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A Celebration of the Music of Judy Garland

While the recent lounge-and-martini craze among the young and fashionable has brought the song stylings of Tony Bennett and Dean Martin back into the spotlight, and made a virtual god of Frank Sinatra even before his death sealed his seat among the deities, the vocal art of Judy Garland has remained somewhat marginalized in American popular culture. There's a touch of homophobia in this - an affection for Garland has long been considered male homosexuality's mark of Cain - but the more salient reason for her legacy's neglect is less pernicious. Frank & Co. have been lionized as the epitome of cool, the aesthetic avatars of the "whatever" generation's signature jadedness, and while Judy Garland was many things, cool was not among them. On the contrary, as the two-evening tribute at Carnegie Hall this week reminded us, she was about as cool as a volcano.

While the recent lounge-and-martini craze among the young and fashionable has brought the song stylings of Tony Bennett and Dean Martin back into the spotlight, and made a virtual god of Frank Sinatra even before his death sealed his seat among the deities, the vocal art of Judy Garland has remained somewhat marginalized in American popular culture. There’s a touch of homophobia in this – an affection for Garland has long been considered male homosexuality’s mark of Cain – but the more salient reason for her legacy’s neglect is less pernicious. Frank & Co. have been lionized as the epitome of cool, the aesthetic avatars of the “whatever” generation’s signature jadedness, and while Judy Garland was many things, cool was not among them. On the contrary, as the two-evening tribute at Carnegie Hall this week reminded us, she was about as cool as a volcano.

Hosted by Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft and actor Robert Stack, who knew Judy back when she was Frances Gumm, one of the Gumm Sisters riding in on the last rails of vaudeville, the evenings paid homage to Garland’s legendary 1961 Carnegie Hall stand, the culmination of a tour that marked the greatest of her many against-all-odds comebacks. (Less than two years previously, hospitalized with hepatitis, she’d been told she could never work again.)

The evenings were a grab bag of reminiscences, performances of Garland standards (many were part of Garland’s Carnegie Hall set) and video clips of Garland herself, and while the first night had its longueurs and a more shapeless feeling, both contained a share of illuminating anecdotes and arresting vocalizing. Indeed, all who sang deserve a badge of courage for taking on Garland standards before an audience largely composed of fans who had Garland’s versions permanently enshrined in their aural memory banks.

While the influence of a talent as unique as Garland’s is sometimes difficult to trace, it could be heard Tuesday night in Weslia Whitfield’s exquisite phrasing on Rodgers & Hart’s “You’re Nearer,” and in Vikki Carr’s finely variegated belting and crooning on Garland signature songs “The Boy Next Door” and “After You’ve Gone,” as well as the more obscure but nicely chosen Irving Berlin tune “How About Me.” Carr, who appeared on both evenings, appropriately and simply described the hallmark of Garland’s art: “She sang with her heart.”

Garland’s emotional investment in her songs was remarked upon by several contributors, none more eloquently than Elaine Stritch, whose performance included a series of extravagantly funny recollections of “lifting a few” with a jubilant Judy. In an age when the specter of recovery seems to have taken the olive out of the martini, Stritch’s affectionate remarks reminded that there was a joyful side to Garland’s notorious imbibing that is often obscured by dark descriptions of the toll it took on her. Stritch then sang, in her glorious, heartfelt croak, a medley of Noel Coward’s “If Love Were All” and the Gershwins’ “But Not for Me.”

A perhaps surprising highlight of the tributes was Lea DeLaria, the lesbian comic turned musical comedy star (via the Public Theater’s Broadway-bound “On the Town”), who, with her petite stature, ribald, self-deprecating humor and brassy style, has more in common with Garland than might at first be supposed. She sang a snazzy rendition of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” that was both redolent of the Garland verve and distinctly her own. And her tale of how her worship of Garland secured her a much-needed New York apartment with two gay strangers was an apt and amusing acknowledgment of Garland’s gay following.

Gogi Grant sang a stormy “Stormy Weather,” after recalling the remark that Garland knew how to “turn a ballad into a three-act play,” and other vocal contributions were made by an array of Garland friends and fans that included Bebe Neuwirth, Nancy Dussault, Robert Morse, Robert Goulet, Dee Hoty, Pamela Myers and Jack Jones. Luft, a fine vocalist herself, sang rousing versions of some of her mother’s best-known songs, and did quite fine by them, although she sometimes pumped up the show-stopping vocal effects, which could not but remind you how unselfconsciously Garland could achieve similar results. (Luft’s style is closer to her half-sister Liza Minnelli’s, whose absence from the program – whatever the reason – was dismaying.)

Broadway composer Jerry Herman and longtime Garland conductor and arranger Mort Lindsey contributed to both nights, the former with a funny Garland-themed rewrite of “That’s Entertainment,” the latter conducting the overture to the original Carnegie Hall concert (which was oddly placed at the opening of the second act on the first night, and returned to its proper spot on the second).

Shana Alexander, Betty Comden and Adolph Green and a very funny Alan King were among those sharing recollections of Garland, and the first evening featured an endearingly awkward Jerry Maren, somewhat tastelessly introduced as coming “straight from Munchkinland,” who eventually performed, presumably for the first and last time live onstage, the song he made famous: “We represent the Lollipop Guild …”

References to Garland being “the greatest entertainer of the century” or “the greatest entertainer in the world” were well meant (and rapturously applauded), but such grandiose and vague eulogizing may do Garland a disservice (although I’d be inclined to allow that she was one of the greatest – and most underrated – screen actresses). No such protesting is necessary when the talents of the lady herself are on display, as they often were Tuesday and Wednesday night via video clips, primarily from her short-lived TV show.

Hers was a talent of a simplicity and scope that speaks for itself: Hearing her voice ring through Carnegie Hall again almost 30 years after her death, one marveled anew at the warm radiance of both voice and spirit, at how she could wring every drop of drama from a lyric without sacrificing an ounce of truth. It’s a legacy that will endure.

A Celebration of the Music of Judy Garland

(Carnegie Hall; 2,804 seats; $ 75 top)

Production: Presented by Carnegie Hall. Orchestra conducted by Larry Blank. Hosted by Lorna Luft and Robert Stack. Reviewed June 16, 17, 1998.

With: With: Shana Alexander, Lionel Bart, Vikki Carr, Betty Comden, Lea DeLaria, Nancy Dussault, Robert Goulet, Gogi Grant, Adolph Green, Skitch Henderson, Jerry Herman, Dee Hoty, Jack Jones, Alan King, Mort Lindsey, Jerry Maren, Robert Morse , Pamela Myers, Bebe Neuwirth, Elaine Stritch, Weslia Whitfield.

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