It Takes a Village To Capture the Television-Era Judy Garland

All five singers, as well as the trio, were motivated by an overwhelming love and respect for the subject, but everything was performed with the uproarious sense of humor that is a hallmark of Garland’s art.

Richard Termine
It was all about Judy Garland at 92NY on a recent night. Richard Termine

What I loved best about “The Judy Garland Show,” which ran for 26 glorious episodes on CBS TV in the 1963-’64 season, was that it fully captured both sides of the legendary entertainer at its center. 

We know there was an old-fashioned side of Judy Garland, the scion of a vaudeville family who grew up to become the worthy successor to such larger-than-life showbiz icons as Al Jolson and Ethel Merman. Yet the Garland of the early ’60s was a newer, sleeker model, wearing up-to-date Bob Mackie gowns and a stylishly short hairdo. She was perfectly in tune with the era of JFK and the Rat Pack. 

Both sides of Garland, too, were captured in “Judy on TV! Celebrating the Judy Garland Show.” It was hosted by 92NY’s musical director, Billy Stritch; written and directed by a Tony Award nominee, Dick Scanlan; and starred singers Aisha de Haas, Gabrielle Stravelli, Alysha Umphress, and Max Von Essen alongside Mr. Stritch.  

The traditional side of Garland is represented by the special material conceived for her by her original mentor, Roger Edens, starting with the 1938 treatment of “You Made Me Love You,” reconceived as an homage to Clark Gable, which was sung at the 92NY by Ms. Umphress. The entire cast sang the Edens patter section on “When You’re Smiling,” most famously performed by Garland at Carnegie Hall.

The more modern side is represented by the medleys and other vocal charts devised for Garland by Mel Torme, the instrumental charts by Mort Lindsay and Jack Elliott (credited as “dance arranger”), and her two classic Capitol albums with Nelson Riddle. While many pairs of female singers have recreated the iconic duet with Barbra Streisand on “Get Happy” and “Happy Days Are Here Again,” Monday night’s show marked the first time I’ve ever heard anyone do a song-for-song, beat-for-beat reconstruction of the medleys with Diahann Carroll and Lena Horne. The “Lyrics & Lyricists” series has been running at the recently rebranded 92NY for more than 50 years now, and I’ve been attending these shows for almost 40 — and  this is one of the very best that I can remember.

Doing the whole thing as a single 90-minute set, rather than two hour-long halves, kept everything moving at a fast and snappy clip. The songs were well-chosen and delegated to the right singers, including some surprising choices, like Mr. Von Essen doing “The Man That Got Away” with the original Ira Gershwin pronouns — not the altered male version sung definitively by Sinatra. Mr. Essen also engaged in a memorable comedy bit where he lip-synced to the ladies belting Judy classics, in what registered not as a take-off on Garland herself but a parody of Judy Garland impersonators.

Mr. Stritch, along with bassist Pat O’Leary and drummer Mark McLean, did an excellent job of replicating the original arrangements, sometimes with amazing accuracy. Their trio rendition of Nelson Riddle’s masterpiece take on “Come Rain or Shine” in support of Ms. Stravelli, which opened with Mr. McLean on bongos, was letter perfect for both the singer and the group. 

All the others had their highlights as well: Ms. de Haas with “The Trolley Song” and “Stormy Weather”; Ms. Umphress with “Over the Rainbow,” delivered, unlike Garland herself, with the verse — preceded by several lines of the bridge pre-cycled as a pre-verse — and then stretched out and elongated with folk-gospel melismas.   

A set of songs was performed from (mostly flop) early ’60s musicals, such as Ms. de Haas doing “Comes Once in a Lifetime,” Mr. von Essen obliging with “Never Will I Marry,” and Mr. Stritch and Ms. Stravelli dueting on “When I’m in Love,” as we’ve heard him do many times with Marilyn Maye.  Ms. Stravelli also showed us Garland’s under-appreciated, subtle, and intimate side on “You’re Nearer.” 

All five singers, as well as the trio, were motivated by an overwhelming love and respect for the subject, but true to their spirit, everything was performed with the uproarious sense of humor and a refusal to take oneself too seriously that is also a hallmark of Judy Garland’s art.  

It shows their attention to detail that they had the 92NY work up a replica of the iconic trunk that Garland used as a recurring prop on the show, but, at the same time, Mr. Stritch had taste enough to sing only a few lines of the song “Born in a Trunk,” which is not one of her greatest.

Much as I love “The Wizard of Oz” and Garland’s entire MGM period, I’ve always thought the years 1961 to 1965, from the Carnegie Hall concert to the CBS specials and shows to the London Palladium Concert, were her greatest. This week’s offering at the 92NY helped to show us why.

The New York Sun

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