By Martha Wade Steketee
On Monday June 6, 2016, Judy Garland wrapped her arms around an entire city block on the Upper West Side of Manhattan for a fundraiser to benefit the Ali Forney Center for homeless LGBTQ youth. Two packed acts of guest artists, a scripted “middle school skit” inspired by plot points in Garland’s final M-G-M film Summer Stock (1950), genuine emotion and talent to burn, and a rousing group rendition of “Over the Rainbow” involving the cast from the stage and every single member of the audience left me inspired, enthused, and thrilled at the love in the room and the art informed by the legacy of Judy Garland.
This was the sixth annual event under name “Night of a Thousand Judys” in which performers present acts or musical numbers inspired by Garland songs from her long career. Justin Sayre, famed for The Meeting events in New York and San Francisco, noted that despite our combined “thrill to see so much Judyness” in the audience and on stage, the focus of our convening was to benefit the kids who, just like Dorothy, learned in The Wizard of Oz (“the gayest thing that ever happened in popular culture” he mused) there’s no place like home. At a late point in the program, Sayre asked for donations. “I know you paid for tickets, I know New York is expensive, but we’re talking about a childhood.” Childhood and true emotional connections are a perfect juxtaposition in this fund-raising tradition: the youth of the Ali Forney Center supported by audience members who love one of the most emotionally truthful performers who ever lived.
The evening’s musical star was the band that underscored very strong performances across the board. Musical director Tracy Stark on piano has assembled a boffo group of performers who handle a wide range of genres, from rockabilly to torchy jazz ballads to belting Broadway presentations to thrilling get-up-out-of-your-seat 11 o’clock numbers. Stark’s stunning band-of-many-genres included David Sillman on drums, Skip Ward on bass, Andrew Gutauskas on woodwinds, Noah Hoffeld on cello, and Peter Calo on guitar.
From the initial dance number, with men in tight black slacks and form-fitting black shirts accompanying Justin Sayre’s rendition of “I Feel a Song Coming On,” the tone was established: fun-loving, professional, inspired-by but not impersonating the Garland source material. Several last minute cast changes were taken in stride – Sayre performed “The Man That Got Away” for Alice Ripley and Vivian Reed replaced Lillias White the “Get Happy / Happy Days Are Here Again” duet. And I, as a deeply committed Garland fan and dramaturg, loved seeing dramaturgy in the provided set list, including the first (or very early) appearance of each tune in Garland’s performing career, on film or television or radio or recording.
The dozen or so performers provided a raft of highlights. Barrett Foa took on Cole Porters “I Happen to Like New York” done with a delicious light touch evoking Garland’s own. Gabrielle Stravelli delivered a jazzy finger-snapping, varied arrangement of “I Could Go On Singing” (with tremendous string-plucking bass work by Skip Ward) from Garland’s 1963 movie of the same name. Delectable Annie Golden delivered the gentle love song “It’s A New World” Esther Blodgett sings to Norman Maine in A Star is Born (1954). A bluegrass / rockabilly version of “The Trolley Song” from Meet Me In St. Louis (1944) performed by Nadia Quinn, Ahna O’Reilly and the Playbillies worked like gangbusters.
Vivian Reed stopped the show twice in tunes Garland performed on her 1963-64 television series: a solo “Time After Time” with piano, bass and sax that rolled and grew into a heart stopping explosion of love and loss and redemption (“Time after time / you’ll hear me say that I’m / so lucky to be loving you”), and the roof-raising “Get Happy” / “Happy Days Are Here Again,” Garland-Streisand duet performed with Nathan Lee Graham.
We had a group sing to round out the evening. While the lyrics for “Over the Rainbow” were included in the event program, not a single person in the audience or on the stage needed to reference them. “If happy little bluebirds fly / beyond the rainbow, why oh why can’t I?” Several hundred folks harmonizing together. It’s a world view that works for me.
The Sixth Annual “Night of a Thousand Judys,” A Benefit Performance for the Ali Forney Center, took place Monday, June 6 in Merkin Concert Hall at the Kaufman Music Center (129 West 67th Street). Photos:Chistopher Gagliardi