Kathy St. George’s love affair with Judy Garland
When a fresh-faced teen wrote a letter to film idol Clark Gable in the 1938 film "Broadway Melody of 1938," movie-goers took her into their hearts. She was Judy Garland, and as she gazed at a photograph of Gable singing "You Made Me Love You," a star was born.
Some years later, another little girl heard Garland's voice. That was in the 1960s in the Boston suburb of Stoneham where the teenage Kathy St. George became a very big fan of the singer/actress/entertainer whose sincerity and depth of feeling hallmarked a legendary career on screen and in concert halls.
St. George began to collect Garland memorabilia and, in the privacy of her bedroom, would imitate her idol. Little did she know then that someday she'd be perfecting that impersonation on stages in Boston as one of the city's leading musical theater performers.
It started when she channeled Garland for a comic bit in the musical "Ruthless!" at the SpeakEasy Stage in 2003 and continues to this day with St. George recreating the great Judy for her original musical "Dear Miss Garland.")
The show, in a return engagement at the Stoneham Theatre through Sunday, July 22, has St. George performing highlights from Garland’s career, which began at the age of four on the vaudeville stage. Her trajectory is well-known: her appearance in "Broadway Melody" led to her playing Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz" and roles in some of MGM’s biggest musicals of the 1940s.
Personal issues with substance abuse and being overworked led to a most public breakdown, followed by a sensational comeback on the concert stage, culminating in Garland’s historic 1959 Carnegie Hall concert.
In the show St. George performs highlights from Garland’s film and concert career, texturing her memories of the star into a narrative. The second act features St. George recreating Garland in concert, accompanied by a full orchestra.
EDGE talked with Miss St. George about the roles Garland played in her career and her joy in thanking Garland with this theatrical fan letter she never got to write years back.
The Garland mystique
EDGE: What is the Judy Garland mystique?
Kathy St. George: I think her mystique is that she had so many struggles, but managed to survive and come back stronger than ever. We all identified with her heartbreaks and her strengths. She was unbelievably talented and did it all: radio, films, concerts. Many people called her "the greatest entertainer the world has ever known." I agree!
EDGE: When you first played Garland it was as a caricature in "Ruthless!" nearly a decade ago. How has your interpretation changed over the years?
Kathy St. George: I first sang ’You Made Me Love You’ in a show at Club Cafe in the late 1980s, called ’1940’s Radio Jive.’ In ’Ruthless!,’ I started doing ’Judy’ as a lark during rehearsal one day. I was trying to make my director Larry Coen laugh. He immediately said: ’That’s it. That’s it!!’ So Judy made a Diva appearance at the end of Act One, though I’ve been singing her music for years.
I think how my interpretation has changed is that I focus more on Judy’s humor now, rather than thinking of her as a tragic figure. Enough people focus on the tragedy. I choose to celebrate her talent and humor.
All things Judy
EDGE: What was your research like?
Kathy St. George: I have read just about every book about Judy, have watched her TV shows and movies, and basically have immersed myself in All Things Judy.
EDGE: What was the most surprising thing you learned about her?
Kathy St. George: I think what surprised me the most is that she did 29 films in her 14 years at MGM. The amount of work she did is mind-boggling.
EDGE: Are there any misconceptions of Garland that you’d like to debunk?
Kathy St. George: She wasn’t tragic. She was funny. She made lemonade out of lemons. When she was broke, her kids never knew it.
Best version yet
EDGE: You’ve done versions of this show before. Why should someone see it again?
Kathy St. George: Each version has been different. The show in 2007, focused on the last years of her life and was very sad and tragic. This current version, written by my amazing director Scott Edmiston, is the best yet. We’ve taken out a few songs and added some new ones. In Act One we pay tribute to Judy and her movies, and in Act Two we pay tribute to her concert career.
EDGE: What changes have been made?
Kathy St. George: Well, one of the changes is that our musical director, Jim Rice, sings a duet with me with him as Mickey Rooney. He is not only a brilliant pianist, but also has a gorgeous singing voice.
EDGE: Did you grow up with Garland?
Kathy St. George: Every year we would watch ’The Wizard Of Oz’ on TV. It was an annual event. All five of us St. George kids would gather around the television with my parents. It was so thrilling when she landed in Oz and it all became colorful. I was mesmerized by that movie. In the mid-80s I toured with a stage version of ’The Wizard Of Oz,’ and I played a munchkin (I’m 4’11"). I was also the Dorothy understudy, but our Dorothy never missed a performance, so, sadly, I never got to go on. In ’Dear Miss Garland,’ I get to play all the characters!!
EDGE: Stoneham is your home town. Have people from your growing up there turn out to the show?
Kathy St. George: Yes! Before I went into theatre, I was a second-grade teacher at the Colonial Park School in Stoneham. Several of my former students came to the opening night of ’Dear Miss Garland’ last week. I hadn’t seen them since they were seven years old. Can you imagine? What fun! Of course, my darling 86-year-old Mom is my greatest advocate. She always has a supply of flyers about my current show in her purse. She sells loads of tickets. We should put her on commission.
From teacher to performer
EDGE: What originally drew you to doing theater and when was that?
Kathy St. George: I was a student at Salem State College (now University) in the 1970s, majoring in Elementary Education, minoring in Music. I was practicing the piano one day in the music department, and saw an ad looking for an accompanist for a singer/actress new to the Boston area. I started accompanying this wonderful singer, Elizabeth Alpert, around to all her auditions. (Her two standards: ’Maybe This Time’ and ’Time Heals Everything.’ I can play them in my sleep).
Turns out her husband, Jeffrey Huberman, was the newly hired theatre professor at the college. His inaugural production was ’Wait Until Dark’ and he asked me to audition for the role of Gloria. I did, I got the part, and I loved it!
There was no Theatre Major at that time at Salem State, like the stellar department that there is today. There was a group called The Footlight Club. My very first production as a pianist was ’You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown,’ and I was the pianist/music director in the pit.
I then started doing community theatre in the area while teaching 2nd grade in Stoneham. In 1978, while doing a production of ’Private Lives’ with the Quannapowitt Players of Reading, I won a ’Best Supporting Actress’ Award at the NETC Festival held at Brandeis University. It was such a thrill!
EDGE: You relocated to New York City at one point. What was that experience like?
Yes. I moved to NYC the following year - in 1979. Then in 1981, I went to a cattle call for the upcoming Broadway production of ’Fiddler On The Roof,’ starring Herschel Bernardi. I was cast as Bielke, the youngest daughter. Walking into the stage door of the State Theatre at Lincoln Center was a moment I will never forget.
’Fiddler’ has played an important role in my career. I did several national tours with Herschel, and then did another Broadway production in 1991 at the Gershwin Theatre, starring Topol and directed by Jerome Robbins. I played two roles: Shprintze (Tevye’s fourth daughter) and Grandma Tzeitel. We won the Tony Award for ’Best Revival’ and it was an absolute joy and a thrill to be a part of that amazing experience.
Speaking of thrills, let me say that my most recent joy was being honored with the Elliot Norton Award last month, for my work in ’The Divine Sister’ at SpeakEasy Stage Company. That is something I’ve always dreamed of. I am very grateful for all the blessings in my life, and to be able to make a living as an actress in this crazy business we call ’show.’
"Dear Miss Garland" runs Thursdays thru Sundays through July 22 at the Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main Street in Stoneham. For more info your can phone the box office at 781-279-2200 or go on-line to www.stonehamtheatre.org.