Even at 100, Judy Garland Commands Carnegie Hall

Jessica Vosk didn’t only sing the Garland songbook, she talked about the legend and included lots of clips from the 1963-’64 ‘Judy Garland Show.’

Richard Termine
Jessica Vosk at Carnegie Hall during ‘Get Happy: A Judy Garland Centennial Celebration.’ Richard Termine

‘Get Happy: A Judy Garland Centennial Celebration’
Jessica Vosk with special guest Andy Karl, Carnegie Hall  

On the whole, there have been fewer celebrations of the centennial of Judy Garland in 2022 than there were for Frank Sinatra during his centennial year, 2015. That’s not because Garland is less universally beloved than Sinatra, but rather because it now seems like a completely different world than it was seven years ago. Case in point: On the Sunday before the actual birthday in June, the redoubtable Justin Sayre hosted an all-star “Judy” event at Joe’s Pub that I had been looking forward to for weeks. At the last minute, I was confined to my uptown apartment by Covid. 

Thankfully, the dreaded virus has long since been banished from my premises and I was able to make this week’s Carnegie Hall concert, held, perhaps ironically, on Sinatra’s birthday. Rather than a big spectacle with a lot of names, this was a more intimate celebration — in as much as such a thing is possible at Carnegie — starring Jessica Vosk, a musical theater soprano and belter best known as a replacement Elphaba in the Broadway and national tour companies of “Wicked.” (Indeed, the mere fact that a “Wizard of Oz”-inspired musical can run for nearly 20 years at this point should at least be partially attributed to Garland’s enduring legacy.)

When one performer pays tribute to another, she essentially has two options — and when the subject of the celebration is as iconic as Garland, the stakes become even higher. Essentially, she could either try to be Judy Garland or be all about Judy Garland. Ms. Vosk opted for the latter, and that’s what made sense. 

Ms. Vosk didn’t only sing the Garland songbook, she talked about the legend, and also shared a copious amount of clippage from the 1963-’64 “Judy Garland Show.” The highlight of the evening was not an actual performance by Ms. Vosk but her narration and commentary on a single vintage chorus of Garland doing “Just in Time.” Every four or so bars, Ms. Vosk would stop to point something out, and not just musically — key changes and the like — but Garland’s hip 1963 style tiger print dress, her engaging hand motions, and her signature tossing of the cord from her handheld microphone over her shoulder. The latter is something that Garland imitators were already picking up on even by the early 1960s.

Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra on ‘The Judy Garland Show’ in 1962. CBS via Wikimedia Commons

Ms. Vosk stuck to the Garland songbook and mostly the actual Garland arrangements, played by a 20-something-piece orchestra with strings. She didn’t go as far, however, as some Garland tributers in addressing her musical director and pianist, Mary Mitchell Campbell, as “Mort Lindsey.” As always, it was a pleasure to hear classic charts played live, and this underscored how important rhythm and percussion are in the Garland oeuvre; there is the mallets and kettle drums staccato beat so important to “Get Happy,” while Nelson Riddle’s classic take on “Come Rain or Come Shine” makes a pioneering use of congas in a non-Latin context.

As a host, Ms. Vosk was both lighthearted, full of clever quips, and reverent. Carnegie Hall, which famously was the scene of Garland’s greatest triumph — the legendary April 1961 concert that became an equally legendary double album — was treated like a shrine, complete with a display in the second floor gallery of the very jacket Garland wore on that epic evening, more than 61 years ago. This had its own personal security guard, which was indeed necessary since nearly all of the ladies present and possibly a few of the gentlemen wanted to try it on for size.

As a singer, Ms. Vosk seemed more tentative in the first half — as if she were wearing that very vintage jacket and was afraid it would rip — but gradually grew looser and more comfortable. By the second act, she was much more relaxed, particularly in tailor-made musical “outfits” like Roger Edens’s much modified reimagining of “Chicago.” 

There also was a guest star. Almost 20 years ago, Andy Karl attracted attention as a rock-inflected theater singer with heavy metal hair in “Alter Boyz” and “Slut,” and then he gradually matured into a respectable Broadway baritone, as in “Rocky” and also in “Wicked.” One thing I’ve never seen him do is croon a la Sinatra and Dean Martin (who were present via footage from Garland’s classic 1962 CBS special) as he did on “Ol’ Devil Moon.”  

When they announced a duet, everyone expected the famous Barbra Streisand-Judy mashup of “Get Happy” and “Happy Days Are Here Again,” but instead Ms. Vosk and Mr. Karl reprised part of the travel medley that builds to “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” that Garland sang with Tony Bennett in 1963.

“Over the Rainbow” served as the expected climax, though starting with the verse (which Garland virtually never sang) and performed by Ms. Vosk under a montage of brief Judy clips, mostly, as before, from the CBS series. It was a generous move, in that she completely directed everyone’s attention away from herself. The encore was “Smile” — first Ms. Vosk, then Garland in vintage 1964 footage, and then the two of them together, with Ms. Vosk singing in harmony. It was quite a “Smile,” and, needless to say, we already were. 

The New York Sun

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