Judy Garland’s Influence on Popular Music, Culture on Display During Annual Tribute

The star of the event was, as always, Justin Elizabeth Sayre. At most such concerts, I cringe when the emcee talks too much; in the case of Sayre, it’s precisely the opposite.

Austin Ruffer
The scene during 'Night of a Thousand Judys.' Austin Ruffer

‘Night of a Thousand Judys’
Joe’s Pub
Livestream Is Here

There may be thousands of Elvis impersonators out there, but there are at least two major full-time Judy Garland “re-enactors” who are worth knowing about. 

Jim Bailey (1938-2015) was regarded as the major “mainstream” Garland impersonator; he walked, moved, looked, talked, and sang as close to Garland as any human being possibly could — and was already doing his act on “The Ed Sullivan Show” a year or so after her death. Tommy Femia, who performed a full-length Garland show off Broadway and elsewhere, was a Judy act of a different stripe, who continually proved that the best tribute is sometimes a parody.  

As Garland, Mr. Femia was constantly refocusing his eyes, dropping hysterical asides, and showing it was okay to have fun with the tropes of the Garland mystique, essentially because she steadfastly refused to take herself too seriously. He also made a point to include songs Garland didn’t live long enough to sing, like “Fifty Percent” and “The Greatest Love of All,” which had the effect of expanding her songbook and illustrating the broader outlines of her vast influence on popular music and culture.

There were both kinds of Judys at the 11th Annual “Night of a Thousand Judys,” which is traditionally held around the time of her birthday, which happens to be in the middle of LGBTQ Pride month, at Joe’s Pub. The event, held this year on June 12 and now streaming, is a benefit for the Ali Forney Center, whose mission statement is “Saving LBGTQ Youth Lives.”

The star of the event was, as always, Justin Elizabeth Sayre, who prefers to be referred to with the pronouns they/them. At most such concerts, I cringe when the emcee talks too much, as they are evidently under the false impression that we came to see them. In the case of this emcee, it’s precisely the opposite: We came to hear them as much as any of the singers. Sayre is equal parts stand-up comic, social commentator, and politically oriented motivational speaker whose poignant and pungent observations are always worth hearing and eminently quotable.

Although Sayre and the producers, Dan Fortune and Adam J. Rosen, were working on this evening for many months, some of the most powerful lines were clearly composed in the last few days. “It was smoky here these last few days, right?” they asked, about halfway through the show. “It looked like that sepia-toned world that Judy’s in at the beginning of ‘Wizard of Oz.’ I won’t say I wasn’t medicated myself, but I was looking around going, ‘I bet somebody’s going to come and take my dog.’”  

Wearing a flowery kaftan and a big red hat, they went on to make a convincing case for how the LGBTQ community puts color into everyone’s life, using the iconic “Oz” transition into technicolor as a powerful metaphor: “We make every holiday into something. We put tinsel on everything because we want you to notice what’s happening right now. That’s our gift. We’re attached to the moment, we still see the wonder as it happens.”  

It’s easy from there to extrapolate that the major reason Judy Garland seems more relevant today is because of the way she makes us realize the moment, the happening-right-now.

Still, the singers themselves were at the heart of the matter. Unlike the late Bailey and Mr. Femia, nobody was dressed as full-on Judy, but her spirit was everywhere. 

There were Broadway-style Judys, of whom the most impressive was Julie Benko singing “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart.” There were jazzy Judys, like Hilary Kole, who sang “You Made Me Love You” in a way that playfully stretched and elongated the lines, and Elizabeth Ward Land, whose “Never Will I Marry” also nodded in the direction of Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley. There were bluesy Judys, like Jae W.B. doing “Stormy Weather.”  

Alexandra Silber, with “Look for the Silver Lining,” was a torchy but optimistic Judy, while Carole J. Bufford, who was up first with “Lose That Long Face,” was a high-energy vaudeville Judy.

The more hardcore Judy fans in the house appreciated what Sayre described as “Deep Cut Judy,” singers covering those tracks that are rarely performed even in Garland tributes, like Jack Bartholet doing “This is It” and the ever-delightful Nellie McKay doing “Happy Harvest.”  

Telly Leung captured Garland’s poignancy — that indescribable mixture of up and down — on “Make Someone Happy.” The soulful T. Oliver Reid navigated his way through Nelson Riddle’s tricky arrangement of “Come Rain or Come Shine” (the house recognized it from the first drumbeat), and was, overall, so cool that it makes me want to never wear socks again. Lauren Patten ended the show with a conclusive “Man that Got Away” that showed that Garland’s specialty was not bombast, as is often falsely assumed, but subtlety, something Garland had in common with Sinatra. 

My only disappointment was that the 11th annual edition failed to include a “Night of a Thousand Judys” tradition in that there wasn’t an extended parody skit based on a classic Garland movie. The best of these sketches, “Toto’s Tale,” co-starred Frank DeCaro and Michael Musto and has never failed to bring a smile to my face while watching on YouTube ever since it was performed at the 2012 concert.

I don’t know if it might be considered ironic that a program celebrating gay pride should provide so much eye candy for us straight guys, it was a veritable beauty pageant of gorgeous girls glammed up in glittery gowns. The exception fashion-wise was Ms. McKay, who sang “Happy Harvest” costumed as a Hollywood hayseed — holding a toy shovel and tossing flowers. 

Yet even she dolled up for the finale: the cast and the entire house singing “Over the Rainbow” like it was both an anthem and a prayer. As Sayre said in the intro, quoting Garland’s stage banter at Carnegie Hall in 1961, after 11 shows, “we’ve sung ‘em all and stayed up all night.”

Correction: They/them are Justin Elizabeth Sayre’s preferred pronouns. An earlier version referred to the emcee incorrectly. Elizabeth Ward Land, Lauren Patten, and T. Oliver Reid are the correct spellings of the names. The spellings were incorrect in an earlier version.

The New York Sun

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