump out of their chairs, screaming, yelling, running towards the stage. They’re supposed to be in control. There they were, all dressed up in the tuxedos, going nuts.”
The recording of this evening is the only Judy Garland album in my own collection. I don’t need another. She sings each song as if it were her last. The album is still vivid and vital. It was number one on the Billboard charts for 13 weeks in 1961, and it has never been out of print since. Judy At Carnegie Hall is an essential album for all gays and anyone who wishes to understand pop culture of the 20th century.
Garland’s return to the top was brief. In 1962, she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for Stanley Kramer’s Judgment At Nuremberg. A CBS television special she did with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin had huge ratings. Impressed, CBS signed Garland to a weekly variety series. Plagued with difficulties from the very beginning and up against the most popular series of the era, Bonanza, The Judy Garland Show only lasted 24 episodes.
We know the sad story: she couldn’t stay away from the pills and her health deteriorated. In 1967, Garland married Mickey Deans, who supplied her with drugs. In 1969, just three months after her 47th birthday, Deans found her dead of an overdose in the bathroom of their London flat.
The viewing of her body at NYC’s Campbell Funeral Home (the number one choice for dead Broadway performers), was a stupendous spectacle, with tens of thousands of mourners, just a few days before the Stonewall Riots, a coincidence connecting the two events stays in many gay peoples’ minds and cemented Garland’s status as The Ultimate Gay Icon. Garland was a truly great artist and remains an icon to all sorts of people. The audience at that concert 56-years ago tonight was distinguished by diversity as well as devotion.
Beyond the Rainbow: Garland at Carnegie Hall
It takes four people to tell the story of a big life like Judy Garlands. In the newest production from History Theatre, Jody Briskey, as Judy Garland is haunted by her past, which is represented by actors who play Garland at three stages of her life: young Judy (Nicola Wahl), as a teenager (Lillian Carlson) and in adulthood (Elena Glass). The audience learns early on about her parent’s troubled marriage and her dictatorial mother who acted as pharmacist for the young Judy.
Creatively composed to operate on multiple planes at the same time and yet firmly placed in the actual experience of Garland singing at Carnegie Hall in 1961 helps ground the play. This point in time memorializes Garland’s revival as one of the greatest interpretive singers of her time. Her powerful contralto voice was captured that night and the concert went on to win four Grammys and “Album of Year.”
The twists and turns that brought her to this career pinnacle are illustrated by the other iterations of herself and drives home her troubled life. At one point Garland demands that they all get out of her head, however as the play unfolds these images from her past act as cheerleaders and sympathetic motivators.
Although Garland was only 47 when she died, the play covers a lot of ground. The two husbands mentioned (of five) were Vincente Minnelli (Shad Olsen) and Sid Luft (Adam Whisner) the former Liza Minnelli’s father and the latter Lorna and Joey Luft’s father.
Although Jody Briskey has no real similarity in appearance to Judy Garland by the end of the evening the audience was convinced as she sang “Somewhere over the Rainbow” that she was the real deal. Briskey’s phrasing, singing range and body language mirrored Garland’s rather shaky on stage visuals to make her seem like an exact double. The music alone is worth your time as the evening includes, “Get Happy,” “That’s Entertainment,” “The Trolley Song,” along with her signature songs, “Stormy Weather” and “The Man That Got Away” and so much more.
At one point Briskey proclaims, “I am still Judy Garland.” And no one in the house would disagree.
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